L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France (Reuters) - Geraint Thomas became the first man to win up l’Alpe d’Huez with the yellow jersey on his shoulders on Thursday as he extended his Tour de France overall lead amid unsavory scenes while sparking fresh questions about the Team Sky leadership. Thomas, who took the yellow jersey when he won Wednesday’s 11th stage, prevailed again in a dramatic 12th at top of the 21-hair-pinned climb, one of the most iconic of the Tour.
On the mountain where disgraced Lance Armstrong won a time trial in yellow in 2004 before being disqualified for doping, Welshman Thomas found himself heavily booed by the crowd at the podium ceremony.
His Team Sky leader, fellow Briton and reigning champion Chris Froome, who finished fourth, was also jeered all the way up the famous ascent. Thomas accelerated in the last stretch to beat Dutchman Tom Dumoulin and France’s Romain Bardet who were second and third, two and three seconds behind respectively. Froome, booed on the run-in, was also three seconds off the pace.
Sky have been hugely unpopular in France after doping allegations have been repeatedly made during Froome’s triumphant rides on the Tour. Froome was cleared of a doping offense after testing positive for excessive levels of an anti-asthmatic drug during last year’s Vuelta.
It has not abated the French public’s anger toward the Briton, who already had urine thrown at him during the 2015 Tour. “Honestly I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say. Not a chance in hell I thought I was going to win today. I just followed Dumoulin and Bardet,” said a dumbfounded Thomas.
He kept his cool as attacks came from Vincenzo Nibali, Bardet and Nairo Quintana, who slipped further down the rankings after being dropped in the second part of the ascent. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk, who was a threat in the general classification, opened up a six-minute lead with an early attack but Sky never panicked and their Colombian prodigy Egan Bernal did an awe-inspiring job on the final ascent to rein in the Lotto-Jumbo NL rider.
“I can be happy for sure now. Maybe I can keep the yellow jersey for the next few days, but this race is so hard. You never know how the body reacts,” added Thomas.
Champion Froome was constantly jeered on the last stretch, a 13.8-km effort on an average gradient of 7.9 percent, with one spectator hitting him on the shoulder.
“Obviously it’s not nice (the boos) but everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we need to be safe. You can boo, be vocal, but don’t affect the race,” said Thomas.
Overall, Thomas now leads Froome by one minute 39 seconds and Dumoulin by 1:50.
Former champion Vincenzo Nibali crashed with about four kilometers left and ended seventh, 13 seconds off the pace.
“There were two police motorbikes and the road became narrow, there were no barriers and Froome attacked, traffic slowed down and I fell. My back hurts. I had trouble breathing and now I don’t feel well standing,” said the Italian.
Thomas, who did not respond to Froome’s initial attack, said on Wednesday the four-time champion remained the team leader, but he appeared to be the strongest rider at l’Alpe d’Huez.
“In my eyes, Froomey is still our leader,” said Thomas.
The sprinters’ field was ravaged after stage winners Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen, as well as Andre Greipel, abandoned exhausted after a demanding opening block of racing in extreme heat.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Chadband