Tour de France 2019: Geraint Thomas and the sacrifices of a champion

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Tour de France 2019: Deep down we'll know who's best - Geraint Thomas

When Geraint Thomas once wrote about his first Tour de France in 2007, he described his 21-year-old self as having "much to learn and less to eat."

His then relatively solid build was more suited to the indoor tracks on which he would win two Olympic gold medals than the long and arduous routes of cycling's greatest road race.

On Friday, a day before this year's Tour begins in Brussels, Thomas faced the hordes of the world's media as the reigning champion, a chiselled, sinewy transformation of the soft-featured debutant he was 12 years ago.

Last year's historic triumph was something of a surprise - emerging from the shadow of his team-mate and four-time winner Chris Froome to become the Tour's first Welsh champion - so few begrudged his celebrations, lengthier and more elaborate than most Oscars after-parties.

They took their toll, adding around eight kilograms to Thomas' tall but slender frame, which usually weighs around 68kg at this point in the season.

"I avoided the scales - I was fat," he grins, cheekbones gauntly prominent now all that weight has been lost again.

"I'd gone from eating fish and quinoa, eating fresh and clean while doing 30 hours [training] a week to eating anything and everything I could get my hands on, drinking and not riding my bike.

Geraint Thomas in 2007
Thomas was a member of the Barloworld team when he first competed at the Tour de Fance in 2007.

"From November I was back into it. I was really craving that as well. Then it [the weight] slowly chips away.

"Initially that extra bulk just falls off you but it's always the last two kilos which are the hardest. It's all about discipline, being really focused, eating the right things at the right time and training hard."

No pressure

The time for decadence has passed, and so has the spectre of Froome, absent as he recovers from serious injuries sustained during last month's crash.

Now the gaze of the cycling world is on Thomas, even if he is sharing the Team Ineos lead with Egan Bernal.

The 33-year-old has reiterated that he feels under no pressure to retain his title and, while his laid-back demeanour may lead some to wonder if he has the hunger to repeat his momentous victory, Thomas himself does not feel the need to make a show of his will to win.

"That's what I've always had, and I've done pretty well with it up until now," the double-Olympic and multiple world champion says with characteristic understatement.

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Geraint Thomas's Guide to the 2019 Tour de France

"It's not like I haven't got any desire, what's the point stressing about it? It's like Dave [Brailsford, Ineos' team principal] says, if you've got a Ferrari at home you're not going to stress about beating a Vauxhall Corsa off the line. You've got the engine, it's there."

Thomas utters these words with such an economy of effort, he barely moves.

There is a solemn stillness about cyclists on the cusp of a big race. Whenever they are not on the bike, the aim is simply to conserve energy.

Limit effort wherever possible. Take a seat where you might stand, lie down when you could sit, keep your answers short. Expend as little as you can.

Thomas' stare is vacant and his pauses for thought long because his mind is already elsewhere: on the starting line.

This is not boredom, but a picture of focus; a face which tells the story of the toil which has led him here.

The cut above the eye is from a recent crash in Switzerland, the sunglasses-shaped tan lines from training mountain climbs in Tenerife; each crease and wrinkle is more pronounced because of months of a monastic diet.

When Thomas was out for lunch with his family recently, he only allowed himself one teaspoon of gravy on his food.

"I've done everything I can to be here in the best shape possible," he says.

Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome
Thomas' Team Ineos team-mate Chris Froome was seriously injured at the Criterium du Dauphine in Roanne, France.

"A few ups and downs but you roll with it and you adapt, and I feel like I'm in a good place. Weight is good, power is good, so I'm just looking forward to getting going now."

Before Froome's crash, most expected this year's Tour to be a procession for Team Ineos, which in its former guise as Team Sky had provided six of the past seven winners of cycling's most prestigious prize.

Without the four-time champion, however, the yellow jersey is up for grabs.

Thomas and Bernal are firmly among the favourites, as is Jakob Fuglsang, Astana's Danish rider who won the Criterium du Dauphine - usually the most reliable indicator of pre-Tour form - while 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali impressed as he finished second at the Giro d'Italia.

Those contenders will also be buoyed by others missing, including Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic, second and fourth respectively in last year's Tour.

But the race-defining absentee is Froome.

His prodigious success in this event has given him a psychological hold over some of his rivals. Now he is not here, they will feel emboldened.

Fiercely competitive

Having offered his sympathy to the stricken Froome, Thomas had - with the gallows humour cyclists often share after such crashes - joked that this would at least end the debate about who would lead Team Ineos in France.

Had Froome been present, team boss Brailsford would have faced the prospect of pitting a modern great chasing his fifth Tour title against the reigning champion.

In all likelihood Froome would have got the team's backing and, while Thomas is not in the supporting role he would have been for Froome, it is significant that he is only sharing the leadership with Bernal.

Not that having to fight for the yellow jersey without the outright support of his colleagues is foreign to the Welshman.

As he gave his speech at Team Sky's lavish Tour after-party in Paris last year, Thomas joked that he would only share with his team-mates a small portion of the prize fund traditionally reserved for support riders because it was only in the closing stages - when his victory looked assured - that they switched their backing from Froome to Thomas.

Underneath the jocular - and, by that time in the evening, well-oiled - veneer, there was a certain undercurrent of sincerity to Thomas' barb.

He is immensely popular among his fellow riders and opponents, owing to his amiable character and fondness for a drink when their strict regimes allow.

But the 33-year-old is also fiercely competitive, as driven to win a game of beer pong with his friends as he is to prove wrong cycling's sceptics who thought he had left it too late to turn his track success into a meaningful legacy on the road.

You do not win a Tour de France, two Olympic gold medals and a truckload of other accolades without a steely determination and an unwavering will to prevail. Even if you are very laid back.

"Obviously I'd be devastated if it didn't go as planned," Thomas says.

"But you don't dwell on those things - it's such a negative way to look at it. You've got to stay positive and take as much pressure off yourself as you can.

"I won the Tour last year so you'd be pretty confident I guess."

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