The Tour de France is so big, unforgiving, and ever-changing that cyclists talk about it the way you’d imagine old-timey whalers talking about the sea. “She doesn’t care about your feelings,” 26-year-old American Lawson Craddock told NBC shortly before riding his second Tour. “She will chew you up and spit you out and won’t even think twice about it.”
Sure enough, Craddock suffered a brutal crash on the 2018 race’s very first stage, leaving him tearful and bloodied. Craddock rode the last 20 stages of the 2,082-mile race (approximately the distance from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City) with a broken scapula. He came in last among the 145 finishers, four hours, 30 minutes, and change behind the leader.
It’s easy to think of a race like the Tour as having its own volition. For the past few years, it’s also had its own opponent: British juggernaut Team Sky and its world-class leader, Chris Froome. During the 2010s, Froome and Sky have dominated the Tour to a level unseen since Lance Armstrong’s turn-of-the-century U.S. Postal teams. Before 2012, no British rider had ever won cycling’s biggest race; Brits from Team Sky—first Sir Bradley Wiggins, then Froome four times—entered the 2018 event having won five of the past six editions. Sky has become the Tour’s implacable antihero.
This year, however, Froome faltered for the first time since 2014, finishing third. But it was Froome’s Sky teammate, fellow Brit Geraint Thomas, who took the yellow jersey into Paris on Sunday. The race finally beat Froome, but the real final boss, Team Sky, remained just as dominant as ever.
The UCI World Tour, the top level of men’s professional cycling, features dozens of races with varying lengths, formats, and terrains, and there are riders to suit every challenge. There are diminutive climbers who dance up steep mountains, hulking sprinters who explode out of the bunch on the last mile of flat stages, powerful time-trial specialists, and catlike classics specialists. While some riders have risen to stardom by winning individual stages or one-day races, or by cornering the market on one discipline, very few possess the all-around ability to contest the general classification of the three Grand Tours: the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España, all three-week stage races that demand uncommon stamina and versatility.
While some of the other 21 teams at the Tour de France are after stage wins, Sky and Froome are after the GC, and have been from the beginning. The Rupert Murdoch family–owned Team Sky was founded in 2010 to improve the competitiveness of British cycling. The team’s general manager, Dave Brailsford, was hired after elevating the U.K.’s national track cycling team from an also-ran to a juggernaut, and several British superstars who went on to ride for him at Sky, including Wiggins, Thomas, and sprinter Mark Cavendish, had won world championship or Olympic medals on the track.
Sky’s grand tour teams are built around one leader and a strong team of assistants, called domestiques, who shield the leader from the wind on flat stages and pace him up mountain climbs. Every team features riders who perform this role, but Sky pays top dollar for superior support riders. This allows it to set a hellacious pace and shed weaker riders from the peloton, then pace its leader on decisive mountain stages. While competitors often climb the race’s highest mountains alone, Sky’s leader frequently has as many as three or four teammates with him to swap wheels in case of a flat tire or pace him to the leader if he falls behind. In addition to Froome and Thomas, Sky brought 2014 world champion Michal Kwiatkowski to this year’s Tour de France, as well as dynamic 21-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal, who won this summer’s Tour of California, and veteran Dutchman Wout Poels, who finished sixth in last year’s Vuelta a España. This tactical playbook is similar to the one the U.S. Postal team—known as “The Blue Train”—rode to seven Tour de France victories for Lance Armstrong, plus a win in the 2003 Vuelta a España for Spaniard Roberto Heras.
Team Sky would be easy to hate simply because it’s been so dominant, and it’s boring when the same team wins every year. This is also the kind of team that creates special jerseys for the final stages of grand tours, when one of its riders is in the leader’s jersey. It’s said that Sky’s domestiques could contend for a Grand Tour on their own teams, and this has repeatedly proved to be accurate. Froome and Thomas started out as domestiques for Wiggins before putting on the yellow jersey, and much of their stiffest competition has come from former teammates: Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte, Mikel Landa, and Mikel Nieve all rode in support of Froome, Wiggins, or both before striking out to lead their own teams.
Yet sustained dominance isn’t the sole reason Sky has received blowback. After founding the team with a mission statement of transparency and winning clean, Sky and Brailsford have spent the past few years fighting off multiple accusations of doping, first with therapeutic use exemptions for triamcinolone in advance of Wiggins’s 2012 Tour win, then when Froome failed a drug test during his victory in last year’s Vuelta. Last fall, Froome tested positive for higher levels of the asthma drug salbutamol than UCI rules allowed, putting his 2018 Tour eligibility in jeopardy. He was cleared of wrongdoing following a nine-month appeals process that ended just days before this year’s race began. (The French crowd found Froome’s acquittal unconvincing and routinely booed him.)
Even though he was allowed to enter the Tour, the uncertainty surrounding Froome’s participation might have cost him the race. As a hedge against a possible suspension, he entered and won the Giro d’Italia in May. Froome’s triumph was far from the boring Sky parade the cycling world has become accustomed to, as he needed a thrilling, daring, and meticulously planned solo breakaway on Stage 19 to earn a comeback victory.
But while that performance made him just the seventh rider to win all three grand tours in his career, and only the third to win three grand tours in a row, the effort took a lot out of him. Winning the Giro, then turning around six weeks later to win the Tour, is a nearly impossible feat of endurance, last accomplished in 1998 by legendary Italian cyclist Marco Pantani. So while Froome was recovering and awaiting the results of his appeal, Sky prepared as if Thomas would lead it. In June, Thomas led the team in the Critérium du Dauphiné, a one-week race that serves as one of the principal tune-up races for the Tour. He won. Sky looked like it could race a Froomeless Tour de France without missing its leader one bit.
For the second year in a row, the Tour de France’s organizers settled on a course that seemed specifically designed to disadvantage Froome. Froome is a stupendous climber and one of the top time trialists in the world; this year’s route was notably light on mountaintop finishes, theoretically giving Froome’s pursuers a chance to catch him on the descent even if he crushed them on a climb. The route also featured only one individual time-trial stage of just 19 miles. (The course Wiggins won on in 2012 had three individual time trials totaling 63 miles.) The first week of the race took place on flats in the gusty Vendée region, potentially leading to time splits as the wind blew the peloton around like a flock of geese. And finally, Stage 9 featured portions of the cobbled course of the one-day Paris-Roubaix race, known in cycling circles as “the Hell of the North.” The last time Froome failed to win the Tour, in 2014, he crashed out on the cobbled road to Roubaix.
This year that road seemed to be covered in banana peels, with almost every GC contender hitting at least one. Wind caused a huge time split on the first stage. Froome’s biggest rival, Movistar climber Nairo Quintana, suffered mechanical issues. 2017 Giro d’Italia winner and reigning world time-trial champion Tom Dumoulin crashed on Stage 6, then was penalized further for drafting off of his team’s support car on the way back to the peloton. Porte crashed out early in the cobbled stage, handing leadership of his BMC team to the American Tejay van Garderen, who’d twice finished fifth in the Tour. Van Garderen’s GC challenge didn’t survive the afternoon; he too crashed, losing more than five minutes on the stage and sinking out of contention. Uran also wiped out on the cobbles and dropped out of the Tour entirely three days later. Vincenzo Nibali, the last man to beat Froome in the Tour, crashed on Alpe d’Huez and broke a vertebra.
Froome emerged from the early-stage chaos relatively unharmed, only losing time to Thomas after tumbling into a grassy ditch on Stage 1. Thomas rode through the mountains in the yellow jersey, pulling back an attack to win on Alpe d’Huez and riding the Sky train through the Pyrenees in the Tour’s final week. Quintana’s attack on Stage 17 cracked Froome, but not Sky, as Thomas was able to stay close enough to the Colombian to maintain his yellow jersey with ease. Attacks by Roglic and Landa on Stage 19 were also ineffective: They were able to beat Froome, but couldn’t get enough daylight on Thomas to even make Saturday’s time-trial stage interesting. Froome passed Roglic in the standings to end up back on the podium.
The field, and even the Tour’s organizers, misjudged their opponent. When U.S. Postal was in its heyday, Armstrong was the leader of an operation built to serve him, and by attacking the man you could bring down the entire outfit—indeed, the most disturbing revelations about Armstrong’s cheating throughout his career had less to do with his drug use than his persistent and ugly bullying of teammates, journalists, and organizers to cover up his wrongdoing. Froome isn’t that guy. He’s soft-spoken and gracious with the media, and while Armstrong viewed teammates who struck out on their own as traitors, Froome by all accounts remains very good friends with Porte. He crossed the finish line in Paris on Sunday with his arm wrapped around Thomas.
For Froome, losing this year’s Tour is more likely the result of an unusual confluence of circumstances than the end of his reign of dominance. Even if it is, Froome is merely the greatest cog in the operation, not the operation itself. If he fades, Thomas will pick up the mantle, or else Bernal or some other youngster will. Froome, it turns out, is mortal. Sky is untouchable.