Geraint Thomas isn’t very good at pulling off a poker face, of pretending that he isn’t bothered about people doubting his ability. “I say it doesn’t motivate me, but deep down it does,” he says with a grin. “It’s nice to turn it around from last year and get on the podium.”
The Welshman is about to finish third at the Tour de France, becoming just the ninth person in the sport’s history to finish on all three steps of the race’s podium.
It was a result that few thought possible, including the man himself. “My wife [Sara] is the one person who has believed in me more than myself sometimes,” the Welshman, cutting a relaxed figure, says. “She actually texted me earlier saying ‘I told you you’d be on the podium in November’ and I did laugh at it then.”
In fairness, he had good reason to. Since finishing second at the 2019 Tour as a defending champion, Thomas had struggled to match his previous heights, a win at the 2021 Tour de Romandie and a third at that year’s Critérium du Dauphiné seen in the eyes of commentators and spectators as solid results, but nothing that elevated him into a major favourite.
His Ineos Grenadiers team took the same assessment, too, its deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth declaring publicly in March that Thomas’ place at this year’s Tour was not guaranteed and if he was to be selected he’d have to accept a role as a super-domestique to Adam Yates and Dani Martínez.
Thomas took objection, responding - and with an intonation that was striking - back in April at the Tour of the Basque Country that “when I won the Tour I wasn’t team leader”.
A few months on, he’s made a mockery of those who didn’t believe him. “It’s just the type of character I am,” he says. “I don’t just give up just because someone doesn’t believe I can’t do something. Deep down I knew I could still be good.
“I always believed I could. The end of last year was really hard mentally for a number of reasons. When I started [racing] again it was steady, which is normal. I was confident if I kept working hard I could be in the mix. I always believed that I could be there or thereabouts.”
A new coach, a new racing schedule and changes to his training and diet brought about steady progression in the build-up to this year’s Tour, culminating in Thomas winning June’s Tour de Suisse.
Their lead sports director, Steve Cummings, admitted that it changed the team’s strategy, telling Cycling Weekly that the initial plan was to have two leaders, not three. A stubborn Thomas had forced his way into contention.
“With regards to the team, It’s more of a question for them,” Thomas says. “I think they saw me more as a Sepp Kuss [Jumbo-Visma rider], a domestique in the mountains. That’s the impression I got. That changed slightly after Suisse.
“I just wanted to come here in the best shape I could, whether that meant being like Sepp, and doing super rides in the mountains, or if it’s like now and I’m on the podium.
“Mentally, I wanted to give myself that best chance and I’m over the moon. I’m just super, super happy to be on the podium.”
Thomas, who at 36 is the second oldest to finish on the podium in the last decade, most probably will never finish in the top-three again. Although dismissive of suggestions that age ought to hold athletes back - “everyone goes on about age a lot, saying 36 is old and stuff, but I don’t feel that affects me at all,” he states - he’s not naive to the fact that there are other riders wanting, and deserving, of their own opportunities.
Is this a wrap on his Tour story? He pauses for a moment, assessing his thoughts. “I don’t know know," he muses. Another pause. “I’ve got a contract until the end of next year. I might stop. I might do one more [Tour].
“I’m still enjoying racing, I’m still enjoying this race, the biggest race in the world and it’s unbelievable to be part of. It’s what I love to do. At the same time, I don’t know.
“This year I’ve had a different programme in the run up. I did Flèche and Basque for the first time and it gave me a new lease of life, it kept the body guessing. Never say never, we’ll see.”
Thomas will roll into Paris 8-13 behind winner Jonas Vingegaard, the largest time gap between first and third since 2002, with the sole exception of Thibaut Pinot who finished 8-15 behind Vincenzo Nibali in 2014.
The difference, though stark and a reflection of the widening gap between the very best and the rest, can be attributed to the generational talents of Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar.
“Those two are just unbelievable,” he acknowledges, before discussing how Ineos can compete with Vingegaard and Pogačar. “In the short term, who do you sign? Those two are stand-out guys at the moment. If we have three really good guys, maybe, but Jumbo are really strong.
“UAE, you’d say they are weak, but Ice Berg [Mikkel Bjerg] and Brandon [McNulty] the other day, what can you do? You’re going to have a challenge, but that’s what gets you out of bed. I’ll do everything I can to help, whether I do one or two more years.”
How long the Thomas story will go on is as unclear to him as it is anyone else. Yet it is noticeable how happy the two-time Olympic track champion is these days.
There were times, in this writer’s opinion at least, when Thomas was grumpy - the 2021 Volta a Catalunya when he finished second a specific memory. He wasn’t his usual jovial self: the quick wit was replaced by terse responses, depicting a man who no longer believed (or wanted to?) that he could repeat his performances from just a few years before.
Now, he’s cheerful again; he’s enjoying the act of riding a bike for a living. “I still love it as much as the start; it’s just a great sport,” he smiles. “I love riding my bike, pushing my body and training hard. That’s all I know. The passion is still there; I still absolutely love it. I don’t know how long it’s going on for, but I definitely still love it.”
He’s often felt like a relative of Bradley Wiggins, the pair both exhibiting the same sort of humour. Wiggins, infamously, enjoyed a party, and Thomas has spoken before about his prolonged celebration after winning yellow four years ago.
He’ll afford himself multiple beers in Paris this time around because he views third place against the current top-two as a major achievement, but he’s got an eye on what’s next. The clock’s ticking, and he doesn’t want to waste the twilight of what has been one of the most complete careers of any rider this century.
“I will, but I’ll try not to celebrate as much as I have in the past, because I want to keep racing until October,” he continues, listing races such as the Commonwealth Games and one-day races in Canada. “When you can see the end of your career coming, I want to make the most of it. Celebrating, it’s different now. I’ve got a two-year-old at home. We will celebrate, but not as hard as I used to.”
He’s proven that his advancing years haven’t diminished his racing prowess, but as he signs off from his 12th Tour with a spring in his step, he concedes that being just a few years shy of 40 does have one negative. “That’s the one thing that gets worse with age,” he tees himself up. “Hangovers.”
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