For much of the year, Ineos Grenadiers director Rod Ellingworth has apparently consigned Geraint Thomas to a support role at the 2022 Tour de France – if he had a place at all. Now we're here, and two stages in, he has revised his appraisal dramatically.
Thomas, anonymous for the first half of the year when it came to results, is now "on fire" and "the best I've ever seen him," according to the team's Director of Racing.
Thomas won the Tour de France in 2018 and finished runner-up behind teammate Egan Bernal the following year, but has endured a difficult couple of seasons since. After protracted and, according to Thomas, "difficult" negotiations last winter, a contract extension was signed for 2022 but the 36-year-old has largely played a low-key support role.
That appeared to be the case for the Tour de France too, until Thomas suddenly won the Tour de Suisse two weeks ago. He had started the week leading out Tom Pidcock for sprints but, after Adam Yates pulled out due to COVID-19, he finished it as a contender for the Tour de France.
"G has done really well to bring himself up to this level. He has worked really hard, his weight is bang on. He's really on fire," Ellingworth told Cyclingnews at the Tour de France in Denmark.
"To be honest with you, I think he's as good as I've ever seen him. It's really exciting to see."
When asked about that comment, Ellingworth expanded: "When I say the best I've ever seen him, what I mean is the entirety, just how he is, his attitude, how he is with his teammates. He's ambitious – as ambitious as he was when he was a young kid, which is pretty impressive."
Throughout this season Ellingworth has regularly name checked Yates and Daniel Martínez as Ineos Grenadiers' Tour de France leaders. Thomas was rarely mentioned and it was unclear at times if he would even make the eight-man squad. Now though, he's very much part of a leadership trio.
"G was always open to discussions. You never know. You can't write G off. You never can. He's a true bike racer isn't he," Ellingworth said.
"I've really enjoyed working with G again this year. He's been brilliant with the young lads. He's said to me 'I've really enjoyed it as well'. My gut feeling is I don't think he enjoyed racing much last year. You just have one of them sometimes, it all feels a bit sticky, but I think he's really enjoying his bike racing again."
Thomas is now riding the Tour as part of a leadership trio, along with Yates and Martínez. The British team have had multiple leaders in the past but the difference this time is they perhaps do not have the strongest rider.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has taken over their Tour de France dominance, while Jumbo-Visma arguably have the next two strongest riders in Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard. And so the old tactic of dictating the race from start to finish has had to be shelved, with suggestions of a more creative approach from new lead director, Steve Cummings.
"I think Pogačar is the out and out favourite but everyone can be beaten," Ellingworth told reporters ahead of stage 3. "Everyone can crash too. We don't want that, we want a fair race, but we've got a group that is up for the challenge and that wants to race. We're going to take the race to our rivals.
"Steve Cummings has done a really good job. He's gone on a journey with the lads and got the group together. They're very clear how they want to race. We've got our plans, we've got our days where we feel we're strong and can make a difference. We hope we can stick to those plans and carry them out."
After the opening time trial and two road stages, Yates is the best-placed Ineos rider in 12th place, 16 seconds down on Pogačar, while Thomas, who made a schoolboy error in forgetting to remove his gilet for the time trial, is 17th, two seconds further back. Martínez has had the worst start so far, losing 37 seconds to Pogacar in the time trial and then crashing on the run-in on stage 3, though without losing any time or sustaining any serious injury.
Yates' performances so far will have been a relief for Ellingworth, given the British climber had to abandon the Tour de Suisse with COVID-19, which left him with fever and chills for four days in the week before the Tour.
"We've got three guys who all equally have an opportunity and deserve to have an opportunity," Ellingworth said.
"We're fortunate to have three guys who are in good nick. They all get on, they've got a good sense about them. They've all worked for each other this year in different races. If you see what Dani did in Suisse for G... What goes around comes around, you know. It'll play out on the road."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.