On Thursday morning, the talking stops and all the interviews, predictions and soundbites will be forgotten as the final battle lines are drawn in this year's thrilling Tour de France. The margins between the leading contenders are slim in what has widely been described as the most open Tour in years. But the defending champion, Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), bruised after losing time to key rivals in the Pyrenees, is still backing himself to win.
Thomas heads into the final set of mountain stages lying second overall and a full 1:35 behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep). The Welshman also has several dangerous riders sitting just behind him, with a slender 39 seconds separating second and sixth, but the three stages in the Alps have the potential to turn seconds into minutes, and to decimate the overall standings. Given the rollercoaster nature of this Tour de France, the final range of peaks are likely to provide another batch of twists and turns.
The keys to victory could well be experience and consistency. Thomas, like a number of his rivals, has ridden recons of the Alpine stages, and speaking to Cyclingnews before the expulsion from the race of his teammate Luke Rowe, Thomas said that the key stage could well be the final summit finish, and the last climb of the race, as the maillot jaune contenders draw swords at Val Thorens on Satruday.
"I've seen all the Alpine stages, and the descent from the Galibier. I didn't ride up the Galibier, but they're certainly tough long days," the defending champion told Cyclingnews on Tuesday morning ahead of stage 16.
"We saw in the Pyrenees, and on the third big day into Foix, that there were some guys not quite as strong as they were in previous stages. I think the three days in the Alps are going to be even bigger. I'm not sure if the key stage is going to be the Galibier. I think the last stage to Val Thorens could be it. It's such a long, hard climb and, after the previous days, that will make a big difference."
Thomas came down in a minor fall later that morning, but he came through both stage 16 and 17 safely in the main field. At the finish in Gap on Wednesday, he appeared confident for the days ahead.
"I'm looking forward to it. It's a big three days," he told the media scrum outside the Team Ineos bus.
"It's a big test, and we'll see how we come out of it. Last year was pretty good in the Alps, so to do something similar would be nice. It's a totally different situation now, but I'm looking forward to it."
One theory is that teams will need to set a brisk tempo earlier than expected on stage 18 if they are to crack Alaphilippe. Team Ineos may shy away from that idea given that the squad will want to save their numbers for the latter climbs of the Col d'Izoard and the Col du Galibier. The team has not been at its dominant best in this year's race, with Thomas and Bernal often left isolated, but someone will need to put the pressure on Alaphilippe if they are hoping to wrest yellow from the Frenchman before Paris.
"He wasn't great a few days ago, but he's been racing well all race," Thomas said of the race leader. "You'd think that he'd be starting to get tired now. I think that teams will try to make it hard all day, but it'll be interesting. It's three big days. Every day is going to be important, but the last one is super hard and it's the last climb. A lot can happen tomorrow or into Tignes on stage 19.
"I quite like riding at altitude. It doesn't seem to affect me like it does some people," he added. "At the end of the day, we're sitting second and fifth in the Tour. If I hadn't had won last year, I think we'd be pretty excited. I think that I just need to enjoy it and give it my best. I've been feeling a lot better, but anything can happen. We've seen that in the race, and I don't think it's going to change."
If Thomas is going to defend his title, he'll need a series of solid performances from his squad and the backing of teammate Egan Bernal, in fifth place. Dutchman Wout Poels will also be key, and Thomas was impressed by Poels during the final stage in the Pyrenees.
"It's going to be an exciting race, for sure, and I think that Wout is getting better all the time. That's why he's here, for that third week. I feel like I'm a lot better now, and I'm really looking forward to the Alps. We can look forward to it," said Thomas.