Geraint Thomas has never been one to suffer from stress, or at least display the outward signs of it. Even in a career blighted by misfortune, he has worn adversity lightly and brushed off the pressures of elite sport with his characteristic brand of dry Welsh humour.
But something seems different this year at the Tour de France. The hair-cut is the same – styled by his wife in keeping with pre-Tour ritual – the legs are as skinny as they've ever been at a Grand Départ, but there's a noticeable shift in demeanour. If anything, he seems even less stressed. If he was laid-back before, he's nearing horizontal now.
After breezing through the Tour de Suisse, where he started as lead-out man for Tom Pidcock and ended up as the overall winner, Thomas sauntered into the conference room of the Ineos Grenadiers' chain hotel on the outskirts of Copenhagen on Wednesday, and calmly told the media about his hopes and dreams for the next three weeks.
"I'm pretty chilled," he said. "I'll try to enjoy it. That's hard to say when you're bashing elbows and swearing at people at 60kph in the wind, but I'm pretty relaxed about it - just take it as it comes."
The biggest factor would seem to be age, or rather, maturity. Thomas turned 36 last month and is about to set out on his 12th Tour de France. "It's crazy how quick it goes," he noted, adding that his 22-year-old debutant teammate Tom Pidcock is not only very young but also "comes across very young".
Thomas, meanwhile, admits he's "a lot closer to the end of my career than the start", but he doesn't seem to feel any pressure from the ticking clock.
"I've obviously won this race," he said of his 2018 Tour title that now features as one of 10 stage race victories on his palmarès. "I just want to enjoy these races now."
The other major factor is that you can count on two hands the number of days that Thomas has been considered – by his own team management – a potential leader for the Tour de France. All season, Rod Ellingworth has spoken of the Welshman as a domestique for Adam Yates and Dani Martinez and, what's more, one not even fully sure of his spot on the start line.
Before winning Tour de Suisse 10 days ago, he'd had an anonymous season, and it came on the back of a year that, despite a strong run of spring results, effectively went up in smoke when he crashed on a speed-bump early in the Tour.
Thomas went through the motions in a few final races before setting about negotiating a contract extension, a process that dragged on and on. The new deal was, naturally, not as lucrative as the one he signed as a Tour de France champion, but there was a noticeable shift in status, his job description amended to include the age-old winding down plan of 'guiding the team's younger riders'.
But Thomas was perhaps never quite ready to relinquish all personal ambitions. Even if he wasn't necessarily being paid for it, he always had faith he'd be able to work himself into the shape needed to step back into the leadership foid.
"Since November, these two boys have been the leaders of the team, and it's still that way," Thomas said, addressing the question of the big L.
"Obviously I'm going well, I want to be there in the mix, and help them, and take an opportunity if it comes. Personally, hopefully I can be there in the crunch moments and affect the race positively for us. When it comes to the final, who knows."
Thomas acknowledged that the opening week of this Tour – featuring a time trial, wind, and cobbles – suits him better than Yates, who was hit hard by COVID-19 recently, or Martínez. However, there was no tension at all in the air when it came to which of them would end up at the top of the trident.
In fact, Thomas' relaxed demeanour extended to the press conference as a whole, which itself feels like something new for a team whose dealings with the media at the Tour have often been fraught.
This does seem to be a new Ineos, one investing in youth and following through on talk of a more adventurous style of racing. It may, as Thomas points out, be partly necessitated by circumstances, but that approach is now being mapped onto the Tour for the first time.
"The main difference is that we don't have the favourite. In the past we've always had [Chris] Froome, Brad [Wiggins], myself, Egan [Bernal] as one of the big favourites. Now, [Primož] Roglič and [Tadej] Pogačar have been the MVPs of the past couple of years," Thomas explained.
"We can't ride the same anymore. If we pull all day, set tempo, and then it comes down to man v man, it's hard to beat them. But we have numbers here, and hopefully we can use them in the right moments and use that to our advantage. That's a big change."
Thomas apologised for the "cop-out" in refusing to put a number on his or his teammates' ambitions for Paris three weeks on Sunday. In fact, he listed out the broadest possible range of outcomes, from "stage wins" to "time in yellow", "the podium", "winning", and "the top five".
"Who knows," he said, slipping into old Sky speak by highlighting the importance of 'the process'. "So much can go right and wrong in the Tour," he added, describing the opening week as "pure luck" – and that's before the COVID lottery is even taken into account.
And that's perhaps also why Thomas is so chilled. He has won before, he has been burned before but he's 36 now, old enough and wise enough to know either could happen again this time.
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