Geraint Thomas’ hopes of winning this Tour de France evaporated in the thin air of the Pyrenees as the hellish pace set by his rivals Jonas Wingegaard and Thadeus Pogacar kept him at bay on the road to Peyragüde.
But on a day when the Dane and Slovene were driving so fast that their peers looked like walkers, the Welsh rider fought hard for his third place overall, and now with another mountain stage ahead, he may start thinking about finishing on podium. Paris. “I didn’t feel as light on the pedals as I used to in the race,” Thomas said. “Today I didn’t feel at my best, but I was there.”
The 2018 champion admitted that instead of risking losing third place while chasing down the relentless Wingegor (Jumbo-Visma) and Pogacar (UAE Emirates), he rode himself through the grueling final kilometers.
“I made a call to wait for the group behind rather than trying to fight, go into the red to get back to this group, but I might risk blowing up and wasting even more time. I saved my legs a bit and then I was able to just ride at a steady pace to the line.”
Ahead of him, on a 16 per cent slope to the finish line, Pogacar and Vingegaard battled for the stage win, with the two-time Tour winner ahead of the race leader, though not getting the significant time gain he needed.
Thomas, who crossed the finish line two minutes later, finished best of the rest and retained third place overall. He now leads fourth-placed Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) by nearly three minutes, which, given their relative strength in time trials, is unlikely to close the gap between the Pyrenees and the Champs-Élysées.
Even with a depleted team, Pogacar still put Wingegor under a lot of pressure. His attempt to topple his Danish rival began in earnest on the penultimate climb, the Col de Val Louron-Azet, where his American teammate Brandon McNulty set a record pace.
Pogacar has now lost four of his eight teammates, including climbing specialists George Bennett, Marc Soler and now Rafal Maica, who was unable to start on stage 17 due to injury. Even so, he could count on McNulty, as well as Mikkel Bjerg, a rider better known for his results in time trials than mountain climbing.
“Mikkel rode like a mountaineer today,” Pogacar said. “He set such a good pace on the climbs, it was incredible. I felt so good at that pace, I felt confident, and I know he felt confident too.”
Thomas said: “I really didn’t expect this, especially from Berg. He put in a hell of a shift for the rider that he is. It actually drives me crazy that he caused me such pain during the lift. But fair game: they really hit the ground running.”
Asked if the performance of Berg and especially McNulty, in which the American led Pogacar in the last 200m, was what he expected, Thomas replied: “No, no. Fair game, both of them, and whatever they had for breakfast, because they were going to.
On a day that began with Pogacar losing Maika, his most experienced teammate, both Berg and McNulty were worth their weight in gold, if not yellow. Their efforts were enough to break all the leading contenders, except for Wingegaard, who again resisted the defending champion’s attempts to distance himself from him.
Behind them, on the approach to the last climb, Thomas joined forces with a resurgent Frenchman, Romain Bardet (DSM team), although the Welshman eventually pushed ahead on the last leg of the climb to the Peiragoudes altiport.
Now with one mountain stage left, Pogacar will head to the Otakama mountain resort on Thursday to play more time with the race leader. If he fails to do so, then everything will depend on the last 40 km time trial on Saturday, as he did in 2020 when he usurped teammate Vingegaard Primoz Roglic to win his first Tour.
With such a gap between them, it is unlikely that lightning will strike twice, although Wingegaard knows not to relax. “There will be another chance tomorrow,” Pogacar said of Thursday’s mountain final, “even if I’m happy with what we did today. I’m still optimistic and tomorrow will be another tough day. We’ll try again.”
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