As the Tour de France reaches its climax this weekend, an unexpected leader has emerged in the world’s most famous bike race — but he rides for the same contentious British team that has dominated the tour for the past six years, much to the chagrin of the French.
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas wears the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey denoting the race leader, as the Tour enters its final stages. He looks set to dethrone his compatriot and teammate Chris Froome, the four-time champion and pre-race favourite.
Despite the likelihood of a new individual winner, some cycling fans and, in particular, the French public, have responded to the British team’s continued dominance with, at best, a Gallic shrug, and at worst, outright hostility.
“We cannot blame the winning team and its strategy, but people want to dream. They want to see a show. And it’s a bit boring,” David Lappartient, president of the UCI, the world governing body for sports cycling, told French media.
Thomas’s stage victory last week on the famous climb to the summit of Alpe d’Huez was met with a chorus of boos. During the race, Froome has been punched by a roadside spectator, spat at, and had unidentified liquids poured over him.
Sir Dave Brailsford, general manager of Team Sky, referred to the abuse of his team as a “French cultural thing”. Mr Lappartient accused Sir Dave of “pouring oil on the fire” by directing his criticism at French fans. Sir Dave later apologised.
Lance Armstrong, the US cyclist who was stripped of seven Tour de France titles following revelations of persistent doping, said Sir Dave was endangering the safety of his riders by further enraging French spectators.
“Put the f****** shovel down, get back in the bus and shut up,” said Armstrong on his podcast, The Move. “His guys have to ride through these people.”
“My intention was never to criticise the entire French nation,” said Sir Dave on Wednesday. “Of course, I don’t believe that spitting is a French cultural thing, but my point was that we only get that kind of thing at the Tour de France.”
This year, a UK parliamentary report accused Sky of manipulating anti-doping rules for its athletes, including Sir Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner, a charge strongly denied by the team.
Froome was cleared to ride in this year’s Tour de France just days before its start, after being cleared of wrongdoing related to an apparent failed drugs test. The rider successfully argued that he had taken an asthma drug within acceptable limits.
Team Sky’s popularity also suffered after Italian rider Gianni Moscon was expelled from the Tour de France for throwing a punch at a rival. Moscon later apologised.
The team is also the best funded in the race, able to afford the best cyclists, support staff and equipment. Froome has been the world’s leading cyclist for many years, and is the current holder of Europe’s two other “grand tours”: the Vuelta a España, the tour of Spain; and Giro d’Italia, the tour of Italy.
Earlier this year, Thomas won the Criterium du Dauphiné, another prestigious road race. According to financial filings to the UK’s Companies House, the team had revenues of £31m in 2016, the majority earned from its title sponsorship with the broadcasting group Sky, allowing it to pay staff and riders a combined £24m.
According to analysis by French sports newspaper L’Équipe in 2016, Team Sky’s budget for the Tour de France of €35m compared with an average across other teams of about €12.5m.
Local media also complain about Team Sky’s tactics, whose success limits the chance of any “breakaways” or dramatic changes to the lead from stage to stage. The strength of its riders means it is better able to maintain tight control of the peloton, the overall field of cyclists on the Tour, thus making victory predictable.
The strength of Team Sky is evident in the fact that at the start of the tour, Thomas was considered Froome’s principal support rider. His task was to help power the current champion to a fifth title.
Instead, the Welshman and former Olympic gold medallist appears to be in the best form of his career and now appears good enough to win the entire race.
During Wednesday’s stage, he surged away from a fading Froome to take a tighter grip on the yellow jersey. That result left Thomas about two minutes ahead of his nearest opponent, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, with Froome in third place in the overall leaderboard.
“‘G’ has ridden such an amazing race,” said Froome. “He deserves to be in yellow and fingers crossed he holds it until Paris [where the race ends on Sunday]”.
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