What we learned from the 2018 Tour de France

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Plenty to discuss: The 2018 edition of the Tour de France is now complete.

Geraint Thomas proved a popular winner of the Tour de France as he rode into Paris in the yellow jersey on Sunday.

Here, we look at five things we learned from the 2018 Tour.

Team Sky’s leadership battle may just be starting

Team Sky spent the entire Tour insisting there was no leadership battle. They were all in for Froome, even if they were hedging their bets by allowing Thomas to race freely. But the torch was clearly passed after the Alps, when it was clear who was the man in form.

There was never any sense of animosity between the two friends as Froome recognised he did not have the legs to challenge for a record-equalling fifth Tour title and instead got behind a man who had helped him deliver the four he already has.

But the real problem may come next season. With Thomas due to sign a new contract to stay with Team Sky and Froome signed up until 2020, who do they send to the race next year? Will Froome get his shot at history? And if so, does the defending champion return to domestique duties?

Or will Sky’s squad be a two-headed monster of the variety that can cause all the questions Sky were so keen to ignore here? “That’s a question for team management,” Froome said. “It’s not really a rider’s place to make those decisions.”

The next Giro-Tour double will have to wait

Nobody has won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France back-to-back since Marco Pantani in 1998 when, to put it politely, cycling was in a very different place. Froome spied an opportunity to change that this year with an extra week’s rest between the two races as the Tour was pushed back a week to minimise the clash with the World Cup.

But even the greatest stage racer of his generation found it a bridge too far as he lined up for his fourth consecutive Grand Tour. “I still believe it’s possible,” Froome said after confirming third place on the podium. “But it’s not going to be this year for sure.” Nor next year, it seems.

The calendar afforded five-and-a-half weeks between the two races this year, but next it will only be three-and-a-half. Tom Dumoulin, whose achievement in finishing second in both races should not be overlooked, said: “Next year, whoever wants to go for the double challenge, it would be pretty impossible in my eyes.”

Dumoulin emerges as the best of the rest

Team Sky’s utter domination of the Tour continues as they claimed a sixth win in the last seven editions. The race ended with the likes of Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa having failed to put them under any serious pressure, while bad luck befell Richie Porte – as it always seems to – and Vincenzo Nibali.

It was easy before the Tour to dismiss Dumoulin’s odds of challenging given he had ridden the Giro and not even planned to double up, while a route with just 31km of individual time trials did not allow the world champion against the clock to capitalise on his greatest strength. Yet the Dutchman navigated a path to the second step in Paris regardless and, at 27, must now be considered the most serious challenger to Sky’s dominance.

“No-one expected me to do so well,” Dumoulin said, counting himself amongst that number. “We didn’t have an eye on the podium, we were just going for it. We have to look at doing better in the next few years.”

King Sagan

Peter Sagan’s bid to win the green jersey for a sixth consecutive year 12 months ago was ended by his controversial disqualification for the tangle which ended Mark Cavendish’s race.

But the world champion was indomitable again this year, mathematically wrapping up the points classification with almost a week to spare – and finishing with a tally twice that of anyone else.

A heavy crash on Stage 17 put green in peril as he was in danger of either withdrawing or missing the time cut, but the Slovakian survived his “worst ever day on the bike” on Stage 19 to be sure of victory in Paris. Finding someone, anyone, who can beat him to green looks a long way off.

I’m so happy to wear the Maillot Vert on the Champs-Elysées for the sixth time. It’s such a great feeling, especially after the four very difficult days that followed my crash. It was tough but here I am! I’d like to thank all the @borahansgrohe riders, staff and sponsors for their help in making this a reality. Thank you! @boracookingsystems @hansgrohe @iamspecialized @sportful @ride100percent Je to pre mňa obrovská radosť sa už po šiestykrát obliecť do zeleného dresu na Champs-Elysées. Sú to neskutočné pocity a to najmä po štyroch veľmi náročných dňoch po mojom páde. Bolo to ťažké, ale zvládol som to! Chcel by som sa poďakovať všetkým spolujazdcom, celému kolektívu z tímu BORA-hansgrohe a sponzorom za to, že to celé umožnili. Ďakujem všetkým!

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Cavendish’s bid to catch Merckx in peril

It is now two years since Mark Cavendish won his 30th Tour de France stage. In 2017, he crashed out on stage four, but this time around he simply could not keep up before missing the time cut in La Rosiere.

A younger generation, led by Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen bossed the sprints in the first week, while the best Cavendish could manage was an eighth place on stage seven.

The 33-year-old has suffered two seasons wrecked by injury and illness, and looked ring-rusty on the roads. But before the Tour even started he admitted he was no longer the Cavendish of old, perhaps not ready to risk it all in the way he once did when the sprints get rougher.

The Manxman needs four stage wins to match Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 in the Tour, a record that is looking further and further away.

Great Britain's Mark Cavendish is pictured during the eleventh stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de France cycling race between Albertville and La Rosiere, French Alps, on July 18, 2018. - Cavendish crossed the finish line on July 18 after the time cut. (Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP) / BLACK AND WHITE VERSION (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Cavendish has endured a difficult 2018.

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Geraint Thomas' Tour de France triumph shows he can no longer be shackled

Matt Jones 29/07/2018
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Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. But Geraint ThomasTour de France triumph saw the Welsh wonder finally ride down the aisle and throw away his days as a domestique.

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.

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.

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Geraint Thomas' Tour de France success doesn't shock Sir Dave Brailsford – his season has been built around it

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With his rider, albeit a new one, set to be crowned Tour de France champion once more, Sir Dave Brailsford will be as pleased with Geraint Thomas’ success as anyone else.

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.

It's been a tough Tour for defending champion Chris Froome.

It’s been a tough Tour for defending champion Chris Froome.

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.”

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