It took 17 stages and more than 2,000 kilometres of racing, but on the toughest climb of the race, we finally saw definitive proof as to who Team Sky's leader is at this year's Tour de France. With three kilometres remaining to the summit of the Col du Portet, Geraint Thomas, in yellow, responded to an attack from LottoNL's Primoz Roglic. It took a few seconds for the cameras to pan back, but as they did we saw the first glimpses of Chris Froome slipping backwards.
In truth, the defending champion looked short of his best earlier on the climb when he was only able to follow Roglic's first acceleration. Had Froome been on song, he would have surely combined efforts with the Slovenian, but the pair were brought back through the persistence of Tom Dumoulin, and the pattern for the rest of the stage began to fall.
First, we saw Team Sky regroup and Egan Bernal burn off a number of rivals. However, when Froome began to buckle, the Colombian's role shifted. Only the 21-year-old will know what was going through his mind as he glanced back to see his leader struggle to match his relentless pace. Panic, quite possibly, but he efficiently sat up and began to pace Froome towards the summit. The young rider has been nothing short of exceptional in his first Grand Tour.
And that's how Team Sky's leadership was settled: not with a polemic or an internal rivalry, but with the defending champion simply unable to hold the pace. When Thomas then matched Roglic and Dumoulin further up the climb, the Pinarello factory could at least begin to settle on the bike they would have to decal for Paris – should Thomas eventually triumph, of course.
At the summit, 47 seconds after the diminutive Nairo Quintana (Movistar) finally delivered a performance in this year's Tour, Thomas grabbed third place and several more seconds over Dumoulin. With just one more mountain stage and a time trial to come, Thomas leads the Dutchman by 1:59 with Froome currently holding onto the podium by his fingernails at 2:31.
"I think that I'm in a good position now," Thomas said modestly in his post-stage press conference that was entirely run off video conference with the media gathered someway down the climb in the press room while the yellow jersey remained at the summit.
"I'm not going to change my mental approach, and I'm just going to go day-by-day, try and recover as best as possible and do the small things right. I'll worry about tomorrow, because as soon as you take your eye off the ball or get carried away, that's when it goes downhill."
Thomas does indeed have reason to be cautious. He has never been in such a position of strength, and in terms of winning this race, today's ride was far more significant than his two impressive stage wins in the Alps. This race was always going to be won in the Pyrenees, and Thomas has carried his first-half form into the final week with faultless ease. Despite what he says in relation to being friends with Froome, the fact that his teammate has slipped down the standings will be a relief and will be seen as one less dynamic to deal with.
"It was a tough start to the climb, and I think that everyone was on the limit but it's a climb that I know. I was feeling better and better, and Egan Bernal and [Wout] Poels did a tremendous job, as ever. Then with 4km to go Froome was on the radio and said that he wasn't feeling super. That gave me confidence because if Froome is suffering then everyone is suffering, and I was feeling good.
"Obviously, I didn't want him to have a bad day like he did, but it gave me confidence that someone his stature was struggling. I knew that I could respond to the attacks, and I just had to follow Roglic and Dumoulin. I was able to do that, and in the last 200m I thought about going for the bonus seconds because there was still third place up for grabs. I had a little time gap as well, so it was a nice bonus.
"This is the first time that I've ridden GC before. I was doing it at the Giro but a motorbike took me out of that. Like I said, I'm not going to get carried away and I'll keep fueling and not get any complacency creeping in."
When asked if Froome's time loss now meant that the rest of the team would be backing him, the maillot jaune responded: "I guess so. It's unfortunate that Froome lost time, but he's still up there on the podium. I'm in a great position, but like I said, I'll keep doing what I'm doing and doing all the small things. We're riding well as a team, and we take a lot of confidence from each other."
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