Geraint Thomas’s hopes of winning this Tour de France evaporated into the thin Pyrenean air as the infernal pace set by his rivals Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar kept him at a distance on the road to Peyragudes.
But on a day when the Dane and the Slovenian rode so fast that it made their peers look pedestrian, the Welsh rider fought hard to consolidate his third place overall and with one mountain stage to come, can now begin to think of a podium finish in Paris. “I didn’t feel quite as light on the pedals as I had done earlier in the race,” said Thomas. “I wasn’t feeling tip-top today, but I was there.”
The 2018 champion admitted that rather than risk losing third place by chasing the relentless Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Pogacar (UAE Emirates), he had ridden within himself on the grueling final kilometers.
“I made the call to wait for the group behind, rather than try and fight, go into the red to get back to that group, but maybe risk blowing up and losing even more time. I saved the legs a bit and then was able to just ride a solid pace all the way to the line.”
Ahead of him, on the 16% slopes to the finish line, Pogacar and Vingegaard dueled for the stage win, with the double Tour winner outsprinting the race leader, albeit without making the significant time gains he needed.
Thomas, grinding his way across the finish line two minutes later, finished best of the rest and retained his third place overall. He now leads fourth placed Nairo Quintana (Arkea‑Samsic) by almost three minutes, which given their relative time trialling strengths is a gap that is unlikely to diminish between the Pyrenees and the Champs‑Élysées.
Even with a depleted team, Pogacar still put Vingegaard under intense pressure. His bid 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-breaking pace.
Pogacar has now lost four of his eight teammates, including the mountain-climbing specialists George Bennett, Marc Soler and now Rafal Majka, who failed to start the 17th stage due to injury. Despite that, he was able to count on McNulty and also Mikkel Bjerg, a rider better known for his time‑trialling results than his mountain climbing.
“Mikkel rode like a climber today,” Pogacar said. “He set 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 rider he is. It’s cracking me actually, that he was hurting me so much on a climb. But fair play: they really took it on.”
Asked if Berg’s and particularly McNulty’s performance, which saw the American leading Pogacar into the final 200m, were what he had expected, Thomas said: “Not at all, no. Fair play, both of them, and whatever they had for breakfast, because they were going.”
On a day that had started with Pogacar losing Majka, his most experienced teammate, both Berg and McNulty were worth their weight in gold, if not in yellow. Their efforts were enough to crack all their leading rivals, except Vingegaard, who again resisted the defending champion’s attempts to distance him.
Behind them, on the approach to the final climb, Thomas joined forces with the resurgent Frenchman Romain Bardet (Team DSM) although the Welshman ultimately moved ahead on the final haul to Peyragudes altiport.
Pogacar now has one mountain stage remaining, to the mountain resort at Hautacam on Thursday, to claw more time back on the race leader. If he cannot do so, then everything will rest on the final 40-kilometer time trial on Saturday, just as it did in 2020 when he usurped Vingegaard’s teammate Primoz Roglic to win his first Tour.
With the gap between them as it is, there seems little chance of lightning striking twice, although Vingegaard will know not to relax. “Tomorrow there’s another chance,” Pogacar said of the final mountain stage on Thursday, “even if I’m happy with what we did today. I am still optimistic and tomorrow is another hard day. We will try again.