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Team Sky’s image problem undermines Thomas’ Tour de France story

Team Sky are nearing their sixth Tour de France win in the last seven years and their fourth successive Grand Tour title.

With three stages left of cyclings biggest and most prestigious race, Geraint Thomas sits one minute and 59 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Tom Dumoulin.

Tomorrow's stage is the final one in the mountains before Saturdays time trial and a procession into Paris on Sunday. Barring any major incidents or upsets, another Tour de France is in the bag for Sky.

The team are days away from the momentous fruition of months of hard work. Thomas is edging closer to his own personal triumph – a first Grand Tour title after a career of hard slog in the saddle.

Read more: Tour de France: Chris Froome faces his toughest challenge

And yet the feelings you would normally associate with a major sporting achievement are dulled. Rather than celebrating Thomas efforts and hailing the man to break Chris Froomes run of three successive victories, some cycling fans will be bemoaning Skys stranglehold on the competition.

Controversies surrounding former rider Bradley Wiggins, a jiffy bag of unknown contents, Froomes eventually dropped salbutamol case and the regularity with which team principle Dave Brailsford has been forced to provide explanations in the media have all left their mark on the collective memory.

Come Sunday, Team Sky may well become champions once again, but they will not be the peoples champions.

But why? Shouldnt the story of Thomas, a 32-year-old double Olympic gold medalist from Cardiff, producing an almighty effort to overthrow reigning champion and team mate Froome be a positive one?

For some that is the case, but had he been riding for a different team that might well have been the story across the board.

Instead, before he has even rolled up the Champs-Elysees and crossed the finishing line in Paris, to some Thomas is tarnished by association.

Geraint Thomas has received a mixed reception from fans at the Tour de France (Source: Getty)

He has been booed on the podium by French fans while wearing the famous yellow jersey, been on the receiving end of abuse and been grabbed at while sprinting towards the finish.

One man well placed to explain the ingrained hatred for Team Sky in France is Wiggins. For the 2012 Tour winner, Thomas winning instead of Froome wont make any difference as long as hes still returning to Skys high-tech team bus after races.

“I still dont think that will be good enough for some of them [French fans], because its still Team Sky and its still the Death Star,” Wiggins said on his Eurosport video podcast earlier this week. “If they create this air that Team Skys dominance is bad for the Tour then it becomes that.”

Simon Richardson, editor of Cycling Weekly magazine, thinks the problem is deep set in the sports recent history and that in a way Sky are a victim of their environment.

“It being another Team Sky rider means a lot of the ill feeling has transferred over to Thomas,” he tells City A.M. “Its a real shame because hes a down to earth person whos very approachable.

“But the issue is the image of Team Sky, more than the individual, and a lot of that is down to the legacy of Lance Armstrongs team. One team dominating, riding on the front of the Tour every week and squashing the opposition – fans didnt like it at the time and now Sky have come along and done the same thing, albeit in the right way, but essentially using the same tactic, and the French public are probably thinking here we go again.

“Thats Armstongs legacy sadly – anyone who mimics that approach will be tarred with the same brush unfairly.”

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Dave Brailsford has often fanned flames when speaking to the media (Source: Getty)

As Richardson also points out though, Sky havent always helped themselves. Along with the perennial looming spectre of doping allegations – which they have always strenuously denied – their image is derived from other factors.

Brailsford has fostered a siege mentality, while simultaneously coming out on the offensive this Tour, claiming spitting was a French “cultural thing” – for which he has since apologised – and taking aim at the organisers for not providing enough protection for the riders.

David Lappartient, president of cyclings governing body, rebuked him for insulting supporters and “fuelling the fire”, which is something Team Sky rider Gianni Moscon certainly did when he lashed out at French competitor Elie Gesbert on Sunday.

Moscon, who has previously admitted to racially abusing another professional, was kicked off the Tour. He is of course an exception, but it doesnt help any public relations work Sky undertake.

ITV4 presenter Ned Boulting, who is covering his 16th consecutive Tour, believes Brailsfords Sky have tunnel vision and are ultimately not worried provided they are still winning.

“Internationally I think their reputation has probably sunk beneath the water line,” he told City A.M. before the Tour began.

“But I dont think Brailsford is too concerned. Its very different from how Sky started off when they wanted to be loved and popular, shiny and new. Its much more calculated operation.”

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Chris Froome is two minutes and 31 seconds behind Geraint Thomas in third place (Source: Getty)

That chimes with the words of former Sky team doctor, Richard Freeman, who wrote in his book The Line: Where medicine and sport collide that Brailsford is a man with “a clear sense of mission” and described Sky as “as much as worldwide logistics company as a bike team”.

So even if they wanted to, could Sky change their image? Its beyond the point of return, according to Richardson.

“Theres too much water under the bridge now for the slate to ever be wiped clean, which is a real shame,” he says. “You might have thought once Froome stops winning that it might change, but the booing and the spitting have continued.”

There is one move which could help rebuild their image. Brailsford has largely weathered the storm, but his association with negative stories has become inextricable.

“If the team ever does want to move on its going to be very difficult with him in charge,” explains Richardson. “Its a drastic thing to say as its been proven theyve not done anything wrong, but the baggage is attached to the team via him.”

With little thought given to those outside of their bubble and with another Tour to celebrate, its unlikely that will be on Brailsfords mind this weekend.

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