Another Sunday evening in Paris, another Tour de France. Everybody knows the routine by now. For the sixth time in seven years, as shadows lengthened beneath the Arc de Triomphe, a Team Sky rider mounted the podium on the Champs-Élysées, collected another yellow jersey and delivered another winner's speech.
For Chris Froome, the scene was familiar, but his positioning was not. Third overall on this Tour, he observed from a lower step of the rostrum while his teammate Geraint Thomas was handed the microphone to continue a tradition that began in 2005, when Lance Armstrong told "the cynics and the sceptics" that he was "sorry they couldn't dream big."
As he gathered the spoils on the Champs-Élysées, Thomas was draped in a Welsh flag, compensating for his disappointment at being unable to display the flag of a non-competing nation after his team pursuit triumphs in British colours at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
"I've not got a good track record with speeches, so I'll keep it short," Thomas began, and thanked his teammates one by one, although after losing his train of thought midway through – "I'm going to forget them now" – he needed some help from second-placed Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) to remember them all.
Thomas paid particular tribute to Froome, the four-time Tour winner, who left the Vendée on July 7 as Sky's leader after winning the Giro d'Italia in May. The doubts over Froome's participation due to his positive test for salbutamol last year, however, meant that Thomas had prepared for the Tour as though he might be handed the reins, and his mindset did not change even when the charges against Froome were dropped on the eve of the race.
By winning that internal contest for leadership of Team Sky, Thomas won the Tour. Sky's first Tour win in 2012 was marked by obvious tensions between Bradley Wiggins and the second-place Froome, but there seemed to be no such discord on this occasion. Thomas looked the stronger in the Alps, and when he proved it on the Col du Portet, Froome did not argue with the evidence.
"Respect to Froome, it could have got awkward," Thomas said. "There could have been tension but you're a great champion and I've always had respect for you. Thanks a lot."
Thomas referenced his debut Tour in 2007, when he reached Paris in 140th and penultimate place as a callow 21-year-old at Barloworld. Nobody saw him as a future Tour winner eleven years ago, and despite victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, that sentiment endured right up to the Grand Départ of this year’s race.
The anticipated jour sans never arrived, however, as Thomas emulated the folkloristic feats of Fausto Coppi (1952) and Joop Zoetemelk (1976) by winning back-to-back mountaintop finishes, and he also matched the since revoked achievement of Lance Armstrong (2004) by winning atop Alpe d’Huez in the yellow jersey.
"I got into cycling because of this race. I remember coming home from school to watch the end of the Tour de France. The dream was always to be a part of it. That came true twelve years ago [sic], back in 2007, and now I’m here stood in the yellow jersey, it's just insane," Thomas said.
"Kids, just dream big. If people tell you it can't be done, keep going and believe in yourself. With hard work, everything pays off in the end. Thank you very much and vive le Tour.”
Thomas faced boos and jeers on the podium at various points on this Tour, though not on the Champs-Élysées, where he was greeted with respectful applause. In 2018 alone, the controversial dismissal of Froome’s salbutamol case, the serious questions regarding the team’s ethics raised by the Parliamentary Select Committee in March, and manager Dave Brailsford’s behaviour have all served to sully the reputation of Team Sky.
Wearing the yellow jersey has meant that Thomas has been something of a surrogate for that unpopularity and distrust. Or as Le Monde put it on Saturday: “[Thomas’] track record is more credible than his team and the authorities monitoring them – that tells you where we’ve ended up.”
While Thomas celebrated Tour victory, Froome claimed his sixth podium finish in Paris from eight participations (he abandoned in 2014 and placed 83rd on his debut in 2008). The Briton began his professional career on the same Barloworld team as Thomas, and they both switched to Team Sky for its inaugural season in 2010.
"It's incredible for us, for the team, that we've won this race for the sixth time. It's incredible,” Froome told France Télévisions. Earlier, he spoke at greater length with English-speaking broadcasters.
"It's quite emotional standing on that podium with G. We've been teammates for 10 years, and to stand there with him, it's amazing to see how far he's come and I'm genuinely proud of him," Froome said. "I've had a good run now. I've had three grand tour victories. To be on the podium here again, it's been really tough. I’m really glad to be able to take a break now."
In winning the Giro d'Italia in May, Froome became only the third rider to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time, and he arrived in France aiming to complete the first Giro-Tour double since the late Marco Pantani in 1998. His programme for the remainder of the season is unclear, but the 33-year-old vowed to return to the Tour in 2019.
"The hunger's still there," Froome said. "I'm not going anywhere just yet."