Richard Moore: Geraint Thomas’ stealthy rise to the top

Britain's Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey. Pic: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
Britain's Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey. Pic: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
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A scene in Time Trial, the recently released film, shows David Millar riding alongside Geraint Thomas during an early season stage race in Italy in 2014. Millar, in his final year, is offloading to Thomas, complaining about the way younger riders race, the lack of respect, the distance, the cold, the sheer pointlessness of, as he put it in another scene, “200 idiots racing each other to a line in the road”.

Thomas turns occasionally to nod but doesn’t say anything before gently pushing on the pedals and silently moving up the line. The scene said as much about Thomas as about Millar who, by this stage of his career, appeared to be in the grips of an existential crisis. It is not a condition you could imagine afflicting Thomas, whose easy going personality has perhaps been both a help and a hindrance.

“Geraint’s biggest asset,” said Nigel Mitchell, the former Team Sky nutritionist now working for another team, “is that he does exactly what they tell him.”

This, too, has held him back. Mitchell also said this week that in countless races over the years Thomas’s power files revealed that he worked harder than anyone else in the team, but always in the service of somebody else, usually Chris Froome at the Tour de France.

Two events conspired to change things for Thomas this year. One was Froome’s salbutamol case from last year’s Vuelta. Although he was cleared on the eve of the Tour, the uncertainty over whether Froome would be able to defend his title meant that Thomas prepared all year for the possibility of starting as team leader. He did three altitude training camps in Tenerife, each of two weeks, and built his season around the Tour.

Then, on day one in the Vendée, Froome crashed and lost almost a minute. Thomas added a few more seconds over the next few days, nabbing bonus sprints when he could. Officially the hierarchy hadn’t changed but perhaps in the back of his mind Thomas knew that, as long as he was in front of Froome, and especially if he could manoeuvre himself into the yellow jersey, his team would have to back him as long as he didn’t crack.

Still, it is fair to say that, when the Tour started three weeks ago, very few people imagined Thomas as a potential winner. When Sky described him on the eve of the race as a “protected” rider, in a line-up built to help Froome, pictured, win a fifth title, it looked a nice gesture rather than a meaningful one.

In practical terms, what it meant was that, in the first week, Thomas could hide. Whereas in previous years he has done the work of a domestique, here, for the first time at the Tour, he was spared these duties. Alone among the overall contenders, Thomas did not crash, puncture or have any other mechanical problem in the first week.

It was difficult to imagine his good fortune lasting into the mountains. Thomas’ career has been dogged by bad luck and crashes. It spawned a nickname: the Welsh Crash Magnet.

In 2015 it looked like he might be about to show that he could perform over three weeks. He survived a spectacular crash on an Alpine descent to sit fourth overall with two mountain stages left. But on the final Friday, 48 hours from Paris, he woke with an upset stomach. He struggled as soon as the road went uphill but when he was dropped he sat up, sacrificing his chances of hanging on to finish in the top ten so that he might be able to help Froome the next day.

Thomas’s performance this year has taken everyone by surprise while, curiously, not being entirely surprising.

Foreign journalists have been scurrying around asking for tantalising details about him, but few have been forthcoming. His rise has been so gradual and stealthy that we almost stopped noticing him.

He rode the Tour for the first time in 2007, aged 21, the youngest rider in the race. That might have been a big story. But it wasn’t, because Thomas just got on with it. He said later that it was a daily struggle to survive, but you would not have known that at the time. The only thing he does to extremes is understatement.

Six years and two Olympic team pursuit gold medals later, with Thomas vowing to dedicate himself to road racing, he crashed on the first day of the Tour and broke a bone in his pelvis. It was an injury he had suffered before, at an Italian stage race in 2010, when he also injured his hand. Several days later Mitchell asked whether his swollen hand was sore. “I guess so,” said Thomas. A scan revealed that it was fractured, too.

In 2013, when he carried on with the broken bone in his pelvis, the big test was the team time trial on day three. Thomas had to be helped on to his bike and it wasn’t clear whether he’d be able to finish in the time limit. He did, even contributing to the effort, and he went on to finish the Tour. Mitchell says he is the toughest rider he has ever worked with.

That 2015 Tour, where he eventually finished 15th, offered a glimpse of a talent for three-week Grand Tours, but time seemed to be running out. He struggled to find the same form in 2016, reverting to the role of domestique as Froome won his third Tour, though he did finish 15th again. He went from there to the Olympic road race and was looking strong, chasing down the leaders, when he crashed heavily.

Last year was supposed to be the year. For the first time Thomas led his team into a Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. But at the end of the first week the rider in front of him, Wilco Kelderman, collided with a police motorbike. Thomas’ injuries forced him out a few days later but he recovered for the Tour, where he won the opening time trial, took the yellow jersey – only to crash again on the first day in the Alps, suffering a broken collarbone.

It is almost as though consolation for all that misfortune has been delivered to Thomas in one go. Winning the Tour, as he will do in Paris on Sunday, would for most people be a life-changing event. It is difficult to imagine that it will change Thomas.