Sunday's first stage of the Tour de France saw the return to the peloton of a national champion's jersey that hasn't been spotted in the world's top race for eighteen years.
Incredible though it may seem, given the recent resurgence in British cycling, the white jersey with its horizontal red and blue bands did not feature in the Tour de France peloton between 1992, when Sean Yates wore it, and Sunday, when Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) pulled it on for the first time since winning the British title last Sunday.
Yates, who is now Thomas's directeur sportif at Team Sky, was oblivious to the fact that he was the last rider to wear the jersey at the Tour, until Thomas told him.
On Saturday Thomas came close to wearing another predominantly white jersey, that of best young rider, thanks to his fifth place in the prologue. But another young rider, Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), finished ahead of him, in second place, to claim the coveted white jersey.
Had Martin won, Thomas would have worn white by default. "But I'm glad that's not the case," Thomas said. "I don't want to wear a jersey unless I've earned it. I'm more than happy to wear this one. It's about time it was back in the Tour and I really want to do it proud."
"It feels very special," added Thomas. "I only got the jersey on Friday, and a new helmet, too, with the Union Jack on it. But I'm not getting white shorts, no way. You've got to have black shorts, with a little flag - keep it subtle."
Sartorial matters aside, it was Thomas's performance on Saturday that stood out. He blasted around the 8.9km course in the fifth fastest time, just a second behind Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) and four ahead of the defending champion, Alberto Contador (Astana).
"I'd have loved to have beaten Armstrong," said Thomas, who completed his ride before the rain stopped. "It was pouring down," said Thomas, who - according to the team's coach, Rod Ellingworth - took risks on the corners. Thomas refuted that: "I'll show them ‘risk' another time," he joked. "It was quite slippy, and at the finish I thought I could have given it another 10-15% if the conditions had been better."
For other British riders, Thomas's fifth-place came as confirmation of his ability. "I think we've been waiting for a while for Geraint to pull out these performances," said David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) of Thomas, an Olympic gold medalist in the team pursuit at the Beijing Games.
"He's a wonderful bike rider and a great guy, but I think he's been under-performing on the road for a few years. I think we'll see him come of age at this Tour."
Millar, who finished third in the prologue, could have worn the national champion's jersey at the Tour himself, having won the title in 2007. He was denied the opportunity by the floods that hit Britain in June 2007. They caused the championship to be postponed until August, and moved to Wales - a two-month delay that meant Millar only enjoyed a ten-month stint in the jersey.
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