Nick Westby: Ultimate team man Geraint Thomas has finally emerged from shadows

SO the ever-reliable foot soldier has become the battalion commander.

Champion: Britain's Geraint Thomas.

The man so many cyclists have relied upon down the years has finally emerged from the shadows to take a slice of history all of his own.

When Sir Bradley Wiggins was winning gold medals in the team pursuit, stealing the headlines with his charm and his sideburns, Geraint Thomas was in the background, taking his turn on the front and leaving the limelight to others.

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When Mark Cavendish was ending four decades of British disappointment in the road race world championships in Copenhagen, Thomas was there in the lead-out train, helping deliver the Manx Missile to the finish line.

When Ed Clancy was continuing Britain’s supremacy in the team pursuit at London 2012, Thomas was by his side, the two men for whom the sheer love of riding their bike is motivation enough, inseparable at the Olympics of a lifetime.

When Chris Froome embarked on an era of dominance in the Tour de France, Thomas was with him, fighting all the way to Paris despite fracturing his pelvis on the opening stage to support his team leader’s quest for a first yellow jersey.

Even four years later, Thomas was still there for his road captain; taking his turn on the front, repelling attacks and guiding Froome towards the Arc de Triomphe unharmed.

Through it all there were moments of individual brilliance that pointed to a man who would one day take the glory for himself; a solo break to win the Commonwealth Games road race in the pouring rain at Glasgow 2014; a victory in the time-trial on stage one of the 2017 Tour de France.

There had even been mumblings that this would be Thomas’s last year at Team Sky, as the 32-year-old wanted to be given the chance to prove that he could lead a team at the world’s most gruelling race.

It turns out that he was able to take that opportunity earlier than expected.

In winning the 2018 Tour de France, Thomas has shown he is more than merely a splendid foot soldier.

He is a leader all in his own right.

Everything that has gone before – all the self-sacrificing rides for others – was leading up to this point.

If his skills on a bike and courage under the extreme pressure of a race had not already placed him on a pantheon of British cycling’s modern-day trailblazers like Wiggins, Cavendish and Froome, then his victory over the last three weeks will certainly see him ascend into that elite company.

His performance these last three weeks have been nothing short of breathtaking.

Victory on stage 10 up to La Rosière was sheer bravado.

To then back it up within 24 hours up the fabled Alpe d’Huez was stunning stuff.

Even with those two stage wins, the looming presence of Sky team-mate Froome and SunWeb’s Tom Dumoulin on his back wheel in the general classification was ominous, given their greater grand tour pedigree – and, in the case of the former, his status in the team’s heirarchy.

But it was Thomas’s ride into third place on stage 17, on that short, sharp burst up the Col du Portet pass when any doubt about his ability to withstand everything anyone else could throw at him was erased.

Thomas went with every attack, left Froome and Dumoulin trailing in his wake, and seized control of the race.

This third British champion of the Tour de France in seven years may also be the most warmly received as well.

Wiggins was the great pioneer of British cycling but his image is now tainted because ethical boundaries were pushed.

Froome’s dominance has come into question over the salbutamol affair that lingered over him since December and dates back to his victory at the Vuelta a Espana.

He has been cleared but some sceptics – of which there remain many in a sport shamed by scandal – remain unconvinced.

Team Sky as a whole have been a victim of that animosity on the roadsides around France, not just this year but in Tours gone by as well.

Thomas has not escaped this, fans grabbing him in an attempt to slow him down as recently as Thursday.

But while reviled in France, Thomas’s victory should be applauded across Britain; from his home country of Wales all the way across to Whitby.

It is good PR for a sport that is always in need of good PR, and Thomas is a role model for aspiring young sportsmen and women from a sport whose ambassadors often fall as fast and as far as they climbed.

His is the story of the ultimate team man, the great support act who put his own interests to one side for the greater good.

A champion on the track, he has proven now to be a champion on the road.

Geraint Thomas has emerged from the shadows to become Britain’s leading cyclist.