Double difficulty: Can Geraint Thomas buck the trend to win back to back Tours?

Only 11 riders have defended their maiden Tour de France victory. Can Geraint Thomas buck the trend and win again? Pete Cossins investigates just why it's so hard to do the double the first time around.

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Read the full feature in the July 11 issue of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25

Given the influence of innumerable factors on sporting outcomes, statistics can say a lot and nothing at the same time. Take the fact, for instance, that no first-time winner of the Tour de France has managed to defend the title since Miguel Indurain claimed his second consecutive success in 1992. Over the subsequent period, doping suspensions, illness, crashes, and, in the case of Alberto Contador’s Astana in 2008, non-selection for the race have meant that not a single yellow jersey champion has repeated Indurain’s feat.

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Does this mean that the odds are, consequently, stacked against Geraint Thomas retaining the Tour crown? While the simple answer is no, it does appear that defending the Tour title is a different challenge to winning it in the first place, and in some ways even more complicated.

As former head of British Cycling’s hugely successful Olympic track programme and the manager of three different Tour de France champions, Sir Dave Brailsford is particularly aware of how athletes can be affected.

“If you’ve worked all of your life to achieve something, when you achieve it there is a period when you have to adjust to it, and that adjustment period is right at the time when you’re trying to create the basis of your next season,” he explains.

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“I guess there’s a question of how much the tail end of that adjustment period has on the start of your preparation for the following season. I think that’s where the answer lies to the question of why it’s so difficult to defend the Tour title after you win it for the first time.”

As Thomas and many other champions have acknowledged, post-Tour commitments are the principal cause of distraction. Initially, they fly by in a wave of post-victory euphoria, but fulfilling commitments to team and personal sponsors, as well as Tour organiser ASO, they soon begin to eat into time that would normally be set aside for racing and training. “There are huge social pressures you have to deal with as a result of winning,” says CCC team manager Jim Ochowicz, who oversaw Cadel Evans’s victory in 2011.

“As the Tour de France winner, you have to expose yourself much more to your sponsor, to other business entities. You get pulled in a lot of different directions.”

The 1997 victor Jan Ullrich is the stand-out example of a winner who let himself go when dealing with these pressures, piling on weight that he struggled to shed prior to his defence of the title the following summer. While Thomas didn’t gain anything like as much excess timber as the German who was hyped as the Tour’s new Eddy Merckx but never lifted another Tour crown, he was notably heavier when he rode the Tour of Britain last September and when he raced ASO’s criteriums at Saitama and Shanghai in the Far East in October.

As team-mate and close friend Luke Rowe confirms when speaking to Cycling Weekly on the eve of this year’s Grand Départ in Brussels, “It’s no secret that after the Tour we had some good times, we relaxed and cycling almost took a back seat for a while.” In typical fashion, Thomas has laughed off his weight gain, joking at Tirreno-Adriatico, “I was fat. But I enjoyed myself.”

Read the full feature in the July 11 issue of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25