All eyes have been on the pairing of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard so far in this year’s Tour de France. Ever since the Slovenian slipped back on the Col du Granon on stage 11 and lost over two minutes to his Jumbo-Visma rival, the two young talents have been duking it out, wheel to wheel, at every opportunity. They have been searching for glimpses of weakness, for chinks in each other’s armour, ready to capitalise on any discomfort. Pogačar has been looking to claw back seconds anywhere he can, with Vingegaard vigilant on his wheel, unprepared to let the two-time Tour winner gain even a few metres of an advantage.
While these – largely futile – battles have been going on between the riders in the yellow and white jerseys, there has been a familiar sight lurking behind them in the distance. So familiar, in fact, the rider in question became the subject of a viral meme which described him as “everyone’s favourite third wheel”. With his signature white-framed Oakleys, his face scrunched up in a familiar grimace, his yellow helmet popping against the sky and his long limbs spinning in the style we all recognise, the man is, of course, Geraint Thomas.
Thomas sits third in the general classification, two minutes and 43 seconds behind Vingegaard and 21 seconds behind Pogačar. The Welshman has taken a starkly different approach to the recent stages in this year’s Tour when compared to his rivals.
As Pogačar attacked Vingegaard ruthlessly on stage 14’s steep climb towards the Mende airstrip, Thomas didn’t react. He stayed in his rhythm on the brutal gradients, riding at his own pace, not allowing himself to go deep into the red to stay with his younger competitors. It was a similar story on Alpe d’Huez: Thomas stayed in the saddle as the others launched big moves, riding to his own tempo, in his own time. Thomas is yet to put in one single attack himself so far in this Tour. As a previous Tour de France champion, has the experience to know that, however small, repeated accelerations can accumulate fatigue over three weeks.
“There's just no point in me trying to match the explosivity of Vingegaard and Rog and Pogačar, really,” he explained in a rest-day press conference. “When they attack like they do on those climbs, it's a lot better for me to just ride a bit more steady and get back to them because at the end of the day, on Alpe d'Huez especially, I knew they wouldn't really carry on. I could see them stopping so I sort of backed off a bit and took a bit more time to get back up to them.”
Could it be that this thoughtful, tactical riding and sense of calm that Thomas is exhibiting is going to give him the upper hand in the final week? In his press conference on the race’s final rest day, Thomas showed a lighthearted demeanour. It can often be forgotten that mental stress can have as much of an impact as physical, so staying calm in the face of pressure is a key aspect of fighting for a Tour de France win.
“I’ve still got the TT up my sleeve, so that’s a bit of a bonus I think, just got to remember to take my fucking gilet off,” Thomas joked to the press, referencing the opening time trial of the race which he accidentally rode in a wind vest.
Thomas himself looks to have been doing everything right so far in this Tour, able to stay out of the boyish tussles and explosive attacks of Vingegaard and Pogačar and focus on his own race. But it should also be noted that the Ineos Grenadiers now have more riders than Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates who have both lost key domestiques to injury and illness. Strength in numbers in the mountains should not be underestimated.
“From a team point of view, Dani [Martínez] is feeling better, he was obviously a bit cooked towards the end of the first week In the Alps, he definitely wasn't feeling one hundred percent. Cash [Jonathan Castroviejo] also got sick at the start of that and he's starting to feel better. So compared to the start of the second week, we're definitely in a better position, health wise with those two,” Thomas explained when questioned on the confidence he has in his teammates going into the final week.
Above all, Thomas seems to have a balanced and measured attitude towards his chances in this year’s Tour de France. He’s aware it’s going to be difficult to beat Vingegaard and Pogačar, but he has the experience to know that anything is possible in the Tour de France, and a team behind him ready to support him in every way they can.
“You’ve got to keep believing and as a team, we're going to hopefully try and make the most of anything we can and keep racing the best we can,” he says. “I was chatting to Steve [Cummings, Ineos Grenadiers sports director] and we've been talking about getting from A to B, so from the start of the climb to the top of the climb, as quick as you can.
“We just said we will basically just try and get to Paris as quick as we can and that's all we can do really, if we don't pass Jonas and Tadej then we don't, and that's that.”