Geraint Thomas cried tears of joy as he stood set to win the Tour de France.
The Welshman finished third in Saturday’s stage 20 time trial to protect his yellow jersey, and will now ride into Paris on Sunday with a glass of champagne in his hand as the third British winner of the Tour.
Thomas has worn yellow since winning stage 11 to La Rosiere 10 days ago, but never let himself dream of winning the Tour until he crossed the line in Espelette, where he was greeted by his wife Sara.
“It was emotional,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know my wife was here either which kind of made it worse. It was just about doing all the small things right. That wall came falling down. I was welling up every time I hugged anyone or talked about it for about 20 minutes there.”
It was the first time Thomas has cracked in the entire Tour. He did not come to France as a strong favourite or even as the leader in his own team, but has ridden smartly for three weeks to stay out of trouble while delivering two memorable mountain wins.
He follows Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome as a British winner, with the trio winning six of the last seven Tours, all in Team Sky colours.
Froome was expected to carry the flag again for Sky – the team had continued to insist he was their leader even after Thomas’ victory on Alpe d’Huez – but while Thomas spoke in the yellow jersey winners’ press conference, the four-time Tour winner was sat to one side staring at his phone.
“It’s incredible to be sat here with this jersey,” Thomas said when asked about the contrast. “It’s insane. Big thanks to Froomey as well. He committed to me, he was really happy to see me do so well.
“We’re good friends and I really appreciate having the best stage race rider ever riding for me. It’s just surreal. It’s going to take a while to sink in, I think.”
The top three on the stage ended up as a reshuffle of the top three overall. Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin won his third career Tour stage to secure second place overall, beating Froome by one second as Thomas’ team-mate reclaimed the podium position he lost on Friday to LottoNL-Jumbo’s Primoz Roglic.
Third was not what Froome came here looking for, though. The 33-year-old wanted a record-equalling fifth Tour title and a rare Giro-Tour double, but drew praise for the way he had handled the shift in fortunes over the past three weeks.
“To have a little bit of support in helping people achieve their dreams is why we do it really,” Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford said.
“It’s a very powerful and very rewarding thing to be involved in. Chris has achieved many, many of his dreams and to see Geraint achieve his on this time, this particular race, is quite moving.”
Froome has ridden four consecutive Grand Tours and looked to be out of gas in this Tour. But he said he had not regrets about the decision to ride both the Giro and Tour.
“Not only have I been a team-mate of Geraint’s for the last 10 years, we’ve also been good friends for the last 10 years,” he said. “He’s been a massive part of my Tour victories over the years and to see him come here now in the shape he was in, it was clear to me, if he was going to be on the podium, he was going to be on the top step.
Thomas emulates Wiggins in converting himself from an Olympic team pursuit champion into the winner of the world’s biggest road race.
The 32-year-old had never before finished in the top 10 of a Grand Tour. In his only previous serious attempt to win one, he was forced to withdraw following a crash midway through last year’s Giro d’Italia.
Intermittent rain, the first significant downfall of the entire Tour, created unpredictable conditions on Saturday’s 31-kilometre course.
There was one significant scare for Thomas with around 19km to go when the bike almost slipped from underneath him on a right-hand bend.
Thomas may have known he had a buffer to play with, but he was not taking it easy as he was fastest through the first and second splits before grinding up the Col de Pinodieta and dropping back.
There was brief confusion when the timing splits appeared to show Froome had beaten Dumoulin by one second to take the stage, though it was soon corrected.
“That’s crazy,” Dumoulin said. “I didn’t know anything about split times and I still thought Froome was one second ahead of me when I crossed the line. Wow.”
Dumoulin, the world time trial champion, has taken all of his Tour stage wins against the clock.
The Team Sunweb rider’s day did not get off to an ideal start when he could not find his time trial skinsuit in the morning.
But, with his clothing sponsor based just across the Spanish border in San Sebastian, an emergency call was placed and they whipped him up a new set of the world champion’s rainbow stripes in time.
Irishman Dan Martin shipped more than two minutes in the time trial, but the UAE Team Emirates rider – named the most combative in the Tour overall – did enough to protect his top 10 place as he is set to finish eighth overall.