Someday in the distant future, I may stand outside my retirement pod, push my granddaughter along on her hoverbike, and tell her stories of the cycling champions I saw during my prime. I was there when Tom Boonen won in the Roubaix velodrome in 2008. I watched Chris Froome defend his lead on l’Alpe d’Huez in 2013. And yes, I saw Geraint Thomas win the 2018 Tour de France.
I know, I know — that last one is a real stretch.
There’s a good chance that Thomas will never win the Tour de France, and will instead fade into anonymity when his career comes to a close. In a sport obsessed with winners of grand tours or monuments, such a fate is inevitable for domestiques like Thomas. Yet it pains me to ponder such a cruel future for the Welshman. I am a Thomas fan. I am constantly amazed by his versatility within cycling’s era of specialization. Thomas soars up the highest Alpine passes like Nairo, he skips over the harshest cobblestones like Tommeke, and he blazes through individual time trials like Cancellara.
Thomas is a unicorn of all-around talent. In another universe, he might have already won the Tour several times.
Unfortunately, unicorn-like versatility cannot overcome one’s career decisions. Thomas races for Team Sky, and that has doomed him to second-banana status behind Chris Froome.
It is an appropriate time to consider Thomas’s place within pro cycling’s pantheon because he is in the perfect position to seize control of the 2018 Tour de France. After four stages, Thomas sits in third place in the overall standings, just three seconds from the maillot jaune. Froome is nearly a minute down. Those few riders who might drop Thomas on the climbs — Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet, and Adam Yates — are even further back.
Thomas is unquestionably strong this year. Just a month ago he destroyed the field at France’s Critérium du Dauphiné, winning the Tour’s official tuneup race by a minute. Not even a crash in the opening prologue could derail his efforts. Thomas dusted himself off, remounted his bicycle, and kept riding. He still won the race.
It’s as if the seas have parted, and Thomas stands with a clear pathway to the Tour victory and a place among cycling’s greats.
There’s just one thing in his way: Froome. For Thomas to lead, Froome must either drop out or accept a demotion. Froome currently stands on the cusp of cycling history himself — a Tour victory would bring him into the elite pantheon of five-time winners, and it would cap off his fourth-straight grand tour win, the elusive Giro-Tour double no rider has done since 1998. That accolade would give Froome a strong claim to cycling’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) status. Do we expect Chris Froome to bow to Thomas? Fat chance.
I know, I know — Thomas has repeatedly told the press that he has co-leadership duties for this year’s race alongside Froome.
“The team have said that with the way I’ve been riding they’re confident to give me that role of a backup guy and to race at least until the first rest day,” he told the BBC in late June.
Backup guy — helluva role for a man with his talent.
Thomas also said that Sky would make its decision once the race heads into the mountains. “We’ll just see what happens really. In the first week a lot can go right or go wrong, so we’ll get through that, get into the Alps and see where we’re at,” he said.
If Thomas does want to wrestle leadership away from Froome, his best opportunity is during Sunday’s stage 9 from Arras to Roubaix. The 156.5km route includes 15 stretches of pavé from Paris-Roubaix. It’s the type of terrain that Thomas loves and Froome hates. Froome has a patchy record on pavé. Thomas, by contrast, has finished top-10 at Paris-Roubaix and won the cobbled race E3-Harelbeke.
Could the cobblestones put Thomas in Sky’s leadership position? Perhaps, but only if he seizes the moment.
Thomas striking out own his own seems highly unlikely. My guess is WorldTour squads would love to hire him and build a Tour squad around his talents. Thomas appears content to remain second fiddle. A recent report by Cycling Weekly says that Thomas plans to stay with Sky for the foreseeable future.
It’s a shame, but also the reality of a sport where success springs from both talent and the intense desire to win. Thomas is 33, the same age as Froome. His window for Tour de France leadership at Sky is rapidly closing. Sky has a cadre of hungry youngsters coming up behind him — Egan Bernal and Tao Geoghegan Hart, to name two. So Thomas’s stab at cycling greatness may rest on this Tour.
Will Thomas seize a place in cycling history? Or will he be the good soldier? We will find out in a few days. And perhaps someday, when the 2050 Tour de France sends Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and Cadel Evans rolling down the Champs Élysées in a gilded Tesla, Thomas will be there too.