Geraint Thomas stays in yellow but Tour far from mellow
This Tour represents a new low point in the popularity of the race
Astana Pro Team rider Magnus Cort Nielsen of Denmark celebrates as he wins Stage 15 of the Tour de France from Millau to Carcassonne. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters
Geraint Thomas climbed off his bike in Carcassonne and breathed a sigh of relief after surviving another day in the yellow jersey of Tour de France leadership.
Monday is a rest day and with three Pyrenean stages now looming large the Welshman plans to spend most of the day, apart from a brief 90-minute ride, lying in bed. “Every day in the peloton is stressful,” Thomas said, “so it’s nice not to fight for a day.”
Aside from the usual flurry of boos, stage 15 was uneventful for the 2018 Tour’s race leader. Ahead of Thomas and the other main contenders, a breakaway move climaxed with victory for Denmark’s Magnus Cort Neilsen in his first Tour de France, and completed a successful weekend for his Astana team, which also won Saturday’s stage to Mende.
But yet again the atmosphere on the road towards Thomas and his fellow Sky team members was poisonous. Further criticism from across the French media rained down on Sky over the weekend, targeting in particular Thomas and his teammate Chris Froome.
“It’s not a nice situation because this is a highlight of my career,” Thomas said of the continuing hostility towards him. “It’s a massive honour and a privilege to be wearing the jersey and it’s been an incredible race so far. There’s obviously been a bit of negativity which isn’t nice, but you have to stay strong in your head and crack on.
“The way I see it, I would rather be in this jersey, having the race of my life and getting booed for whatever than being dropped on the first climb and everyone cheering you.”
Meanwhile, the outcome of the race is still in the balance, but the reception of the locals to the prospect of another Team Sky success is no longer in doubt. Effectively there are two races being run side by side, one focusing on the leadership intrigues at Team Sky and the other arguing that this Tour, tainted by suspicion and spectator hostility, represents a new low point in the popularity of the race.
While French television coverage preserves, through gritted teeth, the myth of camaraderie and celebration, the Twitter feeds of leading riders tell a different story, as do the declining TV ratings.
“What I saw from the fans on the final climb towards Team Sky was disgraceful,” the Australian rider Luke Durbridge said after Saturday’s stage to Mende when Froome was showered with an unknown liquid. “If you don’t like cycling don’t come to watch.”
Yet in the afterglow of France’s World Cup win the Tour, dogged for so long by its “issues”, has become the whipping boy. Resentments that were once whispered are now being flung in Team Sky’s face. Before the race even began, 55 per cent of French people believed that Froome’s presence on the race was “not normal”, even after he was cleared by the UCI.
In January the anti-Froome sentiments were even stronger with no less than 87 per cent of French people favouring a sanction against Froome over his salbutamol case. The television ratings reflect that disenchantment also, with the Bastille Day stage on July 14th drawing its lowest audience for 10 years.
“Obviously we would prefer everyone to love us,” Thomas said, “but I’m not sure it’s anything we’ve done - or especially that I’ve done - to deserve it. You would have to ask the public, and maybe it’s a reflection of the way we’re perceived in the French media.”
The first Pyrenean stage on Tuesday will surely test the legs of all the major contenders, but it is the 65-kilometre mountain stage to the Col du Portet on Wednesday that is most likely to turn the screw.
“For sure they are hard stages,” Thomas said. “A lot can still happen. I’m expecting a big fight on Tuesday and some long-range attacks. The 65km stage is up down, up down and then up. It’s two and a half hours of full-gas racing.
“I might seem close to Paris in days, but look at all the climbs and racing we’ve got to go. So I’m keeping my feet on the ground. There are three big, big days to come.”
There was little real action among the overall favourites on the road from Millau to Carcassonne, beyond a lone sortie from Dan Martin and an impetuous move on the descent of the Pic de Nore from Romain Bardet.
Thomas was dismissive of Martin’s attack. “It was 40km to go from the top but it didn’t make much sense really. The wind wasn’t enough to do anything but it was a bit of stress.
“Bardet tried on the descent which was a bit crazy. We just made sure we were in front. The last 15 kilometres were a bit of stress with the wind, but we were always in the right place.
“Days like today you want to try and recover as much as possible,” Thomas said, while insisting that final victory in Paris had not crossed his mind. “I take it day by day and just worry about the next stage, the next climb and keep going.”