Wednesday, 25 July. Stage 17, the start of the Tour on the Vendée two and a half weeks before now feeling an awful long way off.
If ever there was a day to prove that length matters less than what you do with it, this would be it: just sixty-five kilometres to ride, but two category one climbs followed by an absolute giant.
It would be the shortest road stage at a Tour since I had been born. Sixty-five kilometres? That’s nothing. That’s an after-work spin for a club rider. Unless forty-three kilometres of that is uphill, and sixteen of those forty-three kilometres are at an average gradient of more than eight per cent, and the final climb [the Col du Portet] is up a road so steep and distant that it has never been raced up before .
* * *
What were we going to do? That was the stuff that hadn’t come up on the recon. The night before, there was a little talk around the team that Chris Froome might attack at the bottom of the final climb. I asked Dave Brailsford and Tim Kerrison about it individually and was reassured that they felt the same way I did, that the tactic was too risky for both of us.
An attack early on the Portet, twelve kilometres out from the finish, might make sense if Chris was the only one in contention for the yellow jersey. The danger as I saw it was that Tom Dumoulin then dropped me and either caught Chris, thanks to the target dangled in front of him, or got close and left me a minute and fifteen seconds down. Suddenly both of us would be within twenty seconds of Dumoulin, and the time trial on Saturday would be a lot tighter than it had to be.
I could understand what Froomey was trying to achieve. He was a four-time champion with a winner’s head on his shoulders. The ambition was there to win another and draw level with those four greats, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Induráin.
He has always had that self-belief, and when he gets something in his head he sticks at it. This time he had it in his head that if he went early then that was the way he could distance Dumoulin, that Dumoulin wouldn’t be able to ride that pace from the bottom. He wasn’t thinking that he might over-cook himself in the process, that no one could ride that hard that early, that he might then crack further up.
I wasn’t quite sure why no one from the management team was discussing it any further. During the team meeting on the bus that Wednesday morning, Nico gave a relatively straightforward speech: don’t mess it up, guys, don’t attack each other; make sure we win, because if we don’t win, Luke [Rowe, the team’s road captain] is going to be annoyed.
I nodded. Yes, okay. So what’s the plan on the final climb?
There wasn’t one. That was it. I took Luke aside afterwards. Was it just me, or was that meeting weird? So we’re riding like we always do but then on the last climb, there’s no plan? Froomey’s free to attack?
We rode to the start, Chris and I alongside each other. I told Chris my concerns. G, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it, I’m doing this.
It bothered me. The risk of it, not the fact Froomey wanted to see what he could do. Were management reluctant to tell him, or did they really feel he could pull it off?
He isn’t often told what to do. Maybe they didn’t want to upset him. He’d won six Grand Tours. He deserved a chance. At the same time, there comes a point where you need to say, no, this is what’s happening, and no, you’re not allowed to do this or that.
It made more sense to me to wait until 5km to go. It wasn’t like it got any easier at that point; you’d be at a nasty altitude, and everyone would be tired. In those circumstances, you can really make a difference; I had put 22 seconds into Dumoulin at La Rosière in 800m.
At the end of a 16km climb at altitude, if you had the legs and you went with 2.5km to go, you could get close to a minute if you were strong and your rival not.
There was another thing that was puzzling me. It seemed like a lot of risk just to take second place. Maybe management were confident that I would be okay whatever happened and that I would stay in first. I wasn’t sure what other team would be as concerned about gambling for a one-two if it meant that one would be less certain. It was good to give Chris his chance, but at the same time, why didn’t I deserve my chance to be fully protected?
I’m not a stresser. I wasn’t angry. It was just the logical part of my brain working away. There was nothing to be gained from worrying about it. My form was great, my confidence was high. If Froomey goes, it’s a bit risky and Dumoulin might gap me. But why should Dumoulin drop me?
Okay. Go if you want. We’ll deal with it. I’m going to follow Dumoulin and stay strong and just keep doing what I’ve been doing.
I didn’t feel as if it were threatening our relationship. At the Tour you logically become more about the professional bond rather than the personal one. We were all immersed in our own little worlds and how we dealt with it all.
Three weeks later, training together, it had flipped around. The personal was now the dominant part. Chris would ask if [my wife] Sa and I fancied an afternoon on the beach with him and his son Kellan. In the guts of the biggest bike race of all, it has to be different. You don’t win six Grand Tours by not having confidence in yourself and being aggressive.
It’s one of the peculiar charms of cycling. There are very few sports where you’re a teammate with someone but also their rival, where what’s best for you may be to do what’s worst for them. Maybe in middle- and long-distance running, or in a triathlon.
I wasn’t upset that Froomey wanted to do it. The only thing that troubled me was the reason he was doing it. Was he attacking to beat Dumoulin, or was he attacking to win the race? If it was the second of the two, he was by default attacking me.
It played on my mind. I realised that was why I was a little miffed with the team as well. Guys, is he attacking here to win? Because if he’s attacking to win, I may chase him. I’m not just going to let him win.
If we go into the start and say, look, we’re racing against each other, then fair enough, all in. But if I’m letting you get a gap here, and you’re going to use that gap to try and take the yellow jersey off me…If that’s what happening, I’m not going to let you do that.
Based on the way the race had been up to that Wednesday and the way I thought we all were, I was confident that Dumoulin was strong and it wouldn’t just be a case of watching Froomey ride off the road. Everyone was going to chase him, and I was confident that if I needed to, I’d be able to jump up across to him.
Even if I could, I decided that I wouldn’t do it early on. I’d wait until right up close to the line, confident that I could get thirty seconds back in he last kilometre or two, and that way not taking anyone else with me either. That might help Chris move up the GC or extend his cushion too over those chasing him.
I blocked the rest of it out. Don’t worry about the permutations as they happen. Keep everything as simple as possible. Maybe it would actually work out better for me, if I were to hold on all the way to Paris, that Chris had been given his head.
If team orders had been that he couldn’t attack me, then there might always have been a narrative that he let me win. Maybe it would be better for me that he did exactly what he wanted, his way, and wasn’t strong enough to do it.
Critically, neither of us were taking it personally. This was nothing like those famous intra-team rivalries of the past. Chris knew I wanted to win and I knew Chris wanted to win so it was never underhand.
Both of us were being honest. He had won four Tours in five years. It would have been stranger if he’d said I’m an ambitious bloke, I’ve won six Grand Tours, yet I’m not going to try to win this one. Of course he wanted to win. It was entirely natural.
* * *
Through the ski resort of Saint-Lary-Soulan, Julian Alaphilippe and the Estonian Tanel Kangert leading on to the Col du Portet with two and a half minutes to us in the peloton.
An attack from Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana from behind us – let ’em go, guys, keep it steady, this is not the killer move. Jonathan Castroviejo leading our line, all of us settling in. Quintana dropping Dan and starting to hoover up the splintered remains of the break up the road. You know the attacks are coming, and you have to respond with your brain as much as your legs.
Less than three kilometres into the climb, Primož Roglič had his first dig. Froomey jumped onto his wheel. Dumoulin went to the front of our group and began the chase. It was early to go and it was hurting both Chris and Roglič.
I could see Chris pulling a turn or two at the front too, and that set off alarm bells. Onto the team radio. ‘Froomey. Don’t ride, especially now Roglič has attacked. Just sit on him. Use him. If you do feel good, go over the top, don’t just ride with him.’
I could see they were in danger of burning each other out. Dumoulin loves these relentless pursuits. It’s like he hauls himself up the mountain on a cable. The pace almost never jumps, but he never slows either. It doesn’t look as flashy as [Romain] Bardet’s dancing in the pedals or Alaphilippe’s musketeer moves but he is always there at the end when the dazzling boys may not be.
It hurts others, too. Our group was shedding exhausted riders with each one hundred metres. Soon it was Tom, me, Egan Bernal, Mikel Landa, Bardet and Steven Kruijswijk. Within another minute, Tom had brought us back to Roglič and Chris too. He knows what he’s doing. It works.
The Portet teases you and it taunts you. You climb fast and you can see Saint-Lary down in the valley below you, and you look ahead and see what must be the top.
All is sunshine and green trees and prettiness. And then you swing right and the valley disappears and you see a whole new heap of mountain up ahead, the road twisting and turning like a tourniquet, and you remember that it goes on, and on – up as far as the end of a ski lift, curling round the start of another, smaller cable car, away over slopes that are now bare except for scrubby pasture and bare rock.
It’s a mountain to wreck ambitions and to shove the truth into your face: if you’ve got it, you will fly; if you have cracks, they will blow apart.
Quintana was travelling. Through Valverde and his small group, up to Kangert, Rafał Majka caught. Soon it was Quintana on his own with Dan Martin close and we GC men a minute off, fighting our own private war.
Wout Poels had come to the party. Bardet, shattered from his earlier efforts, was the first of the big boys to blow out the back. Through eight kilometres to go, seven, six. A jump from Kruijswijk, the other half of the jab-hook LottoNL-Jumbo combo after Roglič had swung first. That briefly distanced Wout, and Egan took over the reins momentarily until Wout fought his way back; he was pulling some shift.
Five kilometres. Froome at the back of the group with Dumoulin, Tom there because he was marking Chris, Chris there because his legs were starting to betray him.
Then they started to play a few mind games. Dumoulin dropping off the back of the group momentarily. Froomey straight on the radio: ‘Dumoulin is struggling. Wout – pick it up!’
I was straight on the radio. ‘No, boys, chill. Just keep this pace as it is. Still five kilometres to go. If he’s getting dropped at this pace, why speed up?’
A sprint to the front from Froomey, Dumoulin following him, thinking he was attacking. Dumoulin was fine. A minute on, and Chris lowered his chin towards the little mic we all have halfway down our team radio cables. ‘I’m not feeling super. Slow down a bit.’
It’s cruel, but when I heard that I just got so much confidence from it. If Froomey was struggling now, then everyone must be hurting. I felt like I was getting better as we got higher. Man, I’m going to smash them today…
Three kilometres to the summit, and Roglič went again. The Lotto lads were really going for this, taking it in turns to dish out the punishment. A sign that he had recognised the hell that Froomey was going through, a knife in an open wound. Egan worked us back up to his wheel. I could follow quite comfortably, but when we glanced back, we realised Chris and Landa had not made the move with us.
In that moment I knew. This was mine now. Whatever had been said that morning, whatever subconscious deference there may been within me or the team and the management, I was the dominant one now. I was the leader.
* * *
Froomey’s own day would get worse when a gendarme failed to recognise him as he made the descent from the finish line and pulled him off his bike, sending him sprawling. That might have sent many riders to bed in an exhausted grump, but not Chris.
An hour or so later, in the kitchen truck as we piled food onto our plates, he took me aside and gave me a big hug.
‘Congratulations, mate. I didn’t get the chance at the finish to say well done properly, but good job. I’m really happy for you. Genuinely.’
It was a special moment. At the same time, part of me felt sorry for him. Not because I was winning, but because he was so obviously disappointed with how he was doing. I wanted him to finish second behind me, yet he had dropped down another place on the GC.
For him to be able to say that he was glad I was still in yellow would have taken a lot in the normal world, and even more for a serial winner like him, one Tour win from levelling up history.
It also made me reassess some of the questions I had asked myself earlier in the day. Chris definitely wanted to win that day and to win the Tour. But he wasn’t attacking to stop me winning. He was doing what great champions do.
He went further before the night was done. Geraint, he told the world’s media, is now our number one. For the next three days, I’m riding for him.
He hadn’t needed to say that either. But it helped me on the road, and it would help me off it. No more questions about our rivalry, about who would bow to whom. We all had our answer.
The Tour According to G, by Geraint Thomas, is published by Quercus on November 1