Barring a dramatic turn of fate, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) will ride into Paris on Sunday, pull on the yellow jersey and become the first Welsh male to win the Tour de France. On the eve of the final stage of this year's race, Team Sky are on the verge of their sixth maillot jaune in just seven years, with Thomas set to be their third winner after Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
For Thomas, this triumph marks the culmination of a decade of transition from Olympic track rider to stage racing maestro, with a blend of Classics racing in between. Ten years ago, he wasn't even at the Tour, instead focusing on the Team Pursuit in Beijing. Fast forward to the present day and he is about to win the grandest and most difficult bike race in the world. Even in the last three weeks, Thomas has emerged from understudy to leading role, and despite the hostility around Team Sky, Thomas has made his accession to leadership look seamless.
As he crossed the line to take third in the final time trial in Espelette the 32-year-old beat his chest, threw his arms down and cried out in emotion. The last three weeks have seen Thomas race with verve, cunning and calculation, using his team when required and then forcing his rivals to clash before landing several jabs of his own. However, his celebrations at the line were the first glimpse of Thomas’ raw emotions since the race began. For the last few weeks, the last few months in fact, he has stepped back and with each passing day in yellow he has remained isolated in what he has termed 'his bubble'. At Espelette this bubble finally burst.
"It's just a whirlwind," he said when as he greeted the press at the customary winner's press conference that takes place on the eve of the final stage.
"Obviously when I crossed the line there was massive emotion. Now it's going to take a while for it to sink in. I've been in this bubble and it's going to take a while. It's still not sunk in."
At the finish, Thomas was surrounded by his teammates and support staff. Dave Brailsford was on hand for an embrace, and with a Welsh flag by his side, offered himself up for the first photo opportunity with the maillot jaune.
"It was emotional. I didn't know that my wife was here, which made it worse. It was always about the process, about doing things day by day and staying focused. Doing all the small things right and not getting carried away. I did things day by day, and did things climb by climb. Suddenly it was all over, I'd done it and that wall just came falling down. It's just huge emotion and I was welling up any time that I hugged anyone."
By the time Thomas made it to the press room he had found a steadier level of composure but the magnitude of his achievement had clearly not set in. He was asked if he thought he could win the Tour when he made his debut for Barloworld in 2007 and finished second last.
"I didn't think I'd win the Tour. That was the most I'd ever suffered, day in, day out. It was a big learning curve and it put me in good stead. Like I said, this is so surreal," he said.
This year, however, has seen Thomas make the most of his surroundings and take the opportunities in front of him. Chris Froome's condition at the Tour was lukewarm in comparison to his Giro exploits, and from the outset Thomas has been faultless. Froome, who met the press after Thomas, acknowledged that the strongest rider had won the race, and there were no complaints either from Dumoulin, who finished second. Thomas shone in the first week, delivered back-to-back stages in the Alps and then defended his lead with maturity and finesse in the Pyrenees.
"It's incredible just to be sat here with this jersey. It's insane. A big thanks to Froome because he committed to me and he was really happy to see me do well. We're good friends. I really appreciate having probably the best stage race rider ever riding for me. It's just so surreal and it's going to take time to sink in."
Defeating the opposition
On the road, Thomas saw off the challenge from Dumoulin and a late surge from Primoz Roglic, who eventually faded to fourth on GC in the final time trial. In truth, as with previous years, all but a handful of Team Sky's rivals were on their knees before the final climb on several stages and in the end, Thomas was left with the task of marking moves through the Pyrenees.
"Every mountain stage I was under pressure and I suffered," he admitted.
"Then you try and stay strong, and I did, and I got through it. That gave me a huge boost. Obviously, the Pyrenees were hard, certainly the last two stages. Especially when they sensed that Froome was struggling. They really went for it. By the time we got there it was all about following Tom. Luckily, I was able to do that and he's the type of rider I am. If it was someone else that was more punchy I'd have to ride like Tom does and let them go. I was able to stay with Tom and that was good for the head as well."
Dealing with pressure and hostility
Team Sky have come under immense pressure during this year's race. Froome's salbutamol case and the farcical handling of the situation by almost every party concerned saw the public display a hostile front when the British team arrived at the Grand Depart. There were reports of riders being doused with liquid while racing, and even spat at, while Brailsford's move to criticize French culture only lead to further scrutiny. Questions relating to Team Sky, the muteness from Brailsford over the damning DCMS report all remain, but Thomas has met questions directed to him head on. He too has been booed at times during the race but he has shown a quality that has escaped his team in the past, humbleness.
"We're strong. If you look at all our individual riders they're all amazing in their own credit," Thomas said when asked about the team's superiority.
"There's always going to be haters and whatever but we work hard and we strive to be the best that we can. Our biggest strength is just our legs but also our heads and how we ride together. It's been an incredible three weeks."
At the end of 2017, Thomas gave an interview to Cyclingnews. He was the first rider from Team Sky to talk publicly after the Froome salbutamol affair was made public. He spoke about never taking a TUE, partly because it was something he didn't want to face criticism for in the future.
In a later interview in February of this year, Cyclingnews asked Thomas what was more important to him – the letter of the laws surrounding anti-doping, or the ethical side from which Team Sky have faced so much pressure and questioning? One of the areas Team Sky have faced scrutiny over are the so-called grey areas of the sport, such as their use of TUEs with regards to Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
"It's definitely, obviously about the rules but it's also about the ethics. It's just the way that I've been brought up, to be honest," he said at the time.
"It's just the way my mum and dad were. So why would you take something that you don't need? But it's both the laws and the ethics, I guess. Even if I had a TUE it's not a bad thing. It's because of all that's gone on that it's seen as a bad thing. That's wrong because if someone genuinely needs something then they should genuinely have it.
"We're in the spotlight all the time, and I think it just feels like it's then intensified a lot more. That's what it feels like. When it's not me personally then it's a bit concerning, and it's not good to see or hear about it, but the older I get the more I just go into my own bubble," he said.
At his winner’s press conference on Saturday evening Thomas once again mentioned his bubble and his ability to focus.
"I just stayed in my own world really. My own bubble. I have my own goals and I kept doing what I'm doing and kept focused on that. I was in LA or the Tour Down Under and it's totally different when you’re out of the UK. Obviously it’s not nice to hear but I do what I do and focus on myself. I don't read cycling websites and papers and stuff, no offense. It's easy to get wrapped up in or get angry or depressed but I stay in my own world."
On Saturday evening and again tomorrow in Paris, Thomas' world will change forever and he will step onto the podium as the Tour de France’s latest winner. No bubble will be big enough for that shift in status, and only time will decide as to whether it ever bursts.
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