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The Welsh veteran saw his opportunity to become the oldest champion of the corsa rosa dramatically come undone in the very final stretches of more than 3,300km of GC racing Saturday.
But after wearing pink for eight days, to even be in the position to be overturned by winner-in-waiting Primož Roglič on the severe stage 20 Lussari TT was something Thomas might never have forecast.
“At the minute, it’s still bittersweet,” Thomas told The Cycling Podcast shortly after the stage Saturday.
“But the season I’ve had, I only really start racing at Catalunya in March. But I stayed strong mentally and put the work in. I tried to do what I had to do, and I still managed to come here in good shape.”
Thomas rode into the Giro d’Italia way off the radar after a bumpy spring of repeat illness and lost time.
Roglič and Remco Evenepoel filled the pre-race column inches, and the Ineos Grenadiers stalwart was mostly an afterthought.
The former Tour de France champion reminded the peloton with his ride toward the final Giro podium this month that he’s still got serious presence.
“To come second, I can still be proud of that,” he said. “But at the moment, it just hurts.”
‘I’m getting too old for this’
Like Roglič, Thomas was recently ousted from the spotlight by the rise of a new generation of GC stars.
Five years after he won the Tour de France for Team Sky, all talk was of Evenepoel, Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Thomas’ own teammate Egan Bernal.
Yet the Welshman refused to bow to the youth boom.
He finished best-of-the-rest behind Vingegaard and Pogačar at last year’s Tour, and nearly pipped Evenepoel in the Giro’s stage 9 Cesena TT. Despite being a decade older than many of his stage-racing rivals, Thomas continued to do one for the old dudes.
Recently turned 37, Thomas saw what might be his last opportunity at grand tour victory slip Saturday when he lost his legs on the Lussari.
“I’m just pretty gutted at the minute, but I think when it sinks in, I can definitely be proud,” Thomas said on a team-released video.
“I’m getting too old for this [bleeped expletive],” he added with a wry smile.
🗣️ “I can definitely be proud of that.”
We completely agree, G 🤜🤛
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) May 27, 2023
Thomas choked back emotion in the handful of interviews he conducted Saturday.
His disappointment was couched in the pride of two weeks in control of the maglia rosa at the head of an Ineos Grendiers team that lost the heft of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Filippo Ganna.
And unlike his past two Giri, Thomas’ chance at a pink jersey was this year blocked only by the force of a ride-for-the-ages from a rival rather than an unlucky twist of fate.
“Primož just did an incredible ride. If anything, it’s better to lose by that much than by a couple of seconds, because then you can pick apart and say ‘I might have done this or that,'” Thomas said after Roglič’s devastating 40-second GC raid.
“At the end of the day, I couldn’t have gone 14 seconds quicker, and he had a mechanical, so he deserves it, and I have to be happy with second.”
The road ahead: Retirement or renewal?
So what next for Thomas?
Early reports that 2023 would be his last pro season have been confused by rumors of a two-year extension with the Sky/Ineos team he’s ridden with 14 consecutive seasons.
Thomas earlier this season spoke bullishly about how he felt his long-term team suggested his time as a leader was done. A position as a superdomestique-come-road captain was muted, and Thomas pondered imminent retirement.
Ineos Grenadiers has a deep bench of stage race talent, but none look ready to do something big.
Bernal is suffering a bumpy comeback from injury, Geoghegan Hart’s U-shaped trajectory has been halted by the fractured pelvis he sustained last week in Piemonte, and Dani Martínez is still yet to truly stamp his GC authority.
Ineos Grenadiers has a deep bench of youth talent to wait on in the likes of Tom Pidcock, Thymen Arensman, Carlos Rodriguez, and Luke Plapp, but their grand tour roadmap might be long.
Well I left it all out there. Chapeau @rogla, you deserve it mate. If you’d offered me this a few months ago when things didn’t seem to be going my way, I’d have taken it. But right now I feel pretty devastated #giro pic.twitter.com/BxTNFaWSwI
— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) May 27, 2023
Second place at the Giro d’Italia and third at last year’s Tour de France will reinforce the fact that Thomas should still be capable of hanging with the hitters in 2024, if he’s willing to race a 19th pro season.
“Talk has started with the team about extending, but I’m going to cross that bridge in a couple of weeks after the race,” he said Monday in his second rest day conference.
Thomas’ Giro defeat could just steel his resolve to keep on keepin’ on, or it could equally prove the final straw.
He ruled out the possibility of riding a 13th Tour de France this summer, and so the Vuelta a España might become his last grand tour dance.
But for now, Thomas might need some time to let it all sink in while he ponders what next.
“It’s over for me, I’m on the piss for the next two months,” he joked Saturday.
This sport. The highs and lows. It’s why we love it, it’s what makes victories sweeter, and it’s the reason we will always keep fighting.
Thanks to all the fans for your incredible support 👍 pic.twitter.com/RgklvaHR3S
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) May 27, 2023