By finishing third on Stage 17 — and putting even more time into this closest competitors, Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome — Geraint Thomas effectively sewed up the yellow jersey for himself.
There are still two significant stages of the Tour de France remaining, but there’s no reason to expect Thomas to lose time on Friday’s big mountain stage based on how he has climbed thus far, and he should be a good enough time trial rider to stave off a late challenge Saturday. The best thing Thomas can do over the next three days is stay upright on his bicycle. If he does, he will be sipping champaign and soaking up adulation on the Champs-Élysées this Sunday.
Unfortunately for him, cycling isn’t like most mainstream sports. Thomas can’t exactly dribble out the clock or kneel the ball to end the competition. He still has 347.6 kilometers to complete, and along the route there may be crazy fans, unexpected potholes, or any number of dangers. There is also the threat of the dreaded “bonk.”
Let’s run down the biggest threats.
Thomas could crack
Cyclists live in terror of the “bonk.” When a cyclist doesn’t take in enough carbohydrates and runs out of glycogen stores, his muscles weaken and he physically can’t make himself go as fast as he’s accustomed to.
Bonks are difficult to predict, and it may be a particular concern for someone like Thomas, who isn’t used to racing this hard and this deep into a three-week Grand Tour. Thomas has made his career as a domestique — that is to say, a helper, and a damn good one — never finishing higher than 15th in Grand Tour. On days like Friday, he is used to riding to his absolute limit for most of the stage then dialing back before the finish line so that his team leader can take over.
Thomas was expecting to repeat that role heading into the 2018 Tour before discovering the form of his life. Will he have that last *teensy* bit of effort needed to complete the task?
Probably. He has been equal to or better than every challenge he has face this race.
Still, this is uncharted water for him, and even if he loses, say, 30 seconds to Dumoulin, he could be in trouble, because …
Dumoulin is a way better time trialist than Thomas
Now, Thomas is no slouch. He won the British time trial national championship earlier this year, as well as last year’s Stage 1 individual time trial in the Tour. Most years, a late time trial would be a good sign for Thomas’ hopes.
One problem: The man in second place behind him is probably the best time trialist in the world. Thomas did not participate in the 2017 World Championships, but Froome did. Froome is a comparable time trialist to Thomas, finishing a very respectable third in the event — and he still got waxed by Dumoulin by one minute and 25 seconds over 31 kilometers.
Saturday’s course is the exact same length, and it doesn’t feature the same brutal uphill finish — but it is climb-y, and if the gap between the two riders holds at one minute, 59 seconds, that gives Dumoulin at least a puncher’s chance of snatching the yellow jersey from Thomas on Stage 20.
It would be an incredible upset. But it’s not implausible, either.
Thomas could also be terribly unlucky, which has happened to him before
The fact that Thomas hasn’t excelled in many Grand Tours isn’t entirely his fault.
During last year’s Tour, he was in second place overall heading into Stage 9 when he crashed on the wet descent of Col de la Biche. Another Stage 9 crash forced him to abandon the Giro d’Italia that same year. In 2015, he was in fourth place overall heading into Stage 19 but cracked, ultimately finishing 22 minutes behind Vincenzo Nibali and plunging to 15th. Earlier in that Tour, he somehow emerged unscathed from a scary crash that involved a hairpin bend, a telephone pole, and a deep ravine on the descent of the Col de Manse.
Bad luck probably doesn’t follow any rider in particular, but Thomas has been particularly unlucky in big races. And if anything, his experience underscores how near danger is at all times along the Tour de France.
Stage 19 features two Hors Catégorie climbs, including the famed Col du Tourmalet, which will be packed with fans. We have already seen the crowds cause one Tour favorite to crash and abandon the race. For better or worse, they will be out in full force again Friday.
Here’s hoping that if something does go wrong for Thomas, it will be on his terms — it is much better to get beat by someone of the caliber of Dumoulin than to crash, for many reasons. But three days is a long time, especially for him.