Geraint Thomas’ hopes of winning this Tour de France were dashed in the thin air of the Pyrenees as the hellish pace of his rivals Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar kept him at a distance on the road to Peyragudes.
But on a day where the Dane and Slovenian rode so fast it made their colleagues look boring, the Welsh rider fought hard to consolidate his third overall position and with a mountain stage ahead he can now start, towards a podium finish to think Paris. “I didn’t feel quite as light on the pedals as I did earlier in the race,” said Thomas. “I didn’t feel tip top today, but I was there.”
The 2018 champion admitted he had been racing within himself in the grueling final kilometers rather than risk losing third place by chasing down the relentless Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Pogacar (UAE Emirates).
“I called to wait for the group behind, rather than trying and fighting to get into the red to get back to that group, but maybe I’m risking blowing up and losing even more time. I rested my legs a bit and was then just able to drive a solid pace to the finish line.”
Ahead, Pogacar and Vingegaard dueled for stage victory on the 16% climbs to the finish line, with the two-time Tour winner overtaking the race leader, though without the significant time gain he needed.
Thomas, who made his way across the finish line two minutes later, finished best of the rest and retained his third place overall. He now leads nearly three minutes ahead of fourth-placed Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic), which given their relative strength in the time trial, is a gap unlikely to narrow between the Pyrenees and the Champs-Élysées.
Even with an exhausted team, Pogacar still put heavy pressure on Vingegaard. His attempt to dethrone 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 team-mates, including mountaineering specialists George Bennett, Marc Soler and now Rafal Majka, who was unable to start Stage 17 through injury. Still, he could rely on McNulty and also on Mikkel Bjerg, a rider better known for his time trial results than for his mountaineering.
“Mikkel rode like a climber today,” said Pogacar. “He drove such a good pace on the climbs, it was unbelievable. I felt so good with that pace, I felt confident and I know he felt confident too.”
Thomas said: “I didn’t really expect that, especially from Berg. He put in a hell of a shift for the driver that he is. It really pisses me off that he hurt me so much while climbing. But fair play: They really took it.”
When asked if Berg’s and particularly McNulty’s performance, with the American leading Pogacar into the final 200m, was what he expected, Thomas said: “Not at all, no. Fair play, both, and whatever they had for breakfast, because they wanted to go.”
On a day that started with Pogacar losing Majka, his most experienced teammate, both Berg and McNulty were worth gold, if not yellow. Their efforts were enough to beat all of their leading rivals save for Vingegaard, who again resisted the defending champion’s attempts to distance him.
Behind them, Thomas joined forces with the resurgent Frenchman Romain Bardet (Team DSM) on the approach to the final climb, although the Welshman eventually made headway on the final train to the Peyragudes Altiport.
Pogacar now has one mountain stage left, heading to the mountain resort of Hautacam on Thursday to regain more time on the race leader. If he can’t do that, everything will depend on the final 40km time trial on Saturday, just like in 2020 when he usurped Vingegaard’s teammate Primoz Roglic to win his first Tour.
With the gap between them, there seems little chance of lightning striking twice, although Vingegaard will know not to relax. “There’s another chance tomorrow,” said Pogacar of Thursday’s final mountain stage, “although I’m happy with what we did today. I’m still optimistic and tomorrow is another tough day. We will try again.”