Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome go into the final week of the Tour de France first and second on general classification.
Sky always insisted that Froome, seeking a record-equalling fifth Tour title, was their leader, but the longer Thomas has spent in yellow, the more that feeling has eroded.
By Monday’s rest day in Carcassonne, it felt as if it might have been reversed entirely as Froome said he would be willing to work for Thomas if necessary.
Here, Press Association Sport breaks down the Team Sky leadership ‘battle’ and looks at where it might be settled.
How did we get here?
Geraint Thomas has looked comfortable in yellow (Chris Wallis/PA)
Froome has been Sky’s undisputed leader since 2013, when he was picked for the Tour de France ahead of 2012 winner Sir Bradley Wiggins. He holds all three Grand Tour titles after following his fourth Tour win last year with victory in La Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia, and has his sights set on a rare Giro-Tour double.
But his build-up to the Tour was far from ideal as he had to defend himself in an anti-doping investigation. He was cleared of wrongdoing just five days before the Tour started – at a time when organisers were seeking to ban Froome from racing at all. Thomas was Sky’s back-up plan, and his victory in the Criterium du Dauphine suggested he was a strong one. After Froome lost time with a late crash on the opening stage, Thomas kept adding to his advantage to prove he is the man in form.
So who is the most likely to win from here?
Chris Froome has experienced winning the Tour (Adam Davy/PA)
With 99 seconds in hand, this is Thomas’ Tour to lose. He is yet to show a sign of weakness, claiming impressive back-to-back mountain stage wins in La Rosiere and Alpe d’Huez, and avoiding the mechanical issues and crashes which have robbed other general classification hopefuls of time. The question for Thomas is whether he can hold it all together over three weeks as we have now reached uncharted territory for the Welshman – a point he has been keen to make himself.
Froome’s experience counts in his favour, but whether he has the legs to make up his considerable deficit in the final week remains to be seen after the efforts of the Giro. Froome has said his training plan was designed for him to come good in the last week. Now is the time to deliver.
The third man
Tom Dumoulin cannot be ruled out (Peter Dejong/AP)
Sky cannot simply afford to fight amongst themselves with Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin sitting just 11 seconds behind Froome. The Dutchman, winner of the Giro in 2017 and second to Froome in this year’s race, has spoken openly of trying to take advantage of Sky’s situation, knowing the leading pair are not keen to attack one another.
Froome needs to make time up on the world time trial champion somewhere, though, as he cannot sit comfortably in second place with just an 11-second cushion given there is a race against the clock to come on stage 20. Like Froome, Dumoulin has the Giro in his legs, which puts a question mark over his ability to keep pace in the final week.
Where will the battle for yellow be decided?
Thomas still has plenty of work to do (James Startt/PA)
The decisive battles will unfold in the Pyrenees with three tough mountain stages before Saturday’s time trial. Tuesday’s stage is back-loaded with climbs of the Col de Mente and Col du Portillon before a long descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon, where Froome won with an attacking descent in 2016, albeit on different roads.
Wednesday’s stage to the summit of the Col du Portet is the wildcard, just 65km long and starting with an experimental grid designed to promote explosive racing. Survive that, and the riders then face three-quarters of the ‘Circle of Death’ on Friday when they tackle the Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque on a brutal stage to Laruns. The final margins will be determined in Saturday’s time trial, but the rolling 31km course is an intriguing one given it may temper the advantages of the pure time trialists.