Dying and Rising on the 2018 Tour de France

As Geraint Thomas crossed the final finishing line last Sunday, he did so with the full support of Chris Froome

Photo: s.yuki, CC BY 2.0
Photo: s.yuki, CC BY 2.0 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The 2018 Tour de France concluded last Sunday in Paris. 

After three weeks of blood, sweat and tears – to say nothing of broken bones and flayed skin - the 105th edition of the Tour de France, one of cycling's three Grand Tours, finally came to an end. 

The 3,351 km race started from Noirmoutier-en-l'Île on July 7 and eventually finished on the Champs-Élysées on July 29. A total of 176 riders across 22 teams started out on the 21-stage race; 145 of these riders made it to Paris. 

Geraint Thomas of Team Sky won the race. It was his first Tour de France win. Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) was placed second, with Thomas's teammate and four-time Tour champion Chris Froome coming third.

These are the facts. They will be recorded in the history books. But there was another story that unfolded over those three weeks.

Froome, the four-time Tour champion, arrived at the beginning of the race as the odds-on favorite to retain his crown. There appeared few obstacles to him achieving a fifth triumph. Pro-cycling fans recognize Froome as one of the greatest stage-racers of his generation. As he started out on the race, many had a sense of déjà vu, imagining an uncontested victory ahead, given Froome’s eminence on the French roads, mountains and valleys. If so, the fans were proved wrong. 

And yet, what happened was more interesting, more intriguing, and, ultimately, more heartening than simply a bike race, even one as great as the Tour de France.

It was not just the uplifting spectacle of athletes pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance and tenacity over a prolonged period that was so inspiring. Neither was it the good-humored camaraderie of the cycling teams, nor the way the team riders worked together for a common end. Nor, again, was it the professional respect the riders showed their opponents. For they all know how hard this race is, and also how dangerous. The daily occurrence of ambulances taking away competitors from the race was a stark reminder that theirs was a profession fraught with danger and, on occasion, death. 

This year there was something else though, something of a different ‘death’ and an unlooked-for ‘resurrection.’ 

To set the scene one needs to understand something of the nature of pro-cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular. Of the cycling teams taking part, each team has a leader, that is, the rider for whom the rest of the team must work to ensure the leader’s eventual victory in the race. In French, these other riders are called domestiques, loosely translated in English as ‘servants.’ Over 21 grueling stages they carry water and food to the leader; they chaperone the leader through the Peloton(the main pack of racers), keeping him safe, free from accident or hindrance. If the leader falls behind, the team will pace him back to the front. If the leader has a puncture, a domestique will give the leader his tire. If a more serious upset befalls the leader, then the domestique will hand over his bike so that the leader can return to the front while his servant stands at the side of the road awaiting the support transport. The leader and his needs always override those of the domestiques. From the outset of any race, the leader is the center of the domestiques’world. But what happens when the servant starts to prove greater than his master?

On July 11, during a 108 km mountain stage, Geraint Thomas took the stage, and with it the maillot jaune (Yellow Jersey). This is the jersey worn by the overall leader of the Tour. The only thing was, Thomas was a domestique

The Welshman had been pro-cycling at the highest level for over 10 years. He had won competitions and races, but on the Tour and the other major Classic races, such as Giro d'Italiaand Vuelta a España, Thomas was the faithful lieutenant to his team’s leader, Chris Froome. 

This loyalty had been well rewarded, not just financially as part of Team Sky, but by seeing his leader win Tour after Tour. In a way, Thomas, through Froome, was winning too, if vicariously. That July day, however, on the 2018 Tour de France, as Thomas crossed the finishing line, he unexpectedly found himself, leader of the Tour, if one still with a ‘leader’ to follow for the rest of the race. 

Commentators enjoyed the sight of Froome and Thomas with roles, for once, reversed. The expectation was that this reversal would not last. The Tour is a hard race. It takes as much mentally as it does physically from each competitor. The more experienced Froome knew the pressure upon the rider in the Yellow Jersey. Previously, for at least four seasons, he had dealt with that successfully. Thomas had never been at the front of the most prestigious bike race on the planet. Surely it was only a matter of time before he cracked.

Thomas didn’t crack though. In fact, with each passing stage, he became stronger. Each day he grew into the new role in which he suddenly found himself.

By now, Froome had a choice. He could have simply called a halt to proceedings. He could have told the team managers that enough was enough and reminded them who was the team leader and that it was Thomas’s role to support his challenge for a fifth Tour title: these are the accepted rules of the race. Doubtless, Thomas would have agreed with the logic. In interview after interview as the race progressed he had kept repeating: “Froome is the leader.” 

In the end, Froome did nothing of the kind. As the race moved to its conclusion, there was the unusual sight of Froome playing domestique to his leader Thomas. 

From the start of the race, Froome had been the subject of abuse and vitriol from certain sections of the French media and French cycle fans lining the route of the race. Despite it all, and in the face of booing, physical assault and spitting, once Thomas had taken the lead, Froome cycled on with only one aim: to ensure that his teammate, Thomas, would be champion.

In a sport dogged by doping and other scandals, this year there appeared a different sort of “scandal”: the death of a sporting ego so that there could be a subsequent resurrection through team friendships for a greater good. 

One man called Thomas had doubted his ability to win the Tour. He had stumbled upon a crown. He was helped to place it upon his head by the man who had worn it proudly for the previous four seasons, and, thereafter, this man had helped him to persist in retaining the Yellow Jersey all the way to Paris. That other rider had accepted that he must “lay down his professional life” for another, and helped Thomas every part of the way until the Arc de Triomphe came into view. His name was Christopher. 

As Geraint Thomas crossed the final finishing line last Sunday, he did so with Chris Froome. Both men’s arms were held aloft in the bright Paris sunshine, for, indeed, both men had triumphed. 

“Not now as a servant, but instead of a servant, a most dear brother…”

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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