Geraint Thomas appeared in front of the press a serene figure before the start of the 2021 Tour de France.
Since winning the 2018 yellow jersey, he has had to balance the satisfaction of reaching the peak of his profession while also harbouring the hunger for more victories that defines most successful bike racers.
"I guess, after winning the Tour, quite a bit changed but then also not much," Thomas said, sitting in the Ineos Grenadiers bus. "There was a big six months after that. Obviously, last year was a big disappointment for me, missing the Tour and then concentrating on the Giro and crashing out of that after three days."
The Welshman says he doesn't regret that half a year spent drinking in all the spoils the yellow jersey brings, but while he and team-mate Egan Bernal, who won the following year in 2019, failed to mount successful defences of their titles, he believes the coronavirus pandemic has aided Tadej Pogačar in that endeavour, and the Slovenian stands a better chance of pulling it off.
"With the whole pandemic, he didn't have as much of a fuss around him as what he would have had. In 2018 from when the Tour finished to January, I was sort of here there and everywhere. I don't regret it, I made the most of it. It's not every day you're winning the Tour, but then it did take me a longer period to actually get back into good shape," Thomas explained. "I managed to do it and to come second in 2019 I still was very proud of that, especially because I felt I was in a condition to win and it was only a team-mate that beat me.
"Egan had a similar thing [to me] in 2019. I think with Pogačar last year it's definitely been different. You know, he hasn't been sort of going here, there and everywhere. I'm sure it's been busier than normal but it's definitely different."
That's not the only thing that's different. Geraint Thomas is now in the final year of the contract he signed after his Tour victory three years ago, saying he was happy to be a part of "one big happy family". In February, Brailsford said renegotiations were underway and he hopes to keep Thomas with the team until the end of his career, whenever that may be.
Five months later and nothing has been agreed yet. Thomas has left that matter to his agent while he focuses on first the Tour and then the Tokyo Olympics.
"No news really," the Welshman said of his contract situation. "I've kind of left that to my agent to deal with.
"I've just been concentrating on trying to get in the best shape possible for this race and try and perform here. It'd be nice to get it done. But at the same time, it's nothing that I'm worried about or thinking about really, it's just all about this [racing]. Once this and the Olympics are over then maybe try and get that sorted."
While each of the four potential leaders of the Ineos team provided their own unique answer to the question of who the true leader of the squad is this Tour, Thomas' deadpan response belied the fact that the talent Ineos possesses naturally results in a potentially fracturous state of affairs regarding the pecking order, a multitude of race scenarios and subsequent protected riders possible.
"I think for us, the main thing is the communication, that's been good all year. As long as we continue that I think we can be in a very strong position," Thomas says, which is true, they've already won four WorldTour stage races and a Grand Tour this season.
'Communication' basically means avoiding any whiff of a situation even close to being similar to when Chris Froome attacked Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 Tour, when Sky also had two riders capable of winning the yellow jersey. In 2018, any repeat was avoided, Froome already had a belly-full of Grand Tour victories and graciously cheering Thomas on to victory.
In 2021, however, a new set of characters are on stage for the British team, and for returning cast member Richie Porte, he thinks Thomas did enough to warrant being the outright leader, rather than having to share it with 2019 Giro winner Richard Carapaz.
"Even though G has won the Tour before, Froomey was the big leader in the team and it’s probably not quite the same for G this year, even though hopefully he shows his pedigree and is a past winner so he deserves to be."
Thomas believes the strategy of taking multiple winners has its positives and negatives. If Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar are as strong as they were last year, flinging a Grand Tour winner up the road could be the only way to prise the yellow jersey out of Slovenian hands.
"It gives us cards to play later on in the race but at the same time we can't get carried away and try to protect four riders because that would just be impossible, it would take too much out of the other four in that first week," Thomas argues.
"But in this first week that certainly won't be the case anyway. Something will happen to somebody, as it always does. The communication is the main thing between us all. And I think the good thing as well is there are no egos in the team. That's why we've been able to perform as we have all season so far.
"It’s my most consistent form," he added, of whether these are the best legs he's had since he won the Tour. "I think I was in pretty good shape in 2019, I was also in great shape at the Giro last year but I didn’t get to show that."
With the likes of Tom Pidcock, Richard Carapaz and a resurgent Egan Bernal snapping at the heels of the generation that came before them at Ineos, Thomas' future, whatever that is, could be decided on what he does show on the roads of France over the next few weeks.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1