ONE OF the revelations of last year’s Tour de France won yesterday’s 18th stage, the second in the Alps, with a masterclass in attacking climbing and daredevil descending. Romain Bardet, sixth overall last year, has struggled to emulate his 2014 performance, but a stage win – especially one achieved with such panache – represents progress. He is only 24, and one of France’s great hopes for a first home win since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
It won’t come this year. Chris Froome must feel that he has one foot on the Champs-Elysées, where the Tour will finish on Sunday with its traditional processional stage. They are now half-way through the Alps, with two far more difficult stages to come, but Froome has looked so comfortable that, at times, his rivals seem more interested in scrapping for the minor placings.
When Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the Col du Glandon it wasn’t Team Sky who chased the defending champion, but Alejandro Valverde, who is defending his place on the podium. Valverde’s Movistar team-mate, Nairo Quintana, is still second overall, but he has so far failed to land any punches. Two years ago, when Froome was the winner with Quintana second, the little Colombian did finally drop Froome on the final two mountain stages, also in the Alps. One of them finished on the same climb as tomorrow’s stage, l’Alpe d’Huez, when Froome ran out of fuel and, in cycling parlance, ‘blew up’ near the summit. So there is still a chance of a twist.
If Bardet and Thibaut Pinot were the revelations last year, this year it is Froome’s team-mate, Geraint Thomas. The Welshman has been around for years: he has won two Olympic gold medals in the team pursuit, and almost exactly a year ago he was winning a very wet, very cold Commonwealth Games road race in Glasgow. Going further back, he won junior Paris-Roubaix and, in 2007, aged 21, he was the youngest rider in his debut Tour. The most telling thing then was that Thomas seemed to finish it with such ease that David Millar compared him to one of the penguins in the film, Madagascar: “He looks soft and cuddly but every now and then you get a look from him which makes you realise he’s anything but,” said Millar.
That hinted at his huge potential. But, given his obvious talent, there have been criticisms that he has been operating in something of a comfort zone, seemingly content to be part of the British Cycling and Team Sky set-ups. This Tour has certainly challenged that belief. Top four in the Tour is no comfort zone, and that is where Thomas currently sits, one place ahead of Alberto Contador, two ahead of Nibali.
Asked if he is surprised to find himself in such a position at yesterday’s finish, after another solid day in the mountains, Thomas said: “Yeah. I don’t have words to describe it apart from swearing. It’s crazy. I even sat up on the Mur de Bretagne [stage 8] and Mur de Huy [stage 3]. That first week, I was riding in the wind, I wasn’t even thinking of GC. Then you find yourself in this position. You stumble upon it, and everyone’s like, ‘you can hold it.’”
Thomas said that he has been waiting for a bad day, when he couldn’t stick with the overall contenders in the mountains. “You’re waiting for that day to go bang,” he said. “I’m certainly feeling it, but so is everyone. The top [three: Froome, Quintana and Valverde] have that extra kick on the climbs, but I think I’m as strong as the rest.”
He has a similar background to Bradley Wiggins, as a strong pursuiter and time trialist, though Thomas has always been more of an all-rounder. Might he now seek to emulate Wiggins by focusing on a Grand Tour? “Yeah, I’d love to give it a good crack but at the moment I’m just focused on this,” he said. “Maybe ask me in Paris.”
By sitting up on the minor hilltop finishes in the first week he lost over two minutes, almost exactly the time he sits behind Valverde in the overall standings. The podium remains a possibility, though Thomas insisted his personal ambitions come a distant second to the team’s aim of helping Froome win.
“It would be the dream scenario to get him also onto the podium,” said Froome of Thomas’ prospects. Sky managed to get two on the podium in 2012, of course, with Wiggins first and Froome second, though the latter was annoyed that he had been held back in the mountains. Froome’s and Wiggins’ internal rivalry came to a head on La Toussuire, where today’s 19th stage will finish. Froome won’t be worried about a team-mate this time. “We’re focused on two guys at the moment: Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde,” he said.