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Relief for Geraint Thomas, who not only survived to the end of a very odd Tour de Suisse, but snatched overall victory via second place in the stage 8 time trial. It’s a result that ought to confirm at least co-leadership status for the 2018 Tour de France champion as the Ineos Grenadiers look to July.
In the absence of Egan Bernal, considered de facto Tour leader before his crash in January, the British outfit was in unfamiliar territory a few weeks out from the big show.
After an unremarkable start to 2022, disrupted by a COVID-19 infection and shoulder surgery over winter, Thomas arrived in Switzerland a bit of an unknown quantity. The assumption was that Adam Yates would be the main man for the Ineos Grenadiers, with Thomas a ‘protected’ rider and luxury domestique. Another candidate was 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné winner Dani Martínez, but the Colombian dropped off the pace on stage 1 and fell into a domestique role later in the week, where he excelled, again.
In the explosive early stages, Thomas looked to be happy playing second fiddle, joining his younger compatriot at the pointy end of affairs and setting the pace when attackers tried to slip away. But when Yates fell victim to the tsunami of COVID-19 positives, the Welshman stepped up.
He finished fourth on a selective stage 5 where Aleksandr Vlasov took over the race lead, but the Bora-Hansgrohe rider joined the coronavirus casualties before he had a chance to race in yellow. This put Thomas just seconds off the race lead, and a late dash on stage 6 narrowed his deficit to a single second before the queen stage.
Stage 7 was two races in one. With Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) confirming his blistering form up the road, Thomas held firm as all but Jakob Fuglsang and Sergio Higuita fell away. With a 25.6 km time trial on Sunday, all Thomas had to do when the punchy Colombian attacked was mark race-leader Fuglsang, who reluctantly shouldered the responsibility to chase down Higuita.
Thomas stayed glued to the wheel until deep into the final kilometre when he went after Higuita to limit his losses. He ultimately finished 11 seconds behind the Colombian, falling short of the race lead by just two seconds.
“I just kind of went after Higuita a bit too far out,” Thomas said in Malbun, drenched after another hot day out. “I kind of blew my tits a bit then. After such a long effort, I kind of misjudged how long 500 metres would take.”
While defending a lead is nearly always preferable in case of bad luck, Thomas may have been thankful for small mercies, able to start the time trial in all his team-issued kit – and a brand-new Bolide – a perfect test run twelve days from the Tour’s opening TT in Copenhagen.
And a bloody good test run it was too. Only Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) could better the Welshman, whose second-place finish delivered him to overall victory by over a minute. He’s the first British man ever to win the Tour de Suisse and he’s the second oldest to do so at 36 years old.
It marks a return to form for Thomas, who takes his first win since stage 5 of the 2021 Critérium du Dauphiné. Just in time.
“I’ve been working hard. The plan was to get to the Tour in good shape and I’m on track for that,” said Thomas on Saturday, before referencing the persistent effect that coronavirus is having on the pro peloton, “I just need to avoid everyone now.”
Timely though this result is, and a big morale boost after a disappointing Dauphiné for the team, Thomas and the Ineos Grenadiers will still go to the Tour de France as serious underdogs. And even Thomas must have a few seeds of doubt after half the Tour de Suisse peloton was forced to head home; we know he’s on some damn good form, but how good? Nobody knows.
Speaking of not knowing, leadership chez Grenadiers will remain uncertain until the race is underway – a line we can expect to hear several teams peddling, especially now that COVID-19 looks likely to have its say.
“I just want to go there and race hard and do what I can,” Thomas said in the post-race conference on Sunday afternoon. “We’ve got two other leaders on the team. Whether I stay up on GC for a while to play another card, go for stages, or help other guys … whatever. I’m happy to do whatever. I’ll take my chance for sure if it comes, I’ll help the boys if I have to.”
Regardless of how things shake out, the former winner reckons the British team can leave their mark on the Tour.
“As a team, for sure we can compete with Roglič and Pogačar at the Tour,” Thomas said. “Man versus man is a different story. They’re super talents, as we know, they’ve been MVPs the last couple of years. But we’ve got a strong team, just got to stay healthy now. We’re all motivated and we’re just going to go there and give our best.”
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