Geraint Thomas began to sound like a man comfortable in the yellow jersey after retaining his advantage on stage 14 to Mende.
After Omar Fraile took stage honours out of the breakaway, Thomas stuck to Sky team-mate Chris Froome and Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin to ensure there was no change to the top three in the general classification.
Thomas took yellow on Wednesday’s stage 11 to La Rosiere but has spent the last few days insisting that four-time Tour winner Froome – who holds all three Grand Tour titles and is looking to complete a rare Giro-Tour double – remains the team leader despite his deficit.
On Saturday, there seemed to be a subtle shift in tone from Thomas, who leads Froome by one minute 39 seconds with Dumoulin a further 11 seconds back.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, I’m sure they’d be happy for either of us to win,” he said when asked about Team Sky’s priorities. “But for me I’d be happier if I won than Froomey.”
Thomas downplayed the pressure of wearing yellow, recalling the feeling he had before winning Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, but it was his final remark which stood out.
“When you compare this to getting up for the Olympic team pursuit final, four years of hard work and three mates relying on you, and you win by tenths of a second, that’s real pressure,” he said.
“This is different, this is more sustained. But I think having Froomey in second place takes the pressure off as well. If something happens to me we still have him in the race.”
Asked directly if that shift of tone was a concious one, the 32-year-old insisted nothing had changed, but this was the first time Thomas had wondered aloud about carrying yellow to Paris.
Thomas has been quick to remind everyone that he has never before sustained a general classification challenge over three weeks, but this time he added a caveat about Froome too – given both he and Dumoulin came into the Tour on the back of the Giro d’Italia.
“It’s the first time I’ve raced for three weeks as the GC leader so it’s a bit of an unknown,” Thomas said. “But it’s the same for Froomey and Dumoulin. They’ve done the Giro so you never know what will happen with them. It’s just a great position we’re in.”
Thomas followed Froome and Dumoulin over the line in Mende, with the trio giving up eight seconds to LottoNL-Jumbo’s Primoz Roglic, fourth overall two minutes and 38 seconds down.
While the front trio stuck together, they were able to pick up more time on AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet and Movistar pair Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa, who all suffered on the steep gradients up to Mende aerodrome.
“It was a tough little final,” said Froome. “Only a three kilometre climb but explosive, tough. I think we saw the damage it did with gaps opening up all over the place and a few seconds gained.
“I think all in all we are pretty happy with myself and ‘G’ up front, with Dumoulin here at the moment seeming to be our biggest threat.”
If Thomas was beginning to sound more confident in yellow, Froome was clear his plan to come good for the final week remains on track.
“The goal was always to ride into this Tour and I think I timed it well,” he said. “I had a good block of recovery after the Giro and building up into the Tour was definitely the right thing for me to do.”
Froome, who has been jostled and booed in recent days, faced more animosity on the final climb as he had liquid thrown at him by one spectator – three years after he had urine thrown at him on the same stretch of road.
Thomas said he had not seen what the liquid was this time around.
“I don’t know what it was but I’m not surprised,” he said. “We’ve had a bit of that. It’s always been water from what I’ve seen.”
The general classification contenders crossed the line at the top of the steep climb to the Mende aerodrome a full 18 minutes after Fraile had beaten Julian Alaphilippe and Jasper Stuyven to the stage win.
Stuyven tried his luck off the front of the breakaway with 35km left, only to be caught 500 metres from the top of the climb, with Fraile racing away to his first Tour stage victory.
UAE Team Emirates’ Dan Martin was not with the main group on the climb after suffering a puncture one kilometre before it began, and the Irishman ended up being paced by Adam Yates after the Lancastrian was dropped early on to continue his recent struggles.