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How Thomas survived cliffhanger on the corniche

NICE, France (VN) — Sky’s Geraint Thomas withstood a battering by Alberto Contador in Sunday’s nail-biting finale at Paris-Nice to hang on for a four-second victory thanks to a mix of teamwork, guts, and tactical planning.

Sky had a game plan to keep its budding stage-race captain in yellow, but things nearly backfired when Contador uncorked a string of searing attacks. Thomas admitted he was against the ropes as the Tinkoff rider powered away over the Col d’Eze high above the corniche of France’s sparkling Cote d’Azur. Thomas’s slender, four-second overall victory reveals just how close it was.

“When Contador went on Col d’Eze, I just needed to keep my tempo, then I went out of the back of the group, and then I thought, ‘oh no, the whole race has [gotten away from me],’” Thomas said. “That’s the podium gone … but I just had to keep fighting and never give up.”

It was touch-and-go from the moment Contador attacked over the Cote de Peille, still with 50 kilometers to go. The Spaniard linked up with two teammates in the day’s breakaway, a move Sky had missed, and soon opened up a one-minute gap — enough to put him into the virtual leader’s jersey. At that point, Thomas wasn’t hitting the panic button just yet.

“When Contador went on Peille, I thought maybe I should have gone with him, but I had the confidence in the boys,” Thomas explained. “Swifty, Nico, Boz, everyone was amazing. All the way to Col d’Eze, we were chopping full gas. When we caught them, I was still confident. I had good legs.”

Tinkoff officials cried foul over that chase down the Peille when Sky caught Contador. Sport director Sean Yates said TV motorcycles leading down the canyon were inadvertently pacing the Sky riders. He didn’t say they were blatantly drafting for them, but said, “When you have a motorbike in front of you going 70kph, it helps. There’s no way they could have caught Contador.”

Contador wasn’t done yet. He attacked four more times on the Col d’Eze before finally cracking Thomas. BMC Racing’s Richie Porte bridged across and linked up with eventual stage winner Tim Wellens of Lotto-Soudal. The trio powered over the top with enough gap to give Contador the virtual race lead yet again.

Enter Sergio Henao. The Colombian climber was key to keeping Thomas in the chase and saving Paris-Nice for the team. Henao started the season off with a strong showing at the Santos Tour Down Under, and is in line to race the Giro d’Italia. Over the decisive final weekend at Paris-Nice, he proved a loyal teammate. On Saturday, he sacrificed his own chances to win to pace Thomas into the yellow jersey. On Sunday, he helped save it.

“Halfway up Col d’Eze my legs kind of exploded. Sergio really kept my morale up,” Thomas said. “Sergio’s been great all week. Those were the hardest 20-odd kilometers of my career.”

The steep, twisting descent off Col d’Eze was a mad dash to the finish line on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Contador’s promising lead was diminishing by a concerted chase from the Thomas group. Tinkoff couldn’t believe it when they saw Tony Gallopin taking pulls in the front, especially when he had his teammate Wellens up the road.

Thomas had another card to play. He told mechanics the night before to mount a bigger chainring going into the day’s battle.

“We put on a 54 chain-ring, because I knew you could pedal down that descent,” Thomas said. “Thankfully, that came in handy down there.”

Even with a second-place time bonus, Contador didn’t have enough to pull off the miracle. Thomas was relieved and honored to have survived one of Contador’s most impressive onslaughts.

“This is the first season I’ve really raced against Contador, one-on-one. He’s one of the greatest stage racers ever. To come out on top here is an amazing feeling,” Thomas said. “I’m in dreamland.”

The significance of the victory cannot be underestimated for Thomas, who is making the transition from a classics rider and helper to become Sky’s de facto No. 2, filling a role left vacant by Porte. He will be helping Chris Froome deep in the mountains this July, but he’s taking full advantage of his early-season chances to win. His thrilling victory at Paris-Nice confirms he’s on the right track. Journalists asked if he’s the natural inheritor to Bradley Wiggins and Froome at Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour de France.

“It would be an absolute dream, but one step at a time,” Thomas said. “This year, it’s all about one-week races, and I will be riding for Froomey at the Tour. Sky is a great place to learn. I am like a sponge, but maybe in two or three years, I can step up and try to win the Tour. It would be unbelievable to take the mantle from Froomey.”

Victory at Paris-Nice keeps Sky’s impressive run alive at the “Race to the Sun.” Wiggins won in 2012, while Porte won in 2013 and 2015. For Thomas, it’s confirmation that he made the right decision to leave the classics. In April, he will race the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and then spend the rest of the month at a high-altitude training camp.

“We came here to win it, and to actually do it, I am in dreamland,” Thomas said. “It’s a huge race. When I was a kid, I used to run home from school to watch the last 20km on TV. Then I was a track rider, and I never thought I would be in this position to win a race like Paris-Nice. I’m going to have a good drink tonight.”

After Sunday’s cliffhanger on the corniche, he deserved it.