Sunday was his day to dazzle in white – or, rather, yellow, glowing as he glided along the Champs Elysees to a maiden Grand Tour title.
His journey is a heartwarming one, but also rare. In almost all individual sports, success is both an athlete’s drive and prerogative. Tennis, golf, boxing – to get to the top in any of them requires a steely resolve and iron will to win.
Although in all three there exists talent in abundance – with some destined for the top and others plodding though their profession, content with earning an above average living and providing for their families – any shred of success is there’s and there’s alone.
For cyclists, however, the joy and silverware is spread between a very select few. Behind every Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish, Miguel Indurain or Eddy Merckx, there is a spare wheel who spends an entire career devoted to being a cog in the machine.
Dimension Data’s Mark Renshaw or Quick-Step Floors’ Fabio Sabatini, for example, are considered two of the best leadout men in the business. They are the grafters who often dictate the pace of sprints and regularly lead races in the latter stages.
Ultimately, however, they are there to manoeuvre their teams’ star men into position. Their hard work is inevitably outstripped by the glory afforded Cavendish or Elia Viviani.
Wow!!! Unreal, I have no words pic.twitter.com/T4qgpIMenQ— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) 28 July 2018
A ‘domestique’ is a cycling term that describes a rider who works for the benefit of his or her team and leader, rather than trying to win the race themselves. In French, the word translates as ‘servant’. Domestiques are expected to uniformly fall into line.
But Thomas has refused to accept his fate. He hasn’t done it out of disobedience or dissatisfaction borne out of being a supporting act. He has forced Team Sky to take him seriously as a leading man with his dedication and fine progress.
At last year’s Tour he won the opening stage time trial and wore yellow for the first four days, relinquishing it to teammate Chris Froome on Stage 5 before being forced to abandon his bid while second overall following a horror crash on Stage 9 that saw him break his collarbone.
Ahead of this year’s Tour, he served notice of his ambition and form by winning the Criterium du Dauphine – won by Sky riders Sir Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Froome (2013, 2015 and 2016) on their way to Tour triumph in those years.
Instead of settling for being a servant, he has instead served up proof during this Tour of his ability and emergence as a truly complete rider.
So much of cycling is specialised but Thomas is a genuine all-rounder – a prevalent climber, sprinter and time trialist.
Evidence was littered throughout that he was the best rider. In the mountains, he won twice in the Alps during week two to snatch the yellow jersey from Greg Van Avermaet.
With the legs becoming heavier as the Tour moved up into the Pyrenees for the third and final week, knees weakened. Froome faded. But while those around him, like Nairo Quintana, buckled, Thomas seemed to just get stronger.
There was more than 5,000m of climbing on Stage 19, the final day in the Pyrenees, with Thomas’ credentials tested by Tom Dumoulin, who twice tried attacking out of the yellow jersey group, but Thomas stuck to his wheel.
While the Welshman responded, Froome dropped 30 seconds back. Thomas even had enough gas left at the end to out-sprint Dumoulin on the run-in to Laruns to finish second behind stage winner Primoz Roglic, picking up six bonus seconds and extending his overall lead.
Even as he pedaled closer to the General Classifcation title, caution was preached about the potential for Team Sunweb’s Dumoulin to tangle Thomas up as he weaved his way towards the penultimate stage time trial, his specialty.
The Dutchman is the reigning world champion, yet Thomas’ doubters overlook the fact he became British champion earlier this year and roared to gold in the red dragon jersey of Wales at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
He had a healthy lead but had to be wary of the dangerous Dumoulin. In the end the 2017 Giro d’Italia champion – also an adept all-rounder – took only 14 seconds out of Thomas’ 2′ 05″ lead.
Thomas could even have won the stage but visibly eased off towards the end of the route to settle for third, safe in the knowledge the ultimate prize was his.
He has transformed himself from dependable domestique to top dog, which is no mean feat.
Thomas, the adept climber, has leaped above formidable obstacles in the form of both opponents and the fearsome French mountains this month.
The fabled Alpe d’Huez and Col de Tourmalet are not for the faint of heart.
But they might feel like a rolling and relaxing ride along the river compared to some of the mental heights Thomas has had to conquer to get to this point.
He is only Britain’s third winner of the Tour de France. And he has dedicated much of his professional career to building those of compatriots and teammates. Froome won Le Tour four times and three times in a row between 2015-17. Much of his epic hat-trick is down to Thomas’ tireless teamwork.
Even before that, as he established himself in his formative Sky years, he was contributing to the success of Wiggins – who made history as the first Briton to win the hallowed race.
As bigger names tracked success, Thomas toiled. But now he has toppled them. It is now Thomas’ time.
But while the Welshman’s soon to be confirmed win will have come as a surprise to many, it doesn’t shock Brailsford – after all, Thomas’ entire season has been planned around the race.
Thomas went in to the race as Team Sky’s other ‘protected rider’ and the man renowned for being the ultimate domestique will complete his win in Paris on Sunday.
“In December we decided his season should be based around peaking in July. He did it perfectly,” said Brailsford.
“It couldn’t have climaxed in a more emotional way. It seemed like such a long race and on a knife edge for the last few days and then all the emotion came out.”
The 32-year-old took control of the race by winning two stages in the Alps in the second week of the three-week race – taking the leader’s yellow jersey after winning Stage 11 and refusing to let go of it.
On the following day’s Stage 12 he won again, becoming the first Briton to claim victory on the fabled Alpe d’Huez.
Thomas was equal to numerous challenges from second-place Tom Dumoulin in the Pyrenees in the final week, while defending champion Chris Froome faltered.
In a penultimate stage time trial on Saturday that world champion Dumoulin would have been looking at as a way to eat into Thomas’ advantage and add the Tour to his 2017 Giro d’Italia title, the Dutchman was left to feed on scraps, making up only 14 seconds to Thomas.
Tour convention dictates the yellow jersey is not challenged on the final, processional, stage in Paris, so Thomas knows he only has to cross the finish line to become the third Briton to win the race – after Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Froome’s subsequent quartet of wins.
Like his compatriots before him, success for Thomas at the Criterium du Dauphine – an excellent indicator of form heading into the Tour – proved a good omen.
Wiggins won the week-long race in 2012 before going on to triumph in the Tour and Froome has won the Dauphine on three occasions, each time then going on to add the Tour title.
“Psychologically he went into the Tour with great self-confidence and a quiet assuredness and he just quietly went about his business, chipped off every day and then found himself in the yellow jersey,” added Brailsford.
While Froome will have gone in looking for a fourth successive Tour title and become holder of all three Grand Tour titles – he won 2017’s Vuelta a Espana and the Giro in May – Brailsford says the 33-year-old deserves huge credit for assisting Thomas.
He was widely expected to join Belgian Eddy Merckx, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault on five wins.
But his hopes of also matching Merckx’s record of four consecutive Grand Tour victories were ended in the Pyrenees in the final week.
Brailsford added: “The person who deserves a mention is Chris. We had two leaders – Chris was the actual leader, Geraint the protected second leader.
“And the moment it dawned on him that he wasn’t going to win, Chris immediately switched to the support of Geraint.
“All the focus was on Chris and that let Geraint just get on with his business and when the pressure did come he had Chris at his side, and he supported him with such grace that it gave him a calmness that helped him through.”
Alexander Kristoff ensured UAE Team Emirates ended their Tour de France on a high, as he won the iconic final stage – the famous sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées.
The Norwegian had yet to record a stage victory at this year’s Tour, narrowly missing out earlier in the race, but on Sunday he was on top form, timing his final sprint to perfection.
Kristoff edged out home favourite Arnaud Demare in the final sprint, getting his wheel across the finish line ahead of the Frenchman in a finale that was a display of the reigning European champion’s power.
“I’ve dreamt about this victory for many years,” Kristoff said.
“I’ve been close before but I’ve never managed to beat the faster guys like Greipel, Kittel and Cavendish.
“But today they were not here – they are out after the mountains. So today I was the fastest and I am super happy.
“It’s a dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Kristoff’s team-mate Dan Martin finished eighth in the general classification standings, nine minutes and five seconds behind winner Geraint Thomas of Team Sky, and also picked up the award for the most combative rider of the tour – his first award as a UAE Team Emirates rider.
“This is an amazing moment,” Martin said.
“What a magical place to be, with the Arc du Triumph in the background and the Champs Elysees in front of us. It’s all just starting to sink in now.
“It’s always special finishing the Tour, but even more so today.
“I have really enjoying this year’s race and I’m a bit gutted it’s over. So now I am just looking forward to next year even more.”
Martin crashed earlier in the Tour, which ruled him out of contention for the podium finish that he was targeting.