Ain't no mountain high enough for Geraint Thomas at Tour de France

Geraint Thomas has heard the critics -- he's older, he's not the best climber, he's a one-hit wonder -- but he just keeps climbing. AP Photo/Christophe Ena

He's had poor buildup. He's too old. His teammate is a better climber. He's a one-hit wonder.

These were the doubts directed at Geraint Thomas, the defending Tour de France champion, in the lead-up to this year's race.

They weren't without merit. Thomas, who is 33, won the 2018 edition after never having finished in the top 10 of any Grand Tours in 12 attempts. He withdrew from Tirreno-Adriatico in March with stomach problems. He was forced to abandon a high-altitude training camp because of snow. He crashed heavily at the Tour de Suisse in June and was forced to abandon the race with a shoulder injury, missing important racing days.

Meanwhile, his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal stepped in to win the Tour de Suisse, one of several major stage-race victories the 22-year-old Colombian phenom has taken since turning professional last year.

And this was all before the Tour de France started. The chorus of doubts only grew louder when Thomas went down in a minor spill on the opening day and then lost Bernal's wheel in the closing meters of an uphill finish at Epernay on Stage 3. Race officials ruled that the distance between the two was enough to grant Bernal, but not Thomas, the same finish time as the 11 riders ahead of him. The time difference was only five seconds, but the significance was profound.

On Thursday atop la Planche des Belles Filles, the race's first true mountaintop finish, Thomas erased all doubts with a commanding performance in the final, brutally steep kilometer.

He didn't win Stage 6 -- that honor went to Belgian Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), from the breakaway -- and he's not wearing yellow, but Thomas was the best-placed finisher among all general classification contenders.

"I felt pretty good," Thomas said. "I thought it would be a more solid day. It's never easy, but it was steady for the first three climbs. ... I was just unsure as, on those steep climbs, I was expecting Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana and obviously Egan to jump up there, so I was hoping for it to be hard all day before that."

Thomas might have taken only a handful of seconds ahead of his biggest rivals atop la Planche des Belles Filles, but more importantly, he'd won the race's first psychological battle. He'd made a statement. The climb has been used three times at the Tour, all in the past 10 years. Twice, the winner on the stage went on to wear the maillot jaune in Paris. History is on his side, and so, it seems, is fitness.

In the past, the stages finishing atop la Planche des Belles Filles were much flatter; Thursday's route was a legitimate mountain stage, with a total of seven categorized climbs across the Vosges, the range of low mountains in eastern France, near the borders with Germany and Switzerland.

On a hard day, on a steep climb, Thomas picked up where he'd left things last year -- riding away from his GC rivals on a mountaintop finish. He also demonstrated the measured restraint of a champion, choosing not to react when race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) jumped away with 800 meters to go.

"It's one of those climbs where you really have to be patient, and when Alaphilippe went pretty early, at like 800 meters to go, I just had to have the confidence to let him go and ride my own tempo and try and ride it all the way to the line," Thomas said. "I was starting to blow, though, as it was solid. Overall it was a decent day."

It would be unwise to read too much into the final kilometer atop la Planche des Belle Filles. For starters, the unpaved surface meant that riders needed to stay seated, rather than climb out of the saddle, or risk losing traction -- an advantage for a strong, powerful rider like Thomas, rather than lighter riders like Bernal who prefer to dance on the pedals. And the Planche des Belle Filles was only a 7km climb in the opening week, when legs are still fresh. The final climb of the Tour, Val Thorens, goes on for over 33km after several high-mountain stages and at the end of three weeks of racing.

That said, there's no denying what took place. Thomas now sits fourth overall, the top-ranked GC contender, and leads Bernal by four seconds. The next true GC contest is expected to be Stage 12 in the Pyrenees, with a long downhill finish to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, followed by a 27-kilometer individual time trial in Pau. The placement of that time trial could affect the rest of the race.

The Welshman has historically been better against the clock than Bernal -- as well as most of the GC contenders at this race -- and assuming he doesn't lose time on Stage 12, he could well ride into the maillot jaune after the time trial. And that could well make all the difference.

It's an unwritten rule in cycling that teammates don't attack their leaders, particularly when their leader is wearing the yellow jersey. The peloton faces five high-mountain days across the final eight stages, and while Bernal is largely viewed as the better climber, should Thomas be in yellow, Bernal would be obligated to support him across the Pyrenees and Alps. That would eliminate perhaps Thomas' biggest rival and bolster his strength with the best possible wheel to follow.

In line with the calm demeanor and wisdom beyond his years Bernal consistently displays, the young Colombian has said, and done, all the right things.

"I am sharing leadership with Thomas, so if I do a good Tour, then that's something really nice, but if not, I'm just 22 and it's my second Tour, my second Grand Tour, so I just want to enjoy," Bernal told reporters Wednesday. "I don't want to have pressure and maybe not enjoy the Tour, thinking about the pressure, the pressure the journalists want to put on me. That's not me."

Because of Bernal's age, and his limited time in the sport, the cycling world is still learning exactly who he is. Everyone, including Thomas, will learn a bit more over the next two weeks.

Neal Rogers has covered every major race in professional cycling, and every edition of the Tour de France since 2002.