Tour de France

Froome says team will defend yellow for Thomas

Although Chris Froome is defending champ at the Tour, he finds himself well behind in the overall — to his teammate.

Eleven stages into the Tour de France and Team Sky has what it came for. But there is a twist. The coveted yellow jersey is upon superdomestique Geraint Thomas’s shoulders, not that of four-time defending champion Chris Froome.

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On the summit finish of La Rosière, after Thomas won stage 11 solo, taking yellow and more time in the overall, Froome was curt and firm in his support for his loyal lieutenant Thomas.

What is Team Sky’s strategy now, with Alpe d’Huez looming Thursday? “Defend,” was Froome’s reply.

Pundits have pondered this potential intra-team rivalry since Froome lost time in a crash on stage 1 of the Tour. Before the race, Sky positioned Thomas as its second option on GC, a familiar role for the Welshman.

After a flurry of action on the first flat stage to Fontenay-le-Comte, Froome was 51 seconds behind Thomas.

Team Sky finished second in the stage 3 team time trial, creeping closer to yellow.

Froome lost a few more seconds on stage 6’s uphill finish at Mur de Bretagne with Thomas comfortably in the front group.

After one final day of heroics Tuesday, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) surrendered the maillot jaune he had worn since his BMC team won stage 3. Everything was in play on Wednesday’s short stage, and Thomas’s winning move came spontaneously.

“I think it was a bit of a spur of the moment thing for us but it made sense, it was perfect, we didn’t even have to talk,” Froome said. “It was the right thing for G [Thomas] to do. To push on there. I let the wheel go because I knew the onus would be on the rest of the guys to chase.”

“There’s no egos in the team. Everyone communicates really well,” Thomas added.

Sky’s team director Nicholas Portal echoed Froome’s perspective, saying there was no specific plan to put Thomas in yellow.

“The guys worked it out together talking … and the information [on the road], we got it 30-40 seconds after they sorted themselves,” Portal said. “They know the plans and we plan in the morning, so they can work it out themselves when the opportunity arrives.”

Team Sky massed at the front for stage 11’s finish climb. Photo: Tim de Waele | Getty Images

Froome’s work wasn’t done yet, however, when Thomas rode clear inside the final 10 kilometers of steady climbing to the finish. He saw Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) as the key threat and bridged up to the world time trial champ.

“Dumoulin is right up there on the GC now, we couldn’t give him too much room and obviously he is someone who can TT at the end of the Tour as well so we are going to have to keep a close eye on him,” Froome added.

He tried to drop Dumoulin in the final kilometer, but the Dutchman clawed him back with the finish in sight and pipped Froome for second behind Martin.

Tom Dumoulin narrowly out-sprinted Froome for second place. Photo: Justin Setterfield | Getty Images

Though he’s now 1:25 behind yellow and got out-sprinted at the line, Froome was unperturbed.

“Absolutely fantastic, he’s in the form of his life and fully deserves it,” he said of Thomas’s victory.

After the display of force in stage 11 and with riders sitting in first and second overall, Team Sky finds itself in an enviable position, despite questions as to who is the true team leader.

“It’s an amazing position for us,” Froome added. “I don’t think we quite expected that going into today’s stage.”

For Froome and Sky, pointed questions from media or criticism from former rider Bradley Wiggins seem a lot like attacks in the day-to-day racing at the Tour — mere annoyances.

Fred Dreier contributed to this report from La Rosière, France.