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Thomas pays tribute to defending champ

ESPELETTE, France (AFP) – Geraint Thomas paid tribute to defending champion and teammate Chris Froome as he struggled with the ‘‘insane’’ reality that he is set to become the first Welsh winner of the Tour de France.

‘‘It’s incredible just to be sat here with this jersey, it’s insane,’’ Thomas said in disbelief after he finished third, at 14secs, behind Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin in the race’s penultimate stage time trial on Saturday.

‘‘A big thanks to Froomey as well, because he committed to me and was really happy to see me do well.

‘‘We’re great friends, and I had probably the best stage rider, ever, riding for me. It’s so surreal. It’s going to take a while to sink in.’’

Thomas leads Sunweb team leader Dumoulin by 1min 51secs ahead of Sunday’s final stage, when the peloton rides from Houilles to Paris in festive spirit before the sprinters take over for a battle on the Champs Elysees.

Froome, who was only one second behind Dumoulin, remains third at 2:24 and is virtually assured a podium place on Sunday.

For the outgoing champion, whose build-up to the Tour was marred by an anti-doping investigation that only cleared him days before the start, there was no bitterness.

‘‘None at all,’’ said Froome when asked if he had wished that his campaign turned out differently.

‘‘Not only have I been a teammate of G (Geraint) over the last ten years, but also a friend.

‘‘We spend a lot of time together, we train a lot together and I’ve seen how he’s developed over the years.

‘‘He’s been a massive part of my Tour de France victories over the years.

‘‘To see him come here now, in the shape that he was, this year on the Tour de France it was clear to me that if he was going to be on the podium, he was going to be on the top step.

‘‘It makes me really proud and I’m glad to be a part of that. Standing on the podium with him tomorrow, on the Champs Elysees, hopefully, is a dream scenario for us.’’

Thomas started the 105th edition of the race expected to provide support as Froome sought a record-equalling fifth Tour de France that would have allowed him to join previous greats like Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

But losing time over the opening nine stages meant Froome was on the back foot.