Same result, same post-stage script but if Geraint Thomas keeps up this level of performance it might be his erstwhile leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) who is asked those tricky questions surrounding leadership status. After an electric stage 12 at the Tour de France, finishing at Alpe d'Huez, Thomas has taken his second stage victory and put yet more time into Froome.
Back-to-back stage wins in the Alps for Thomas puts him 1:39 ahead of the defending champion, with Tom Dumoulin a further 11 seconds adrift, and although Thomas was keen to sing from the same Team Sky hymn sheet as he had done after winning at La Rosière he leaves the Alps in pole position.
For the second day in row Thomas was peppered with questions around leadership at Team Sky, and while Froome remains central to Team Sky's long-term Tour plans and at the top of their hierarchy, one could sense the dynamic shift, albeit marginally, when a textbook Froome attack was nullified by Tom Dumoulin inside the final four kilometers of the stage. The fact that Dumoulin later told Cyclingnews that catching Froome hadn't even put him on the limit may have been nothing more than mind games but the tension at the top of the standings is intensifying and at some stage will seep into the Team Sky ranks. Skybots have feelings, too, after all.
As for Thomas, clearing the Alps with the yellow jersey firmly on his back is a situation well-beyond even his own expectations.
When asked outright if he could win the race, the Welshman said: "Honestly no, I just want to enjoy this victory. It's unbelievable. Even when I was crossing the line I was thinking 'surely there's someone in front'. It was just nuts. Honestly, I mean it when I say that Froome is our leader. He knows how to race over three weeks and for me, anything can happen. I can have a bad day and lose ten minutes. I think that it's a great position to be in. Hopefully, I can enjoy tomorrow, because it was too hard to enjoy today."
On the final climb, Thomas rode an astute race. He sat on Egan Bernal's wheel when the Colombian decimated the yellow jersey group on the lower slopes and then moved to the fore when the 21-year-old slipped back with 5km remaining.
When the leaders began attacking Thomas appeared to briefly struggle but on each occasion, he paced himself back into contention and, bar a turn on the front for Froome, he rode like a leader. And when Froome accelerated clear it was Dumoulin who brought Thomas back into contention. A regrouping occurred inside the final moments with the bizarre sight of Froome, Dumoulin, Thomas and Bardet spread across the road as if they were on a Sunday club run. The truth was that all four riders were on their limits but when Mikel Landa came back and opened up the sprint it was Thomas who had the energy to come around the Movistar rider and take the win.
If his win at La Rosière was a step forward then Alpe d'Heuz was a hop, skip and a jump towards another level.
"I can't believe it. It's just insane. I never thought that in a million years that I would win today. I felt good but not as good as yesterday. I had to follow the main guys and I just assumed that someone was away, either Froome or whoever. That will be something that I always remember."
Thomas and his Team Sky cohorts were certainly pushed harder on the stage than 24 hours previously. Steven Kruijswijk lit up the race with a long-range attack from over 75km out, and with the Dutchman starting the stage within three minutes of Thomas, and quickly establishing a six-minute lead, the British squad were under pressure.
The consensus within this year's Tour is that Froome and Thomas need to be isolated before the last climb if they are to be tested, and they were forced to sacrifice both Gianni Moscon and Luke Rowe earlier than expected. Wout Poels was next to fall by the wayside, while Kwiatkowski was forced to work much earlier than planned. Whether rival teams can maintain this daily onslaught remains to be seen but until Egan Bernal lifted the pace on the final climb, Team Sky were in trouble.
"Kruijswijk put us under a hell of a lot of pressure and fair play to him," Thomas said.
"He took the race by the balls and we were struggling. AG2R and Movistar took it on over the top of the Croix-de-Fer and he just kept holding it at six minutes. Fair play to him. We knew that we could bring back some time on the descent and in the valley so we had to use Kwiatkowski but the whole team was great today. Especially Egan. He's 21, the youngest in the race and rode until 5km to go. It was unbelievable. Then I rode for a bit and tried to set Froome up. Unfortunately, Bardet and Dumoulin pulled him back and for me, I just had to stick to Dumoulin like glue. Going for the stage was a massive surprise."
Team Sky's battles weren't limited to just their rivals. Reports are still unconfirmed but an individual on the side of the road attempted to hit Froome, while there were further reports of the Team Sky rider being spat at on the final climb. Froome refused to talk at the finish, so questions could not be put the rider.
"I didn't see that," Thomas said when asked about the incidents.
"If people don't like Sky and want to boo that's fine but just let us race. Don't affect the race. Don't touch the riders, and don't spit at us. Have a bit of decency. Voice your opinions all you want. Just let us do the racing."
With the Alps behind him, Thomas can look forward to the next tests in the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. In 2015, he was sitting fourth overall until the final three stages, at which point he fell apart and dropped to 15th overall at La Toussuire. He remains an unknown at Grand Tour level, and at leading a race of this magnitude, but the 2015 Thomas is not a carbon copy of the one sitting in yellow at Alpe d'Huez. In that sense, this is a different script altogether.
"The big difference then was that I was doing a lot of work every day and wasn't thinking of the GC at all. Obviously, it's been in the back of my mind, and I've been the backup leader, so I've tried not to do too much in those first nine days. That's the main difference. That's the big unknown and that's the big question mark. That's why Froome is still our leader. He's won six Grand Tours and you can rely on him to consistent. If I can stay up there as long as possible that's great. It gives us an extra little card to play. Time will tell. I just want to enjoy tomorrow. I'm on cloud nine. It's just insane."
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