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Llongyfarchiadau! Wales's Geraint Thomas wins Tour de France

Marco Bertorello/Pool/AFP | British riders Geraint Thomas (L), wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, and Christopher Froome drink champagne on the final stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Houilles and Paris on July 29, 2018.

Geraint Thomas has become the first Welshman ever to win the Tour de France, cycling’s most coveted prize. Long in service to four-time champ Chris Froome, Thomas rode a sterling 2018 race to eclipse the Team Sky star and savour Champs Elysées glory.

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The 32-year-old Thomas’s podium climb on Sunday was a long-time coming for the Cardiff native, who turned to cycling at age 10 and was initially decorated as a pursuit specialist on the track, winning Olympic Gold for Great Britain in the team pursuit in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London. As a road racer, Thomas has weathered harrowing injuries for his craft and won plaudits as a loyal and tireless teammate. But 2018 proved the affable Welshman’s year to shine, with his first Critérium du Dauphiné victory last month a harbinger of Sunday’s triumph.

Thomas helped Team Sky teammate Froome -- a favourite before this 105th edition of cycling’s grandest race -- to all four of his Tour de France wins and began this month expecting once again to provide support for the veteran champ. But with Froome struggling after an opening stage crash, Thomas seized the opportunity, winning back-to-back mountain stages, first claiming the yellow jersey with a stage win at La Rosière on July 18. The next day, he became the first British rider to win at the legendary Alpe d’Huez. From there, Thomas rode nine more stages in yellow and into the history books, with Froome on board for the ride.

“It’s incredible to be sat here with this jersey. It’s insane,” Thomas said in disbelief after finishing third in Saturday’s penultimate stage, a time trial, to virtually seal victory in the general classification. “A big thanks to Froomey as well, because he committed to me and was really happy to see me do well. We’re great friends, and I had probably the best stage rider, ever, riding for me. It’s so surreal,” he added. “It’s going to take a while to sink in.”

'To see Geraint Thomas do it now makes me really proud,' says four-time Tour de France champ Chris Froome

Froome, for his part, gave kudos to his longtime teammate, despite a rough ride of his own. “I didn’t win a fifth Tour de France, but at the same time I’ve seen a good mate of mine who over the years worked so hard for me,” Froome told FRANCE 24 after Saturday’s stage. “To see him do it now makes me really proud... So it’s been a great tour and for us both to stand on the podium in Paris tomorrow will be really special,” he predicted ahead of Sunday’s final stage, traditionally a parade to victory barring a catastrophic tumble.

A rugby fan with a work-hard-play-hard reputation, Thomas made his Tour de France debut in 2007, the youngest competitor in the field and first Welshman to complete the gruelling race in 40 years. Competing for the Barloworld team, the 21-year-old pressed on to finish 140th, one spot ahead of the last-placed “lanterne rouge”, and nearly four hours behind race winner Alberto Contador.

“He spent most of the time at the back of the peloton that year and nobody thought he would finish the race,” Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford recalled. “He still made it. It showed his character.”

In 2013, starting his third Tour de France for Britain’s Team Sky, Thomas crashed heavily on the opening stage in Corsica, cracking his pelvis. But he persevered, powering through the pain and 3,000 kilometres of punishing sprints and climbs over three weeks to help teammate Froome win his first Tour de France.

“When he fractured his hip five years ago, he could not even stand up his bike in the team time trial that followed,” Brailsford recounted. “He still carried on and finished the race. It speaks volumes about his personality. Since his junior years, he has always wanted to win.”

Great Britain track cyclists Paul Manning, Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins pose for photographers after winning the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games men’s team pursuit final on August 18, 2008. Daniel Garcia, AFP

In 2016, Thomas staked a claim on eventually winning a Grand Tour himself when he beat Contador to victory in the Paris-Nice race, a turning point for the Briton, his former coach and Team Sky’s performance director Rod Ellingworth has said.

Thomas’s 2017 Tour de France got off to a dream start when he won the opening time trial and spent four days in the yellow jersey. But the dream came to an end on stage 9 – which he started ranked second in the general, 12 seconds behind Froome – when Thomas crashed out of the race with a broken collarbone.

As the cycling world applauds the unassuming Welshman’s Tour de France feat on Sunday, his consensus status as a well-liked member of the peloton is clear. It stands in stark contrast to the hearty booing Team Sky received along the journey this year after team leader Froome -- vying for a record-tying fifth Tour de France title and the right to be mentioned in the same breath as legends Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain -- was cleared in a doping case just days before the start. Thomas’s victory makes it a sixth victory for Team Sky from the past seven Tours de France, including Bradley Wiggins’s win in 2012 which Thomas skipped to focus on the London Olympics.

“If you’re lucky enough to call him a friend, there’s someone there that’ll always have your back,” tweeted fellow British cyclist Mark Cavendish. “Not one person that knows [Geraint Thomas] doesn’t know how much he deserves this. His loyalty and work ethic is something to aspire to in life, not just cycling. So proud of you mate.”

Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin, the 2018 Tour de France runner-up, complimented Thomas’s race in no uncertain terms. “He was never put into trouble by anyone in the mountains, or on any stage, also not by me,” Dumoulin said of Thomas after Saturday’s time trial. “I only have respect for him. Congratulations from me.”

As the first Welshman ever to win La Grande Boucle, Thomas has enjoyed enthusiastic support from the small British nation. “Absolutely awesome,” tweeted recently retired former Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton. “Thoroughly deserved and couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” added Warburton, who alongside Wales and Real Madrid football star Gareth Bale attended the same Cardiff school as Thomas, Whitchurch High School.

As victory neared Saturday night, Cardiff’s city council was lit up in bright yellow in honour of a favourite son’s extraordinary feat, eager to see it sealed with champagne Sunday on the Champs Elysées.

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