Geraint Thomas the willing underdog in Grenadiers’ Tour de France attack squad

“Now we have Roglič, Pogačar, we can’t ride the same, if we pull all day and then it’s just man vs. man it’ll be hard to beat them."

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Every year before the start of the Tour de France, Geraint Thomas gets a haircut from his wife, chopping his unruly locks short so he doesn’t emerge in Paris looking like bigfoot.

12 Tours de France means at least 12 marital haircuts. But this year’s was different. When he posted a mid-chop photo on Twitter, his younger teammate Tom Pidcock replied with a picture of him getting his own pre-Tour haircut ahead of his French Grand Tour debut. One of the more obscure pieces of evidence to prove the unrelenting passage of time.

This year, for the first time in a few years, the Ineos Grenadiers are hosting their pre-race press conference in person, one of the only teams to do so. A multitude of staff mill about the hotel, Rod Ellingworth sits in the garden out the back, talking on the phone before other staff members come along needing his attention. His brow is furrowed in conversation. It’s nearly time to go racing.

Into the conference room arrive Filippo Ganna, Adam Yates, Dani Martinez and Geraint Thomas. The world time trial champion Ganna could prove the team’s best chance of wearing yellow this Tour due to a stage one time trial, and the Slovenian duopoly on the past two years’ yellow jerseys, but don’t rule the British team out just yet.

Thomas, who reminds us he is both a previous winner and runner-up-er, is relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that his coolness forms one of the questions. How is he so calm before a race where he’s recently assumed underdog status thanks to victory at the warm-up Tour de Suisse?

“I’m a lot closer to the end of my career than the start, I just want to enjoy these races now,” Thomas explains. Before the press conference starts he pans his phone over the room. A video to show his family what he’s up to? The first of many recorded mementoes in a dwindling number of Tours still to come?

“Since November these two boys Dani and Adam have been the leaders of the team, that’s still that way. I’m still here and want to help them but I’ll take an opportunity if it comes. I’ll try and enjoy it, it’s hard to say that when you’re bashing each other and swearing at each other at 60km/h.”

At dinner after arriving in Copenhagen, a colleague remarked that with a first week looking so fraught with potential peril, if the often crash-marred Thomas makes it through, it will seem that the universe is almost pointing towards a Thomas tilt at the GC. Is the avoidance of accidents more of a barrier to success than the obstinate refusal of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič to race at a more considerate level?

“So much can go right and go wrong, it’s pure luck, hopefully, we can avoid the bad luck. Hopefully, we can take on the first week,” Thomas answers. The answer to the question of the Slovenians is mostly diverted with the ‘we just have to focus on ourselves’ line, but the Welshman states his belief that the first week suits him better than the other GC guys.

“I think it’s always nice when you hear guys like Brad say things about you for a start,” Thomas continues when asked about Bradley Wiggins’ comments that Thomas is a dark horse for the yellow jersey. “I’ve been feeling good, I think Suisse showed I’m in decent shape. We’ll see how it goes here. The main thing is we ride well together, we ride aggressively together, we ride off each other well and hopefully we keep doing that. For me personally, hopefully in the crunch moments I’ll be there for us. Obviously, there are a lot of [other GC] guys. I think someone like Vlasov [Bora-Hansgrohe] is a big underdog, so to speak. Everyone is talking about the Slovenians and Jumbo…I think firstly we have the riders to ride well.”

In that they do. It’s easy to get swept up in a resurgent Geraint Thomas, a former unexpected winner and a likeable one at that, two key components to becoming a beloved Tour de France character. And all the focus on Thomas could help his teammates Dani Martínez and Adam Yates.

No one rider looks likely to beat an on-form Pogačar, so the supposed secret sauce for both Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers is to attack with numbers. Yates gave the young Slovenian a good battle when they went toe-to-toe at the UAE Tour earlier this year, but the Brit freely admits that the Middle Eastern race and this one are completely different beasts, and Yates hopes he’s turned up largely unaffected by his recent bout of Covid-19.

It was noticed in the build-up to the Tour that Pogačar, Roglič and Ineos had avoided each other. With Thomas in candid mood: does it help that if the Slovenians are a level above once again, they didn’t have to go through that indignation in the warm-up before the main event?

“If we all did the same race and we were 10 minutes down we’d be sat here thinking a bit differently,” Thomas admits, before a defiance kicks in. “[But] we haven’t, we’ll soon found out.

“You’ve got the first week here, then you’ve got the Super Planche des Belles Filles but until we get to the proper Alps, then we’ll know roughly where everyone is. We’ll know where we all stand.”

Thomas admittedly ‘cops out’ of the question as to what a successful Tour would look like for the team, saying if they follow ‘the process’ and race well together as a team then that’s all they can do.

With the pandemic once again hanging over the race, maybe that’s all you can hope for. But this underdog status of the sport’s richest team could help them. By not having the pre-eminent GC racer in the bunch, the team have had to adapt, recruiting youth prospects and improving their Classics squad to secure victories such as Paris-Roubaix in lieu of Tour de France dominance.

The feared Sky/Ineos train is slowly being decommissioned. A fumbled outing at this year’s Giro d’Italia made it look more rail replacement bus service than Japanese bullet train as Bora-Hansgrohe’s Jai Hindley hung on and struck a knockout blow at the moment it mattered most.

That will be a reminder that the attacking racing that won them the 2020 Giro and the 2022 Paris-Roubaix is their best hope of being in the fight these next three weeks.  

“I think the main difference is we don’t have the main favourite of the race,” Thomas offers up. “Brad, Froomey, myself, Egan, we’ve always had one of the main favourites going into the start.”

“Now, as we all know, we have Roglič, Pogačar, we can’t ride the same, if we pull all day and then it’s just man vs. man it’ll be hard to beat them. We have a strong team, we have numbers and hopefully we can use them in the right moment. That’s a big change.

“We’re looking to get stuck in.”

Who’d have thought, after the 2010s, we’d be looking to the British squad to break the latest Tour de France hegemony.

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