The Champs-Elysees was lined with Welsh flags on Sunday night and when Geraint Thomas finally climbed on to the podium as the winner of the world’s toughest bike race, the reception he received was as warm as the summer air.
‘Cycling’s coming home,’ declared one group of British fans, even if the same could have been said for five of the previous six years.
For once, though, the chorus of disapproval that has so often greeted Team Sky’s riders was not delivered, Parisians proving rather more polite than so many who have attended the Tour de France this past three weeks.
Geraint Thomas cycled to victory in the Tour de France on Sunday afternoon in Paris
Only on the newspaper stands did the cynicism continue, with L’Equipe among those to express concern that we have all seen this movie before. ‘The unending reign,’ declared their front-page headline on Sunday morning.
Times have changed, of course. Even Lance Armstrong believes the professional peloton is now cleaner than it was when US Postal were crushing the opposition. But the sport’s darker past is not the only reason that Team Sky’s dominance of this race, six victories in seven years no less, has been met with such scepticism.
The events of the last two years have taken a sledgehammer to the image Sir Dave Brailsford tried to create when he claimed the British would do it differently.
The chorus of disapproval that has so often greeted Team Sky’s riders didn’t come in Paris
Thomas was greeted immediately after the race’s conclusion by his wife Sarah Elen Thomas
What started with the Russian computer hackers continued with this newspaper’s investigation into a medical package and concluded in March with the damning criticism of a parliamentary report.
Even now Sky’s former doctor remains the subject of an inquiry by the General Medical Council that appears to be focused on the delivery of testosterone patches to joint headquarters of Team Sky and British Cycling, the same physician having already admitted to poor record keeping and resigning from his position with the national track team.
It forces us to question everything, and forces reporters — like an American journalist on Saturday night — to ask Thomas how he felt when the Jiffy Bag storm erupted and was followed by the battle Froome faced to clear his name after a urine sample given at last year’s Vuelta produced an adverse analytical finding. Thomas replied: ‘No offence but I don’t read the papers. If I do I read about rugby, about how George North is doing.’
Outside that bubble, however, it is difficult to ignore the harsh reality. It is hard to ignore the fact that Armstrong’s former US Postal soigneur is still in charge of Team Sky’s service course in Belgium.
Welshman Thomas has dared us to believe that he is the perfect poster boy for Team Sky
He and Team Sky team-mate Chris Froome had a glass of champagne to start the final stage
Just as it is uncomfortable seeing Servais Knaven performing the role of team strategist when he was part of the Dutch TVM outfit that was involved in a major doping scandal in 1998.
Knaven insists he never took performance-enhancing drugs but these associations arouse suspicion and demand scrutiny.
‘The victory of Thomas will not reconcile the Sky sceptics any more than asking Donald Trump to get on board with theories of climate change,’ said L’Equipe.
But the sceptics also need to consider the counter-argument, which in the case of Thomas is actually fairly compelling.
While Sky deserve much of the criticism they have received, in Thomas they now at least have a powerful response.
His performance here in France has dared us to believe, dared us to admire this engaging 32-year-old from Cardiff even if we maintain a dimmer view of his employers.
When one considers the accusations that have been levelled at Sky, they are largely focused on an abuse of the medical exemption system and an unethical use of asthma medication.
Team Sky now have a powerful response to criticism with Thomas ready to go on and conquer
Fellow Welshman Luke Rowe held the nation’s flag with Thomas as they cycled through Paris
Well, Thomas, as he confirmed in a side room at the media centre at the end of Saturday’s time trial, is not asthmatic, does not therefore use asthma medication and has never — even when contesting a Tour with a fracture of the pelvis — applied for a therapeutic use exemption. He struggled on that year using only painkillers.
He also insisted, in the wake of a parliamentary report that highlighted the large quantities of corticosteroids in the medical room at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, that it had never even occurred to him to use cortisone for weight loss.
Sky claim he is the lightest he has ever been in his professional career here in France — at 6ft he weighs in at a mere 10st 9lb — but he says he has got there by simply being careful about what he eats. ‘It involves a lot of rice, occasionally with a bit of cheese,’ he said. The Fancy Bears hackers may well struggle to get something on this guy and that is perhaps why a former rider, indeed a former doper, with the knowledge and experience of David Millar describes Thomas as the perfect poster boy for the sport.
Thomas is not some flash in the pan, not a rider who has suddenly come good. He followed junior success in Paris-Roubaix with Olympic team pursuit gold at the tender age of 22. His talent as a road racer has long been evident too, even if he has so often been forced to sacrifice himself in the service of team-mates. In particular Froome.
Thomas is not some flash in the pan cyclist who has suddenly come good during his Tour
By last year his efforts had demanded he be given the opportunity to go for glory in the Giro d’Italia, only to then crash. And after winning the Dauphine last month he was told before this Tour that he was not limited to domestique duties for Froome.
‘I was always allowed my freedom,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t like I had to work for him as a domestique. The guys were riding for Froomey and I just stayed with them. But I was the back-up leader and if I was good, I would stay in front. It was clear that I wouldn’t have to sit up if I was feeling good and Froomey was bad.’
As it turned out he was real good. Good enough to dominate in the mountains and good enough to become the third Briton in seven remarkable years to win the Tour.
And while history demands that we continue to regard any Tour winner with a healthy degree of cynicism, the man who rolled into Paris in yellow on Sunday night at least deserves the benefit of the doubt.
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