Welsh flags adorned the boundary between British fans and the Sky bus at the stage 16 start in Carcassonne where a healthy crowd gathered to see the increasingly popular maillot jaune.
The 32-year-old has become a white knight within a squad plagued by negative press – from Chris Froome’s closed salbutamol case at the outset of the Tour, to Gianni Moscon’s disqualification for assault and David Brailsford’s sledge on French culture.
Thomas’s currency has grown with every day he’s spent in yellow and somewhat at a cost to teammate and defending champion Froome, who is at risk of being painted as a villain by media and jeering supporters in the Pyrenees.
“We’d love to have everyone love us, but I don’t believe it’s anything we’ve necessarily done or especially me,” Thomas said. “It’s just the way it is. I think you have to ask the public why. Maybe it’s how they’ve perceived how we’re perceived in the French media. That’s maybe a question for some of you guys.”
The otherwise well-mannered and measured Froome has a killer instinct that has delivered he and Sky to four Tour titles and up until now been celebrated. However, there is a developing plotline that now illustrates that instinct as a sword, capable of stabbing Thomas in the back.
For its part, Sky has maintained that Froome is its race leader as the peloton enters the third and final week of the race and there is some physical testament to that. Thomas took the yellow jersey in the Alps where he won two consecutive stages, but also paced Froome on Alpe d’Huez for a short interim.
That being said, the Criterium du Dauphine champion has also given hints of his intention to stay exactly where he is on the general classification. Asked last week if the evening before the second rest day felt like Christmas Eve, Thomas laughed and then countered: “I think Paris will be more like Christmas Eve.”
Froome may be runner-up on the overall standings and popularity contest right now but he also may prove to be the biggest aid to Thomas.
The Kenyan-born Briton has shouldered a lot of the external pressures and glaring spotlight that can disarm even the physically strongest contenders, leading to cracking and crashes that Thomas may consequently be less of risk at now.
“I think when you get to that third week of a Grand Tour it’s hard and it’s a battle. We saw on some of those long climbs it’s easy to have that little voice in your head just telling you how hard it is or go easy for a bit. You need to stay strong. I think it is 50/50 with your legs and head,” said Thomas.
“At the moment I seem to be okay and, like I said from the start, the best thing for me is it’s nice to know that Froomey is second. It takes a bit of the pressure off and every day is a bonus for me.”