Almost like during the halcyon days of Team Sky, the Ineos Grenadiers appear to be, arguably, the strongest team during the 2023 Giro d’Italia. They will restart the race after the first rest day with three riders in the top-10 on the general classification, Pavel Sivakov in 10th place, then Tao Geoghegan Hart in third place, and Geraint Thomas leading the race. It’s the sort of performance that many doubted if we would ever see again from the British team after a few years of struggling to maintain their presence in the Grand Tours.
Just like those golden days during the 2012 Tour de France, when Bradley Wiggins took a historic win with his teammate Chris Froome in second place, Ineos Grenadiers, once again, have found themselves in a position with two closely matched leaders at this year’s Giro d’Italia. The hope will be that Thomas and Geoghegan Hart manage themselves slightly better than their predecessors did, but the question still lingers over which of them will be given the support to go for victory.
What makes the scenario with Ineos even more interesting is that very few people, including the riders themselves, expected the race to pan out like this. The sudden departure of Remco Evenepoel after he tested positive with Covid-19 has flung the team into the spotlight, forcing the Grenadiers to approach the race very differently. They are now fighting to defend pink, rather than looking for ways to catch riders like Evenepoel out.
“I was shocked, obviously,” Thomas said in a press conference during his rest day about Evenepoel leaving the race. “He messaged me just before the announcement. At first I thought he was winding me up. It's a huge disappointment for the race and, this might sound weird, but even for myself, I was looking forward to a real good GC battle. Leading the race is a massive honour but at the same time, it's not really the way you want to take the jersey.”
Regardless of Thomas’s reservations about having the jersey fall onto his shoulders without battling Evenepoel for it mano a mano, the reality is that he now must think about how he is going to keep it until Rome. A Grand Tour win in the twilight of the Welshman’s career would be an impressive and incredible feat.
“It would be amazing [to win],” Thomas said. “After 2020 I thought that would be it for my chances to win the Giro. But whatever happens, happens. I’ve got my palmarès and I'd absolutely love to add it to them, without a doubt, but I just want to enjoy this race and see where we can go. In stage 18 it will be my birthday, I will be 37, so we will see what happens.”
Beating his rivals like Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) when the race hits the mountains in the next few days is one thing, but Thomas is also going to have to shoulder the pressure of his younger teammate –and former Giro winner – hot on his heels. Geoghegan Hart sits just five seconds behind Thomas currently in the general classification and finished less than one second behind him on stage nine’s time trial. The two couldn't be more closely matched. Unlike Thomas, who has had a more turbulent lead into this year’s Giro, Geoghegan Hart has already had a win so far this season at the Tour of the Alps, and he took third place at Tirreno-Adriatico a few weeks before.
“With myself and Tao we’re still both co-leaders. Obviously, I've got the jersey, but he's close behind and Roglič is super close, the top-10 is all still close. We haven't done a mountain top finish yet and the race is still in the balance. There is a hell of a long way to go and a lot more that can happen. If the lead does change, we've got a few cards to play and hopefully that strength will be very useful,” Thomas said when questioned about the team’s plans for balancing both his and Geoghegan Hart’s ambitions.
The Welsh rider implied that it will be the road who decides which of them ends up being the chosen rider for the Ineos Grenadiers. With the terrain over the next two weeks getting extremely difficult and an eye-wateringly tough final series of mountain stages, there are going to be plenty of chances to find out which of the duo is strongest.
“We're in a great position and I'm leading the race but as soon as someone stands out as the most likely to win – at the moment I think it's kind of even – then for sure, I'd be happy to help Tao if he's better than me and for the team he's more likely to win,” Thomas said. “I'm pretty sure he would do the same thing. It’s about neither of us being selfish, doing what's best for the team and hopefully using each other and the team's strength and doing what we can to win the race.”
It is perhaps a testament to Thomas’s experience that he has managed to find himself in contention for winning one of the sport’s biggest races again so late in his career. He repeatedly seems able to peak exactly when the time is right, often proving naysayers wrong and coming good just when people begin to count him out. “I think it's a big advantage to have the experience in the team as well. I know myself and my body and how to judge my efforts and all that type of jazz. But I think our biggest strength is how well everyone is going in the team at the moment.” he said.
With one rider fighting for a final Grand Tour win to round out an already illustrious career and another looking for a second Giro d’Italia win after three years of performing below many people’s expectations of him, the position Ineos find themselves in is certainly strong, but could it also turn out to be problematic? Will this dynamic work or will it be to their detriment that they have too many options? For Thomas, the best solution to this conundrum at the moment is to simply not worry about it at all
"I'm not a betting man. I don't worry about all that sort of stuff of who is favourite, Thomas said. “We're definitely in a strong position. But UAE are looking good with Almeida and the team behind them and also Jumbo with Roglič, but if I’m a favourite or not, I don’t know. I’ll leave that to Betfair dot com or whatever you use.”