Geraint Thomas hits Giro d'Italia with newfound form and motivation
Brailsford argues media 'misunderstood' Thomas not racing Tour de France
It has been three years since Geraint Thomas' last participation in the Giro d’Italia, but if the race remains identical in format, the Welshman’s status in Grand Tour racing has massively altered in that time, making him one of the favourites for overall success in Milan.
Asked on Friday if he felt confident about his chances of wearing the pink jersey on the final podium on October 25, Thomas responded somewhat pointedly: "I’ve won the Tour in 2018, took second last year, I’ve been training well, the Worlds TT went well, and so did Tirreno, and I’m in decent enough shape to be competitive.
"I’ve done a lot of hard work that’s all I can control. So I’m hopeful I’ll be in the mix."
There’s a very good case for arguing that Thomas will not just be in the mix, but will have five-star contender status for this year’s Giro d'Italia.
Even if he may not be donning the maglia rosa on Saturday evening - his teammate Filippo Ganna is the standout favourite for the opening time trial, with so much more time trialling ahead, Thomas is the reference point for all the other favourites.
As rival director Matt White of Mitchelton-Scott put it: "Thomas will take time in the time trials and everybody else will have to try to pull it back on the climbs, and have a cushion on his time ahead of the final TT in Milan."
Nor is it just about the Giro having so much more time trialling than the other two Grand Tours that is a potential game changer.
Running the Giro in October could see the weather playing an even more significant role than when the race is held in May. The stages in the mountains of the northern half of the country could be seriously affected. If they do go ahead, the high mountain stages could be raced in cold and wet conditions.
Even the briefest of glances at his Classics palmarès - not to mention growing up in 'sunny' Wales - would confirm Thomas is not normally challenged by racing in the wet or cold. But he did recognise the race could well be different if the last week is hit by bad weather.
"The three time trials may help me, but it’s a a tough race and the weather will add to that. So it’s a big challenge, and one I’m looking forward to," Thomas said.
"I’ll be expecting attacks from the climbers, but it’s not just me against them, everybody has their strengths," he added, and indeed, as a former Tour winner who took back-to-back stages in the Alps, the Welshman can hardly be described as lacking talent when the road steepens.
For all his role as pre-race favourite, there was no denying either that the Tour de France also had its place in the Giro d’Italia press conference, given Thomas is in Italy because he wasn't selected for the Tour de France.
Thomas recognised that some stages of the Tour, particularly on the GC days, had been hard to watch, but he did make it clear that having the Giro to aim at had softened the blow.
As he put it: "It was okay, once I decided I was doing the Giro - that was what was getting me out of bed in the mornings."
Ineos team manager Dave Brailsford again joined Thomas' pre-race press conference and again justified his decision not to select the Welshman for the Tour.
With a similar defense to politicians claiming the media had poorly interpreted any potentially controversial decisions they might take, Brailsford claimed it was "you guys and maybe the way it was explained" that had "misunderstood" Thomas' absence from the Tour.
Brailsford denied, too, in good humour, that there had been any strain placed on his relationship with Thomas, one of the three riders who has remained with Ineos Grenadiers, together with Chris Froome and Ian Stannard, since their inception in 2010.
"It’s the first time we’ve seen each other actually [since the Tour decision] and he punched me in the mouth as I walked in, so…" Brailsford said jokingly.
"No, I think people misconstrue, there wasn’t… I think you guys and maybe the way it was explained, misunderstood the whole thing around the Tour. People saw it as a non-selection; it’s not a non-selection when you look at the situation. Everybody came through the confinement in different ways, everybody got to a certain point in their condition, and when you've got that factor and got the evidence, you then sit down and agree."
Describing how events had played out pre-Tour between himself and Thomas, Brailsford said: "We’ve known each other a long time, we can sit down and have a very mature, honest conversation about where we are now, what roles can he play in the Tour etcetera. Or shall we go to this position, which is starting the Giro, a position where you can hopefully be competitive in the overall.
"It’s totally understandable if a rider of Geraint’s experience did the Tour in that particular role - that would be have been his choice. But equally I think more exciting and a better option for a rider of Geraint’s standard is to be here at Giro competing for the overall with a great team behind him. Whilst at the time in the Tour there was a big song and dance about it, I’m pleased to be sitting here today and pleased with the decision we made. It’s not a non-selection, it’s deciding how best you allocate your resources."
Thomas agreed "totally" with Brailsford that their relationship had not been affected, that they had discussed things openly at the Dauphiné, and, as he put it, opted "to go all guns blazing" for the Giro.
"Sometimes you’ve got to have the balls to do something like that, and that’s sport - things change and I’m giving myself the best chance to be in it."
If the Tour was all-but inescapable on Friday but will doubtless fade into the background as the Giro progresses, another almost inevitable element of the Ineos press conference was the new time trial world champion Ganna and his chances of winning the opening stage on Saturday.
As Brailsford put it: "He could be in pink tomorrow with the rainbow bands on him, that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often."
Meanwhile Thomas admitted their mutual track past helped the two to get on well and the Italian’s physique, as he wryly put it, "makes him nice to sit behind when there’s three kilometres to go."
Ganna, Brailsford confirmed, too, could well be up for an assault on the Hour Record further down the line. "For sure. It makes absolute sense," he said.
But for now, in any case, the Italian’s target is wearing pink after a 15.1km time trial
in Sicily on Saturday, while Thomas will be aiming to bookend the race for Ineos Grenadiers in the same colour jersey in three weeks' time.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.