A few years ago, after Geraint Thomas had just buried himself once again for Chris Froome at the Tour de France, an enterprising sub-editor at the Daily Mirror coined the nickname Thomas the Flank Engine for the Welsh rider.
It was the perfect description. Thomas is a diesel engine. His power, honed from years spent riding as a team pursuiter on the track, unquestioned. He has also been the most loyal of lieutenants. It is why the 32-year-old has been so highly valued by Team Sky all these years; why he is close to agreeing a new deal to stay beyond the end of this season when other teams must surely have been banging at his door. Sky know his worth.
The question now, as he sits on a 1min39sec advantage over his team mate Chris Froome heading into the third and final week of this Tour, is whether Thomas is ready to step up to be lead locomotive? Has he got what it takes to be a winner, both physically and mentally?
Thomas is a serial winner of races, of course. A double Olympic track champion, he has also enjoyed success in the spring classics and success in big one-week stage races such as Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphiné.
But until now he has either suffered bad luck – crashing out of last year’s Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France last – or a bad day, the dreaded jours sans when contesting three-week races.
It is why he has been so insistent this week that, for all his stunning success, winning back-to-back summit finishes at La Rosière and then Alpe d’Huez, and ostensibly tightening his grip on the maillot jaune, he still sees Froome as the team’s leader.
There was a small, almost imperceptible shift in that rhetoric yesterday after the top three on GC – Thomas, Froome and Tom Dumoulin [Sunweb] – marked each other out of stage 14 from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Mende, Thomas retaining his 1min39sec advantage over Froome, with Dumoulin a further 11 secs back.
Astana’s Omar Fraile won the stage solo from the day’s breakaway, which had been allowed an enormous advantage by Team Sky given no one within it was within 39 minutes of the yellow jersey.
It was a good 10 minutes after Fraile had rolled home that the yellow jersey group arrived at the foot of the final climb to the airstrip in Mende. Primoz Roglic, the Slovenian ex-ski jumper from LottoNL-Jumbo, managed to wriggle free, taking eight seconds out of the front three and announcing himself as a threat in the Pyrenees.
But Thomas did not appear concerned. In fact, he appeared more confident than before.
For the first time there was no explicit mention of Froome as de facto “team leader”. Instead, Thomas spoke a bit more like a leader himself, like someone who might actually win the maillot jaune rather than someone who was just keeping it warm for the four-time winner.
Asked whether he felt Team Sky might prefer him to win, as a product of the British Cycling academy and Olympic production line, he smiled. “I’m sure they’d be happy for either of us to win. Obviously for me I’d be happier if I won than Froomey.”
Asked how he felt going into the third week of a grand tour in such an enviable position, Thomas did not recall again how he hit the wall in 2015, dropping from top five on GC down to 15th. Instead, he spoke of himself as a “leader” and noted that Froome and Dumoulin might be feeling tired after riding the Giro dItalia in May. It felt for the first time as if he was really seeing himself as challenging for the yellow jersey. There was no talk of “pulling” for Froome if that was what the team wanted him to do.
Froome, too, appeared unconcerned. Even with another idiot in the crowd throwing an unspecified cup of some liquid or another in his direction, he was able to smile after his three-up sprint with Dumoulin and Thomas. He said he felt he was coming into some form and was not worried by Thomas’ emergence. “It’s great to be in that position, 1st and 2nd, we can play off of each other and I imagine that for our rivals it’s making their lives quite difficult having two guys to watch like that,” he said.
It promises to be a fascinating week. Team Sky are doing their level best to play it cool. And unlike 2012 there really is no animosity between Thomas and Froome. But the longer Thomas stays out front of his friend, the more confidence he is going to take and the louder the debate over Sky’s leadership dynamic will become.
Will Froome attack Thomas if the Welshman doesn’t fall away? Will Thomas pull for Froome if asked to do so?
“The main thing is we win and don’t end up racing against other, then Dumoulin wins,” Thomas smiled. “Then we’d look pretty stupid.” After the week of his life he is beginning to sound like a lead locomotive as well as look like one.
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