A normally buoyant rider who couldn't stop weeping, an endurance athlete trying not to hyperventilate, an understudy seemingly confounded by his own success in a leading role: Geraint Thomas was all of those people Saturday afternoon after he crossed the Tour de France Stage 20 finish line in Espelette, visibly struggling more than he ever did during the three-week race.
It didn't come across like an act. "I believed I could beat the guys here, but to do it on the biggest stage of all, over three weeks, it's insane," Thomas said, at times pausing to lower his head or wipe his reddened eyes.
"The last time I cried was when I got married. I dunno what's happened to me. I can't even speak, man."
This isn't the first time a loyal support rider has emerged from the shadow of his former leader, but what distinguished Thomas' campaign was the lack of tension between himself and four-time Tour winner Chris Froome on Team Sky. "May the best man win" is generally uttered through gritted teeth. Not this time. It was an oddly calm note in the midst of a turbulent race.
Thomas -- who needed only to stay upright on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday to make the win official -- prevailed because Froome wavered, but there's more to it. Sky has the deepest pockets ($40 million, twice that of the next-richest organization) and correspondingly deepest bench in the business. In the highest mountains, incandescent 21-year-old Colombian talent Egan Bernal worked for both men.
Thomas had twice crashed out of previous Tours, but avoided mishaps this time, and made some of his own luck by sprinting for bonus seconds on more than one occasion. Froome catapulted off the course in the opening stage and lost time that he never made up.
Yet there was an undercurrent of competitive doubt about Thomas right up until the final, dynamic Pyrenees stage on Friday -- a sense that Froome still held an unplayed ace, or that Sky corporately yearned for him to tie the record of five Tours, reset after Lance Armstrong's seven wins were scrubbed.
But Froome, with three Grand Tour wins in his legs over the past 12 months and a massive microscope trained on him for much longer than that, was clearly tired when the rubber hit the road on key climbs. (Not too fatigued to stubbornly ride himself back into third place and onto the podium in Saturday's time trial, however.) Thomas and Froome avoided the corrosive ego clashes that sap entire teams. The 32-year-old Welshman and two-time Olympic team pursuit champion on the track took the overall lead when he won Stage 11 at La Rosiere. He consolidated the next afternoon with a sprint atop Alpe d'Huez and looked somewhat dazed but delighted with each subsequent day in yellow.
His competition began to thin out even before the first round of high altitude tests in the Alps. Australia's Richie Porte (BMC) crashed out in the anxious miles before the first of 15 cobblestone sections in Stage 9. Rigoberto Uran (EF-Education First) went down in the same stage and limped through two more days on the road before pulling out.
Both of those departures could be attributed to cycling's normal bumps, but Italian 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali's (Bahrain-Merida) tumble on the overpopulated roadside of Alpe d'Huez -- exacerbated by smoke flares and a notably uncontrolled crowd -- felt especially unnecessary and dimmed the intensity of the competition.
Those who remained to challenge Sky didn't let up. The politely smoldering 2017 Giro d'Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) of the Netherlands showed every sign of not being a one-hit wonder as he surged and chased in the mountains, and he nipped Froome by a second to win Saturday's time trial in a world champion's skinsuit hastily stitched together by a seamstress summoned out of retirement that morning when his own went missing. Less memorable was the loosely knit three-leader approach of the Spanish Movistar team, which animated some stages but proved ineffective against Sky's focus.
The breathtaking line taken by Slovenia's former ski jumper Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the foggy, perilous descent of the Col d'Aubisque on Friday was one of the most indelible moments of the race. That stage -- a conventionally tough mountain jaunt by Tour standards that included the Col du Tourmalet as an hors d'oeuvre for the Aubisque -- proved more entertaining and decisive than the much-ballyhooed 40-miler with an uphill finish that preceded it. (Memo to race organizers: Please ditch the goofy "grid" start.)
It was a Tour of valiant finishes outside the handful of riders contesting the overall, as well.
Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who had power-waltzed his way to a sixth green jersey for total sprint and stage win points, crashed heavily in the Pyrenees and wore an unaccustomed look of anguish on his face as he navigated the next couple of days. If it had been any other race, he would have booked a trip home.
Lawson Craddock (EF-Education First), one of just five U.S. riders to start the Tour, fractured his scapula in a feed zone crash in Stage 1 and broke down in tears as he told reporters he'd worked too hard to go home on the first day. Motivated by a fundraiser for his hometown velodrome, Craddock soldiered on and became the first wire-to-wire lanterne rouge, or last-place rider. Healing in motion over two mountain ranges is a feat most of us can never understand.
During the same Alps stage where Thomas took the lead for good, fellow Great Britain representative Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) stayed in the saddle long after he knew he wouldn't make the time cut. He had nothing to gain or prove, but rather than quietly dismounting and disappearing into the broom wagon, he kept climbing with the tenacity that has brought him 30 stage wins and finished the stage.
Cavendish was one of a fleet of top sprinters who couldn't outlast the mountains, and whether that winnowing is a harbinger of things to come from Tour organizers remains to be seen. Disrupting the preordained patterns of flatter stages is a laudable concept, but the speed specialists have long been some of the sport's most charismatic characters. All-around talents like Sagan come only once in a generation, if that.
The predictability that preoccupies many watching this year is that of Sky, which has won six of the past seven Tours with three different riders. Fan hostility directed toward Sky created a pointless polemic around blame -- variously assigned to the team, race organizers, host country frustration and all of the above -- that is impossible to pinpoint. The riders and staff absorbed the abuse stoically, aside from the physical punch thrown by Gianni Moscon that got him ejected from the race and the verbal salvo launched against French culture by general manager Dave Brailsford, who later apologized.
Veteran observers of all sports know that dominance provokes either adulation or resentment and seldom anything in between. Froome's public persona was further complicated by the investigation into whether he'd exceeded the permitted dosage of an asthma medication last year -- a process that wasn't resolved until the week before the Tour, after race organizers threatened to try to bar him from the start. The fact that Froome was loudly booed as he rolled down the time trial start ramp, and Thomas was not, may have as much to do with sheer spectator boredom as with the doping controversies that have trailed Sky almost since its inception.
Has Froome, by finishing a gracious third, become a more sympathetic figure? Will Thomas -- up to now an amiable counterpoint to his team's omnipotence -- help reel in some alienated hearts and minds? It's a task that could be far more challenging than winning any bike race, even the hardest one in the world.