As is custom and as the entire cycling world probably expected, the first meaningful mountain stage of the Tour de France wrapped up this morning with a Team Sky rider in the yellow jersey. However, it was not four-time champion Chris Froome that grabbed a commanding race lead, but rather his right-hand man, Geraint Thomas, who won Stage 11 and now holds the race lead.
Thomas has been Froome’s most able lieutenant for years, and his strength on a variety of terrains makes him uniquely suited to shepherd an iffy bike handler like Froome across the plains and mountains of France. He’s had his shots to win races here and there before, and he even won this year’s Criterium du Dauphine, though the one time he got to try and win a Grand Tour, his chances were sunk after he was hit by a TV motorbike. So Thomas may have had the ability to contend for the yellow jersey for years, but because he’s been by Froome’s side, that ability remained rather theoretical.
That is, until this year. Team Sky are built around Froome, but we’re over halfway into this Tour, and Thomas has a pretty serious lead; 1:25 over Froome and a slightly larger margin over the rest of the serious contenders. After a short yet punchy day of racing in the Alps, Thomas survived onto the final climb of this afternoon with Froome, Tom Dumoulin, Dan Martin, and the rest of the serious general classification contenders. With just around five kilometers left on La Rosière and with Mikel Nieve 30 or so seconds up the road, the Welshman attacked. Froome did not chase, content to make his rivals do the work themselves. Eventually, as Thomas and two others wound in Nieve, Froome worked his way back to the group, only for Thomas to attack just before Froome joined them. Thomas leapt ahead and passed Nieve with ease, winning his first-ever solo Tour de France stage by 20 seconds. Froome dropped Dumoulin briefly, but the Dutchman caught back up and passed Froome at the line for bonus seconds.
After the stage, Thomas said he didn’t quite consider himself Sky’s new leader, telling VeloNews, “Froomey’s won six grand tours. He knows how to race over three weeks. For me it’s an unknown.” This echoes comments he’s made earlier this week when asked about the team leadership, where he said, “We’ll see how the next few days go really. There’s no point in me doing anything unnecessary ... It’s too early to be talking about winning. Maybe if I’m still up there after Alpe d’Huez, but we’ve not really done a proper climb yet so I’m not getting carried away.”
La Rosière is a proper climb, and Thomas looked like the strongest rider of the bunch. He’s never truly been tested over three weeks, but the first few mountain stages have shown that he’s feeling better than he ever has. However, the legendary Alpe d’Huez is about as “proper” as a climb gets, and the 13.8-kilometer, 8.1 percent average gradient mountain will determine just how serious Thomas is. Etiquette dictates that Froome should not attack the yellow jersey, but he’s done it before when Bradley Wiggins was leading the Tour, and I don’t see him wanting to roll over when a fifth Tour title is on the line.
“If Geraint stays where he is and takes the yellow jersey they’ve got a real problem on their hands,” Wiggins said. “If Chris is feeling really good, it’s going to be tough for him to sit there with that record on the horizon.”
For his part, Thomas said he won’t try to actively drop Froome either, but he also seems like he won’t simply roll over and die. “We’ve talked about it in general and he’s keen to let me have that chance of staying up there as well, but we’re honest with each other,” Thomas said. “We can ride well as team for sure. There will be big shake up of the GC after tomorrow. I think Alpe d’Huez will have the biggest selection, but I’ve ridden with Froome for a number of years and we can certainly be honest with each other. There will be a natural selection that will just sort it out.”
Tomorrow’s stage looms large for Team Sky, and whatever small controversy exists within the team now will either be extinguished or amplified depending on how Froome and Thomas ride. Froome raced the Giro this spring, and there’s legitimate worry that he might not have the legs in the final week of the Tour. Thomas appears to be far fresher, and he’s not going to cede the yellow jersey without a fight, even to his teammate. All of which is to say, Stage 12 is definitely going to be worth waking up for.