SAINT-LARY-SOULAN, France (Reuters) - Geraint Thomas had until Wednesday insisted Chris Froome was Team Sky’s leader, yet that changed when the Tour de France’s yellow jersey holder emerged as the British outfit’s best, if not only, chance of winning the race. Thomas extended his overall lead to one minute 59 seconds over Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, who leapfrogged defending champion Froome into second, after a decisive attack two kilometres from the finish of a brutal 17th stage at the top of the Col du Portet. Froome, 2:31 off the pace with three competitive stages left, said he would now “look after” Thomas, effectively conceding that his own hopes of success had been dashed.
The Welshman, who had already claimed two stage wins in the Alps, had once again looked the strongest of the main contenders on Wednesday. He took third place behind Colombian Nairo Quintana and Ireland’s Dan Martin, but gained time over Froome, Dumoulin and fourth-placed Primoz Roglic. That prompted a change of tune from Thomas. Asked who was the Team Sky leader, he replied: “I’m in a good position now. “I’m not going to change my mental approach and take it day by day, keep doing the small things right.” Thomas, who has never previously been in a position to win a grand tour, is keeping his feet on the ground. “As soon as you get carried away, it’s when it goes downhill,” the two-time Olympic track champion said. Thomas praised the work of his team mates after they controlled the pace of the race all day, preventing most of their rivals from attacking as they set a high tempo in front of the main pack. “It was a tough start to the (last) climb, everyone was on the limit but Wout (Poels) and Egan (Bernal) did a tremendous job,” he explained.
Froome’s struggles, however, gave him the confidence to power on. “Froomey said with five or four kilometres to go that he was not feeling super. It gave me confidence, because if Froomey is suffering then everyone is suffering and I was feeling good,” said the 32-year-old Welshman. With that in mind, Thomas even pushed for a four-second time bonus allocated to the rider taking third place in the stage. “In the last 200 metres I just thought I would go for the bonus seconds and get a little time gap as well,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ridden for GC (general classification). I’m feeling good but I’m not going to get carried away. No complacency.” Despite feeling so good on the daunting 16-km climb at an average gradient of 8.3 percent, Thomas was not tempted to attack earlier, aware of how he could be affected by altitude — 2,215 metres at the summit. “I didn’t want to risk anything. At that altitude, as soon as you dig deep, it bites you in the ass,” he said.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis