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The fact that Geraint Thomas is fourth favourite with the bookies to win the 109th Tour de France, which begins in Copenhagen on Friday - behind only Slovenians Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, and last year’s runner-up Jonas Vingegaard - is, frankly, pretty extraordinary when you consider where the Welshman was six months ago.
Crashes at last year’s Tour de France and then, in quick succession, the Tokyo Olympics, derailed Thomas’ 2021 season. Heading into the winter, the 36 year-old was struggling both mentally and physically. Negotiations with Ineos Grenadiers over a new contract were dragging, his shoulder needed surgery. And then he got Covid at Christmas.
“It was definitely the hardest time of my career looking back,” says Thomas, speaking from his hotel room after his final pre-Tour training ride on Thursday.
“It was just one thing after the other. Obviously the summer was hard. I committed so much to last year’s Tour, spent so much time away from Sa and Macs [wife Sara and two year-old son]. In an 11-week period I only saw them for four days. So to crash like that so early in the Tour, due to a silly lapse in concentration, was devastating. Then the Olympics… bam. Taken out. I remember lying on the road and just thinking ‘Why me? What did I do in a previous life to deserve this?’”
A painful summer was followed by an uncertain autumn, with Ineos dragging their heels over a new deal. Although he has no issues with the team now, he is honest enough to admit his pride was hurt. “The whole palaver with the contract was a pain in the arse if I’m honest,” he admits. “We didn’t actually sign until December. And even then there were a few things wrong with it. I just thought ‘This is so easy. Why are we making this so difficult?’”
Did he suspect that, at 35 going on 36, they had maybe lost a bit of faith in him and what he could do? “Yes to be honest. A lot was made of my age. I just wanted to be judged on me, and what I can offer, rather than my date of birth. Am I still committed? Am I training hard? Eating well? Making the necessary sacrifices? It was frustrating..”
"There were other personal things, which I don’t want to get into,” he says. “But yes, definitely the worst time of my career.”
How satisfying then to find himself, six months on, back at the biggest bike race on earth, the scene of his greatest triumph, that thrilling, unexpected win in 2018, not only part of the Ineos squad, but one of its three protected leaders. Such a scenario did not seem likely six weeks ago, let alone six months ago.
Ineos’s Tour squad, from early this year, was built around Adam Yates and Colombian Dani Martinez, Ineos’ two other protected riders here. Thomas’s role, if he could get himself in shape, was expected to be as super domestique. But as the season wore on, Thomas rediscovered his mojo. “I’ve had a different role in the team and I’ve really enjoyed it," he admits. "Small stuff. I rode Coppi e Bartali for the first time. Fleche-Wallone for the first time. Training and competing with the younger guys like Tom [Pidcock] and Ethan [Hayter] and Ben [Tulett]... their enthusiasm rubs off on you.
“I definitely feel like one of the elder statesmen now. Sometimes I look around the team and I’m like ‘Jeez’, I was speaking to Pidcock the other day and I said something about Simon Spilak beating me at [Tour de] Suisse in 2015 and he had never even heard of Spilak!”
No one beat Thomas in Switzerland this year. Who knows whether the Welshman would have won had half the field, including his own team-mate Yates, not pulled out with Covid. But regardless, it gave him the platform to showcase his form. And he grabbed it.
Now Thomas is here in Copenhagen, and he cannot wait to get going. Pogacar, he admits, is the huge pre-race favourite. “On another level, just incredible”. And Jumbo-Visma’s Roglic and Vingegaard will also present stiff challenges. Ineos are not the force they were.
But as Thomas knows only too well, there are many potential pitfalls, particularly in a first week that features 13.2km of individual time trial on Friday in what are expected to be wet, slippery conditions; potential crosswinds on Saturday; not to mention the infamous Roubaix cobblestones next Wednesday. “One mistake and you can be out the race, or caught the wrong side of a split,” he says. “It’s all about getting through this first week in the best shape possible.”
So how will he tackle the opening TT then? Gingerly? “Full gas,” he says. “I’ve done some good TTs down the years. 2017 obviously [he won the opening prologue in Dusseldorf, taking yellow], 2018 I came third. I lost 11 secs to Froomey coming down the hill because I was so cautious. I’d love to win, although a number of people can say the same. We all have to beat my team mate Filippo Ganna [the world champion]. I’m just excited to get going.”