The fragility of Grand Tour racing

Geraint Thomas' close-call on stage 19 was a reminder that the race isn't over until the peloton crosses the finish line in Rome on Sunday

Nineteen days of bike racing. Months of preparation and sacrifice before that. A whole team of soigneurs, mechanics, sports directors and riders working towards their biggest goal of the season. And it can all go wrong in a split second.

For Geraint Thomas today, there was a moment when the 71 hours of bike racing he’s completed in this Giro d’Italia could have amounted to nothing. It came at a quiet pause in the action of stage 19, when the GC contenders began to take glances at each other as they entered the final 10 kilometres. The Ineos Grenadiers rider was looking over his shoulder as the direction of the line he was riding in switched from the left side of the road to the right. It was a momentary lapse in concentration – likely a product of the fatigue he’s surely feeling after three gruelling weeks – and suddenly Thomas was lying on the slippery wet tarmac leading into Sappada.

There was really no one else to blame for the incident other than the Welshman, he’d hit Antonio Tiberi of Bahrain-Victorious’s back wheel, but it was because Thomas didn’t have his eyes in front of him. The speed of the crash was slow, but these can sometimes be the most impactful. Luckily, Thomas was up quickly. He tried to remount his bike but the chain was off, so he waited for the team car to drive up alongside him for a quick switch before chasing back to the group of general classification contenders.

To Thomas’ good fortune, UAE Team Emirates had stopped riding hard in the group in front, with, Tadej Pogačar – the maglia rosa wearer - exercising one of cycling’s unwritten rules: the GC men will wait for a rider who is on the podium if they suffer a crash or mechanical so late on in the race. It’s a mark of respect for the hard work Thomas has put into this race so far, and is likely helped by the 37-year-old’s stature and decorated history in the sport. The likes of Dani Martínez and Ben O’Connor (who sit in second and fourth on general classification) could have capitalised on the misfortune of Thomas and attacked to try and gain time, but neither took the opportunity. Whether that was the sportsmanlike thing to do, or whether it would have been fair game for them to make a move – it’s a bike race after all – is a matter of opinion.

Either way, Thomas’ crash today highlighted how fragile Grand Tour racing, and bike racing in general, really is. Even times when the result seems certain and the finish line is within reach, riders can never fully relax – it’s part of what makes winning a race like the Giro d’Italia so challenging. There’s much more to taking home a Grand Tour title than simply having the strongest legs in the bike race, a rider must have the ability to remain focused throughout, managing the mental fatigue as well as the physical.

No one is immune to trivial errors like the one Thomas made in today’s stage, and it is a harsh reminder that while Pogačar holds the lead of la corsa rosa with an iron fist currently, the race is never fully over until the peloton crosses the finish line in Rome. The sportsmanship of his rivals today saved Thomas from the incident having any impact on his general classification position, but there’s no guarantee in cycling that this would always be the case.

"It was a stupid little mistake," Thomas told reporters after the stage. "I was just looking over my shoulder and they moved a bit, and I just overlapped the wheel and touched down. Luckily, I got the spare bike straight away and the Bora car was good actually, they gave me a bit of draft up to the group again. When it happened, I just said on the radio, 'I need a new bike.' It felt like the car was miles behind, but it was only a few seconds in the end, so I was straight back on."

Straight back on for Thomas, and straight back to the racing tomorrow and Sunday. There’s two more days for the Welshman to get through safely so he can ensure himself a podium finish in Rome, and his fans will be watching through their fingers in the hope that he makes it unscathed. It can all change in a second.

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