Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) cut a disappointed but proud figure as he faced the media in Val Thorens after sealing second place in this year's Tour de France. The Welshman could have few complaints with his final GC position after being outclassed in the mountains by his young teammate Egan Bernal, but the 2018 winner vowed to return and try and win a second title in the future.
Thomas and Bernal came into this year's race as joint leaders after contrasting seasons on the road. While Bernal stormed to wins in Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse, Thomas had stalled at several turns and his Tour form was plunged into question after a heavy fall in Switzerland. As this Tour wore on both Team Ineos riders were given their chances to win but while Thomas' attacks lacked the verve and vigor of twelve months ago, Bernal's rides in the Pyrenees and the Alps were definitive and decisive. Even with the polemic and furor that followed stage 19 and the landslides, few would argue that the strongest rider wasn't about to ride into Paris wearing the maillot jaune.
On Saturday the pair finished arm in arm after Vincenzo Nibali had won the stage and all of Team Ineos rivals were seen nullified on the final climb.
"I just said 'just enjoy it, don't worry about crying all real men cry.' He's got an amazing career ahead of him, and it's an honour to have been a part of this," Thomas said as he faced the cameras.
Twelve months ago it was Thomas who shed tears of joy after his surprise win but this time his sorrow was sown into silk by Bernal's consistency and power. The Welshman can testify as to how much momentum can play a part in a rider's Tour aspirations but Thomas' trajectory has been labored since the end of last year. Commitments off the bike; the natural downturn of form after a monumental win; the fact that every mistake is put under the microscope; and Bernal's growing stature have all merged to leave Thomas where he is. After three weeks racing the Tour, the overall standings do not lie.
When asked by the media as to when he realized a second Tour win would be tough, Thomas replied: "From November to be honest."
His response was met by a ripple of laughter but he quickly stressed that under the surface the pressure of being a Tour winner is like nothing else.
"That's not a joke. It's tough. Vincenzo," he said as he motioned towards the Italian stage winner who had just entered the room.
"He would say the same, that it's tough to come back to the same level. There are so many distractions to deal with all that. You get a few knocks and crashes, but I felt like I managed to get myself in good shape here. It didn't quite happen for me but the main thing was that we won as a team.
"But it's been night and day between this year and last year. This year it felt like any little thing that could go wrong did. Even in the run-up to the Tour, it wasn't plain sailing and there were always things happening. It was tough but I had to stay positive and keep fighting. That's what I had. I would have loved to have won but the fact that Egan did makes it OK in the end."
With over a decade separating Thomas and Bernal it's clear where Team Ineos' long term future lies. That said, Thomas was only slightly off his 2018 form this time around and if he can find the momentum that helped carry him to victory, then another Tour win isn't an impossible dream. After all, someone at Ineos has to win.
The Welshman's biggest hurdle could once again prove to be one of his squad members. Had a fit and healthy Chris Froome arrived in Brussels then perhaps we could have witnessed a team completely dominate the podium in Paris.
"I think so," Thomas said when asked if could win another Tour.
"A lot of people probably don't think so, but whatever. That spurs me on. One of my mates texted me earlier and said 'good job you're second in Tour'. If someone had said that a few years ago not many people would have believed but now it's disappointing to come second and not go back-to-back. I've got that belief."
As for Bernal, not even Thomas saw this win coming. Not yet anyway.
"To be honest, no," he said when asked whether he thought Bernal would win this year.
"But the talent is there to see from the very start. He's improving all the time and he's born to go uphill fast. He's got the best team around him and he's got many great years in front of him. He's got good support with family. He's a humble guy, and has a very bright future."
Thomas has many of those qualities, too. Except for perhaps time. As the greatest race in the world rolls from climb to climb, and from year to year, no one can control that elusive measurement.
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