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Plan G: Dauphine winner Thomas emerges as Sky’s No. 2 for Tour

Geraint Thomas won more than the Critérium du Dauphiné title Sunday. The Welshman also confirmed his status as Team Sky’s No. 2 going into July’s Tour de France.

Just call it “Plan G.”

Thomas — whose teammates call him “G” — rode the coattails of Sky’s winning team time trial performance to fend off foes and bad luck alike in a wild final weekend to take the biggest stage race victory of his career.

“It’s incredible. It’s the biggest win of my career,” Thomas said. “I was always thinking of the next day, the next climb. Now I’ve realized I won a massive race.”

At 32 and at the end of his latest contract with Sky, the timing couldn’t be better. With the Dauphiné win, Thomas’s stock takes a big bump and Sky will have a solid “plan B” in its back pocket if things go awry for Chris Froome next month.

“This is a confidence booster for the Tour,” Thomas said. “Now I can rest a little bit and wait for July.”

Sky is looking to bring a deep and multi-card team to the Tour next month, and Thomas’s big win confirms Sky’s July ambitions.

Two leaders, one goal

With Thomas as the No. 2 rider, this is the first time Sky will bring two protected captains to France’s “grande boucle” since its emergence as a Tour powerhouse in 2012.

That decision confirms Thomas’s emergence as a legitimate GC threat as well as the many questions still surrounding Froome.

First off, Froome’s presence at the Tour remains in limbo. All indications suggest his ongoing salbutamol case will remain unresolved before the July 7 start of the Tour. That means Froome is all but assured of racing the Tour. Both the UCI and ASO have hinted they will not try to bar Froome’s participation, but it’s still no guarantee.

And then there’s the Tour’s brutal first half. Even if Froome starts, Sky will be like any other team in this year’s Tour in its desire to arrive to the second half with at least one rider positioned for yellow. The lone year Froome did not win since 2013 came in 2014, when he crashed out in the challenging first week, opening the door for Vincenzo Nibali to claim yellow.

“A lot can happen during the Tour,” Thomas said. “Especially during the first week, so having two guys who are hopefully in good enough shape to fight for the overall is a bonus.”

A team time trial in stage 3 tilts the odds in favor of Sky for taking the yellow jersey early, but a string of demanding stages, including a very rough ride over sectors of Paris-Roubaix pavé in stage 9, means there is no guarantee that Froome or any of the top GC riders will arrive to the Alps with their overall hopes fully intact.

Many teams are spreading their wealth in the hope of having at least one fully viable GC option for the second half of the Tour. Team Movistar, for example, is bringing Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa as their two GC leaders, with Alejandro Valverde and possibly Marc Soler waiting in the wings.

“The real Tour starts after stage 9,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué, referring to the cobblestone stage to Roubaix. “That’s when we will know who will have options to win this Tour.”

Sky looks to be following suit.

Since the season began, Thomas has been preparing his entire calendar around peaking for the Tour. Sky might even bring Colombian sensation Egan Bernal to the Tour in what would be a highly anticipated grand tour debut. Even if Bernal goes, there would be no undue pressure on the 21-year-old, but if Froome and Thomas both flame out, Sky wouldn’t mind having Bernal hanging around within striking range.

Sky Dauphine dominance continues

Thomas’s victory Sunday also keeps Team Sky’s impressive run at the Dauphiné intact.

The British outfit has won six of the past eight editions of the Dauphiné. Bradley Wiggins won in 2011 and 2012, and Froome was victorious in 2013, 2015, and 2016. The now-retired Andrew Talansky won in a final-day coup in 2014. Jakob Fuglsang won last year as tactics foiled what might have been a win by Richie Porte (BMC Racing).

With Froome recovering this month following his come-from-behind victory at the Giro d’Italia, Thomas quietly stepped into the void.

The Welshman wanted to take full advantage of one of his few opportunities to lead Tea Sky in a major stage race. Thomas has had his chances before, including last year’s Giro, but bad luck often took him out of the running.

This Dauphiné saw its fair share of hurdles. Thomas crashed in the opening prologue, but he surged back into contention when Sky handily won the flat 35km team time trial. Sky put 56 seconds into runner-up Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and 1:30 into third-place finisher Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). Those differences dramatically altered the race dynamics as the course turned toward four hard racing days stacked up across the French Alps.

Thomas was third at Lans-en-Vercors in stage 5 and could play defense after slipping into the yellow jersey. Thomas rode well in the mountains, finishing third, second, second, and fifth in four straight summit finales to confirm his victory.

“[We were] always in control and not getting carried away,” Thomas said. “Riding well as a team, that’s our strength. We’ve done it for so many years now at the Tour.”

It’s never easy for Thomas, who crashed out of last year’s Tour de France while wearing the yellow jersey. He punctured twice in Sunday’s explosive Dauphiné finale. It took him nearly a minute to swap wheels and by that time, Ag2r had taken up the chase. It took a determined chase by several Sky helpers to bring Thomas back into the fold of the main GC pack.

“I’m not one to hold a grudge,” Thomas said Sunday. “But I also certainly won’t forget it.”

Ag2r countered that it was already “race on” and they were not going to sit up in their quest to win the stage.

Four of those Sky Dauphiné victories — 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 — opened the way toward a yellow jersey in Paris.

Not ready to usurp Froome

Could this set up Thomas for a yellow jersey charge in July? Probably not.

Thomas will start his ninth career Tour next month and he’s twice finished 15th (2015 and 2016). Those are promising results, but it won’t be enough for Sky to change captains.

Sky will be committed to delivering Froome to a fifth yellow jersey, but Thomas will also have protected status just in case things fall off the rails for Froome.

Riding for GC is much different than riding to protect a leader, and Thomas is hoping he won’t have to work too hard too soon to help Froome early on.

“Hopefully at the Tour, I won’t have to do too much early on for Froomey,” Thomas said. “The main goal is to get there [the Tour] and we’ll go from there.”

Just as Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) discovered in the Giro d’Italia last month, it’s one thing to follow wheels and hang around the top 10 on GC over the course of three weeks. It’s quite something else to defend a leader’s jersey.

Froome is the master of holding on for three weeks. Thomas has yet to prove he has the legs to go the distance to fight for a spot on the Tour podium.

Thomas’s Dauphiné victory is a huge boost before the Tour, as it gives Sky a solid “plan B” for July. But make no mistake, Froome remains the conductor of the Sky train.

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