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VALENCE, France (VN) — Team Sky is throttling the Tour de France. It’s in an enviable position of leading the Tour with Geraint Thomas and having four-time winner Chris Froome poised to take the baton in second place.
And Sky doesn’t want to blow it.
Team Sky is facing a quandary of how to manage the final week of the Tour. With the unproven Thomas holding a promising lead of 1:39 to a Chris Froome keen to join the Tour’s five-win club, the team has a delicate balancing act on its hands.
“People are asking us, who are you pulling for, Froomey or ‘G’ [Thomas]?,” said Sky director Nicolas Portal. “If we are not careful, we can lose everything.”
All eyes are on Team Sky and how it manages the potentially explosive situation between Thomas and Froome.
Thomas came to the Tour as Sky’s Plan B, but with the way he’s carrying the yellow jersey into the Pyrénées, his teammate Froome suddenly finds himself playing second fiddle.
So far, Thomas continues to parrot the line that Froome is the team’s GC leader.
“Froomey is still the leader,” Thomas said. “He’s won six grand tours. He’s probably one of the best ever. Who knows? I could lose 10 minutes on one stage.”
Right now, Team Sky is intent on carrying its two-man advantage into the Pyrénées.
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“I think it’s a dream position for us to be in,” Froome said. “First and second on GC, it allows us to play both our cards.”
On Wednesday at Alpe d’Huez, Sky deployed it two-card advantage perfectly. It sent Froome up the road with an early attack that prompted archrival Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) to chase it down, allowing Thomas to come over the top for the win.
There have been intra-squad rivalries in previous Tours and they’ve ended acrimoniously. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond famously battled in 1985 and 1986. Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong dueled in an uncomfortable “cohabitation” in 2009 that saw the Spanish “Pistolero” beat the Texan in his comeback. And Froome raced through tensions with Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour.
Team Sky says it’s different this time.
Froome and Thomas are longtime teammates and friends both on and off the bike. They’ve raced together at Sky since 2010, and earlier at Barloworld. Thomas has played the loyal helper to Froome and shows no signs of betraying that trust.
Communication will prove critical if Sky wants to avoid a tactical blunder that could cost them the race.
“We are open and honest with each other and we communicate with each other well,” Thomas said of his discussions with Froome. “It’s a nice atmosphere.”
Tim Kerrison, Sky’s Australian trainer, said it’s vital that Froome and Thomas are honest with each other and the team about their sensations throughout the remainder of the Tour.
“There’s an element of managing [it] that we have to assess day by day,” Kerrison told Australian journalist Rupert Guinness. “Where we’re at and what’s our best chance of winning the race — ultimately we [Sky] want to win this bike race.”
Thomas is unproven to lead for three weeks — his best Tour results are twice 15th overall — so the expectation is that he will fade in the final week. Thomas suggested as much himself, but many in the peloton believe he has the legs to make it to Paris in yellow.
“I think Geraint is strong enough to win,” said LottoNL-Jumbo sport director Frans Maassen. “He has the strongest team, and from what I hear from the riders, he is the strongest right now. He is the big favorite, but you never know. Maybe the third week will be a little harder for him.”
Tension could build inside the Team Sky bus if Thomas continues to successfully defend his lead.
There is built-in pressure to support Froome within the franchise. Not only is Froome in line to become the first rider since Marco Pantani to win the Giro and Tour in the same season, he is also set to join the elite five-win club if he wins in Paris.
Those are important milestones that would thrust Froome and Team Sky into the elite of the sport.
The big questions are: What happens if Thomas doesn’t fade? And if he doesn’t, will Froome stay loyal to his friend, and not race against his teammate in a bid to make history?
All eyes will be on how Thomas handles the pressure of defending in the third week.
“So far, [Thomas] hasn’t shown anything that he might crack,” said Sunweb’s Chad Haga. “If you look at the Giro, we saw Simon Yates looking very strong, and then he lost a lot of time. It’s the third week, and that’s what makes the grand tours so spectacular. Anyone could implode on any day.”
Right now, Team Sky insists it’s too early to talk scenarios and strategies for the Pyrénées. There are two tricky transition stages and a rest day before the first of three stages across the Pyrénées. Everyone knows one bad crash can end the Tour in the blink of an eye.
“We’ve got two cards to play. It’s good for our strategy,” Portal said. “Who knows how long ‘G’ can hold this level, we don’t know. Froomey also has a very high level, but we don’t know how long he can maintain this high level because he did the Giro also. The most important thing is that the unit is strong.”
Sky is certainly in the driver’s seat coming out of the Alps. Its list of direct rivals is greatly diminished. Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Rigoberto Urán (EF-Drapac) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) have all crashed out. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) have both lost big chunks of time.
The most dangerous threats are Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Mikel Landa (Movistar), with Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) as possible outsiders.
Sky biggest challenger could be a potential in-house rivalry that could see the team fracture internally and see the two leaders race against each other.
Here’s what Froome said about week three: “I definitely feel as if I’m building into this race. It was always a bit of an unknown after the Giro but I’m really happy with the first sensations and looking forward to the Pyrenees next week.”
What could possibly go wrong?