NIMES, France — Crashing is becoming a bad habit for Geraint Thomas of Wales, the defending Tour de France champion.
After hitting the ground twice over the past two weeks, he fell off his bike again on Tuesday as a heat wave engulfed the race ahead of grueling days in the Alps when the Tour will reach its climax.
Thomas was lucky enough to escape with only bruises and scratches, but the timing of his crash, in the rural hinterland of the antique Roman city Nimes, was unfortunate. Although he quickly got back on his bike and did not lose time, crashes always have a lingering effect on riders’ bodies. It’s generally after 48 hours that the soreness reaches its peak, and that’s when he will be fighting in high altitude with rivals trying to take him off his perch.
Lagging 1 minute 35 seconds behind the race’s overall leader, Julian Alaphilippe, with the race now entering its final five stages, Thomas was caught off guard under a scorching sun about 40 kilometers, or about 25 miles, into a stage won by the Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan.
The peloton was not riding at full speed, but Thomas was surprised.
“I just had one hand on the bars, and the gears jumped and jammed and I got thrown off my bike on a corner,” he said. “I knew the race wasn’t on so I just got back into the group. It’s just frustrating. It was such a freak thing.”
Jakob Fuglsang, a Danish rider who stood ninth overall, was not as lucky. He was forced to abandon the Tour with a left hand injury after falling late in the stage as the peloton pedaled past the picturesque town of Uzès.
Thomas, a former track specialist who transformed into a Tour de France contender after years spent working in support of the four-time champion Chris Froome, has always been prone to crashing. Just last month, his preparation for the Tour was cut short by a spill in a race in Switzerland.
But he has also shown in the past that he can soldier on in pain. Six years ago while riding the Tour as Froome’s loyal teammate, Thomas fell off his bike on a Corsican road in the opening stage and broke his pelvis. But he kept racing for about 3,000 kilometers, or about 1,865 miles, to reach the finish.
He will need to be at the top of his form on Thursday for the start of an Alpine trilogy of stages including six climbs over 2,000 meters. This is when the race — the most exciting in the last decade — will be decided before Sunday’s ceremonial ride to Paris.
Sixteen stages of 21 have been completed, but the suspense remains intact, with six riders separated by little more than two minutes. Behind Alaphilippe and Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk remained third, 1:47 off the pace and three seconds ahead of Thibaut Pinot. Thomas’s Ineos teammate Egan Bernal lags 2:02 behind, and Emanuel Buchmann has a 2:14 deficit.
Bernal, a Colombian and one of the best pure climbers in the Tour, played down Thomas’s crash and said the race in the Alps would suit him more than the Pyrenees, where both Ineos leaders conceded time to Pinot.
“He crashed but with no consequence, and I don’t think he’ll suffer from it in the coming days,” Bernal said. “We’re approaching the Alps. The climbs there are longer and steeper. They’re more of the Colombian style of climbing. I’m ready and I feel good.”
Ewan said he suffered from the heat throughout the stage — temperatures soared as high as 40 degrees Celsius, or about 104 degrees Fahrenheit — but it did not slow him down in the finale. A Tour rookie, he edged Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen to post his second stage win after his maiden success in Toulouse last week.
Earlier, riders tried to cool down with bottles of cold water against the backs of their necks as they pedaled on the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge set against a dramatic landscape of rocks, trees and water. Alexis Gougeard, Lukasz Wisniowski, Stéphane Rossetto, Paul Ourselin and Lars Bak organized the day’s breakaway and had a maximum lead of two minutes.
After the group was caught two kilometers from the finish, Viviani was set up by his teammates and launched the sprint about 200 meters from the line but could not resist Ewan’s comeback.
“To be honest, I felt so bad today during the day,” Ewan said. “I think the heat really got to me. I was really suffering, but I had extra motivation today because my daughter and wife are here. I’m so happy I could win for them.”