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CARCASSONNE, France (VN) — The 2018 Tour de France enters its third and final week with a hint of suspense.
In what’s a first in the Chris Froome era, the Sky captain is not wearing the yellow jersey going into the homestretch. In each of his previous four victories, Froome was comfortably in the maillot jaune on the Tour’s second rest day.
This year it’s Geraint Thomas, not Froome, who’s in yellow, and that dynamic is setting up a battle across the Pyrénées loaded with unknowns. [related title=”More Tour de France news” align=”right” tag=”Tour-de-France”]
“We are entering a new situation for us,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “We don’t know if ‘G’ can stay as strong as he is now. We don’t know how ‘Froomey’ will be after doing the Giro. It will be a surprise for us.”
That factor underscores a Tour finale with a degree of uncertainty and intrigue that could add some spice to the final week that usually is already reduced to a fight for the podium during the Froome era.
Team Sky is dominating the Tour just as it has every year since 2012 — except in 2014 when Froome crashed out — but this time there are some interesting plot twists that could spice things up.
“To be honest, I have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Thomas, who leads Froome by 1:34. “Who knows what’s around the corner for us in this final week.”
Thomas’s emergence as Sky’s yellow jersey isn’t the only twist.
In fact, all of the main protagonists bucking for yellow have question marks about their form and their experience as the Tour turns toward the Pyrénées.
Froome and Thomas Dumoulin (Sunweb), third at 1:50 back, both raced the Giro d’Italia before tackling the Tour this year. The big question is whether they have the gas to go the distance.
Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), fourth at 2:38 back, has suddenly emerged as a GC threat but is unproven in the third week. And Thomas has never led a grand tour in the final week.
And with a race that’s seen many pre-race favorites crash out or lose significant time, the Tour is surprisingly far from settled.
And with three hard mountain stages left across the Pyrénées — including the Tour’s final summit finale in the 65-kilometer stage 17 — there’s plenty of room to attack and bonk.
“There is always a question mark when you have done something for the first time,” said Mitchelton-Scott director Matt White. “It doesn’t matter if it is a summit finish or a downhill finish. If people crack, they crack.”
Froome’s decision to take on the Giro-Tour double this year, as well as his then-unsettled Salbutamol case, opened the door for Thomas to come into the Tour as a protected co-leader. The team wanted to cover its bases just in case Froome might not have been allowed to race the Tour or if crashed out of the Giro.
Thomas is taking full advantage of the opportunity. And his yellow jersey position sets up the potentially explosive situation of forcing Froome to decide if he stays loyal to his teammate and friend, or attacks to try to win the race for himself. Thomas is showing every intention of holding onto it.
“I wouldn’t want to give it up for all the money in the world,” Thomas said. “I’d love to wear it as long as possible.”
Sky isn’t giving away its tactics, but three challenging climbing stages across the Pyrénées are expected to put everyone into their place.
“We are in a great position in first and second,” Portal said. “We’ve got a plan for what we want to do in the next three stages. [Thomas and Froome] know what needs to be done.”
After winning the Giro, Froome is riding into the final week poised to take over the yellow jersey if Thomas falters. There will be pressure on Froome and Thomas to make the right decisions when the decisive attacks come from their direct rivals.
And there is also a risk of Sky backing the wrong rider.
“Sky might make the same mistake they made in the 2011 Vuelta,” said UAE-Emirates sport director Joxean Fernández. “They backed [Bradley] Wiggins when Froome was stronger, and they finished second and third. Here they might be backing Froome when Thomas is stronger. The legs will decide everything.”
Watching the Sky drama with interest is Dumoulin, who is looking as strong as both Thomas and Froome in the mountains so far. Many see the world time trial champion poised to knock both Thomas and Froome off the top spot on the podium if he can hold steady across the Pyrénées and Thomas struggles.
“I think he is sitting in a really nice position,” White said of Dumoulin. “He is just waiting to see if one of those guys is going to have a bad day. If they have a bad day then he can pounce. He knows he is as good or better than those two in the time trial. He is just sitting there in the wings waiting for them to have a bad day and if there is an opportunity then he will try to take it.”
Sunweb officials are tamping down expectations to reduce pressure on Dumoulin, who sport director Luke Roberts said came to the Tour not expecting to be challenging for the overall.
“Everyone keeps saying Tom will have a big benefit in the final time trial,” Roberts said. “But that time trial will be his penultimate stage after racing two grand tours in a row. It won’t be the same as if Tom was preparing for a one-day time trial like the worlds.”
And then there’s Roglic. Officials at LottoNL-Jumbo said they never expected the 28-year-old Slovenian to be in this position so deep into the race. Some believe he could be the Tour’s dark horse, but Froome didn’t sound too worried Sunday morning.
“I’m in a much more comfortable situation with Roglic compared to Dumoulin, who is only 10-11 seconds behind me,” Froome said. “[Roglic] is another extremely talented time trialist, and he showed [Saturday] that he is feeling good. That was a big effort yesterday to stay in front of us. Between he and Tom, they are the ones to watch.”
So what’s going to happen? For once, there might be some suspense about who will win the Tour. Of course, that could all change rather quickly if Froome returns to form and blows everyone away.
That might not happen, however, and even riders even further out of the frame — including Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa — are saying the race is not over yet.
“The Pyrénées will crown this Tour,” said Movistar sport director José Luís Arrieta said. “We are still racing for everything. Nairo is feeling better and Mikel is recovering from his crash. We are far behind Thomas and if he stays strong, he will win. We are closer to Froome, so if Nairo is at his level, we can still be close to the favorites. Maybe Sky will have a bad moment.”
That’s the key. If Sky remains strong, the only question will be if it’s Thomas or Froome wearing yellow in Paris. If they struggle, the final week in the Tour might finally hold some suspense.