PARIS (Reuters) - Geraint Thomas tightened Team Sky’s grip on the Tour de France when he handed the British outfit their sixth title in seven years on Sunday and there is no sign that their domination will end anytime soon.
Thomas produced a near flawless performance to become the third British and Team Sky rider to triumph after Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017).
Dutchman Tom Dumoulin finished second for Team Sunweb after also taking the runner-up spot in the Giro d’Italia won by Froome, who ended up third overall.
Norway’s Alexander Kristoff won Sunday’s final stage, largely a 116km procession from Houilles to the Champs-Elysees, during which Thomas enjoyed some champagne before heading to the finishing line in a bunch sprint.
“I got into cycling because of this race. I remember running home from school to watch the end of the Tour de France and the dream was always just to be part of it and that came true back in 2007,” Thomas told the crowd during the victory ceremony.
“Now I’m stood here in the yellow jersey and it’s just insane. It’s incredible and it’s a dream come true.
“To be riding round (the Champs Elysees) and winning it, you’ve got to pinch yourself. It won’t really sink in probably for a few months. Right now it’s like a whirlwind. I seem to be floating around on cloud nine.”
Froome’s failure to beat Thomas also showed how difficult it is to complete a Giro-Tour double, with Marco Pantani being the last man to achieve the feat in 1998 during the doping-tainted era.
Thomas, who won two mountain stages - including one on the top of the iconic Alpe d’Huez - emerged as the strongest man in the race as he gained ground on his two rivals after taking the yellow jersey at the end of stage 11.
Only in the final time trial did he lose time on Dumoulin and Froome, but he had already virtually wrapped up the title in the mountains.
“Thomas was the absolute strongest over the last three weeks,” said Dumoulin.
“He didn’t make any mistakes, he was never put into trouble by anyone – including me – in the mountains or in any stage.”
“The strongest rider won the Tour de France,” Froome said. “It was clear once we hit the Alps, Geraint was in better condition than I was.”
Thomas’s victory will come as a relief for Sky, especially in the wake of Froome’s popularity nose-diving in France after he was cleared of a doping offence months after testing positive for excessive levels of an asthma drug.
Froome and other Team Sky riders, including Thomas, were booed by the crowd standing on the side of the road throughout the three-week race.
The four-time champion was the main target of the jeers, with one spectator even slapping his shoulder in the climb up to l’Alpe d’Huez.
While team principal Dave Brailsford hit out at the locals, saying booing and hitting the riders was ‘a French thing’, both Froome and Thomas kept their composure.
Thomas, who was cheered during the podium ceremony, also had a message for riders aged 5-18 at the Maindy Flyers Cycling Club in Wales.
“Dream big and go for it. Don’t let anything hold you back,” he told them.
“You’re going to have ups and downs but keep the faith and keep fighting. If you believe in something, just go for it and don’t let people put you down.
“If people don’t agree with you, just shut it out and get on with it. With hard work everything pays off in the end,” added Thomas, whose victory was marked in his home town with Cardiff City Hall being illuminated in yellow.
Thomas and Froome focused on bike racing over the past three weeks, making no mistakes and being well protected by the strongest team in the field.
Pundits agreed that the 21-year-old Egan Bernal, who produced some amazing work in the mountains for his leaders on his Tour debut, would probably soon win the race.
Sky’s domination left the others picking up crumbs.
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, a one-day classic specialist, confirmed his huge potential by winning two stages and taking the polka dot jersey for the mountains classification.
World champion Peter Sagan ground through the last days after a heavy crash to secure a record-equalling sixth green jersey for the points classification and France’s Pierre Latour emerged as a possible podium finisher in the near future by winning the white jersey for the best under-25 rider.
It was, however, a disappointing race for France as Romain Bardet showed his limits when he ended up sixth overall after two podium finishes in 2016 and 2017.
No Frenchman has won the race since Bernard Hinault took his fifth title in 1985.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar