David Brailsford raises an index finger to his chin and looks down toward the ground, pensively pausing as he considers a direct question – is Geraint Thomas an underrated Tour de France champion?
“That’s a bit harsh I think isn’t it maybe?” he replies.
Provided with a context, the Ineos team principal considers the hypothesis more openly.
“I suppose,” Brailsford contemplates.
Thomas is a pro cycling champion who has done a bit of everything well.
“When he wants something he is really, really courageous. He doesn’t get his elbows out and push everyone out of the way, or talk himself up, but he’s extremely determined. He epitomises the silent, strong guy,” says Brailsford.
Thomas came through British Cycling’s famed academy ranks and is an Olympic track gold medallist, part of the quartet that set a team pursuit world record at London 2012.
On the road, the Welshman marked a stint in rebranded Ineos’s spring classics squad for a stint and won E3-Harelbeke in 2015. He then moved his focus toward week-long stage races, claiming Paris-Nice in 2016.
Thomas in a strong indication of form took overall honours at the Criterium du Dauphine before his mic drop-maillot jaune victory in Paris last season. However, he wasn’t publicly considered the lead act of the centre stage production until he claimed two consecutive stages in the Alps. Up until then, the 33-year-old had stood in the shadow of Chris Froome, the man people believed would ultimately assume outright leadership of the squad and race.
Thomas enjoyed the months after his triumph – fun and exhausting in equal measure – but was back to business when it was really time, keen to get back to work he said. He lined-up at the Grand Depart in Belgium with the No.1 on his back and an especially lean frame, suited to this mountainous edition.
Though even with his standing as defending champion and absence of the injured Froome, Thomas is sharing the mantle again. He has still not been singularly lauded – by his own team or pundits – as his title may invite partly because of the emergence of named co-leader Egan Bernal.
“I think he really is a star in his own right. I guess sometimes you, yeah, I haven’t really thought about it in that sense really,” Brailsford reflects.
“I suppose sometimes when you share the stage with other brilliant people it normalises that crazy high level. Whereas if you’re on your own on a stage maybe people can see you all for the brilliance you’ve got.”
Thomas swapped the Dauphine for Suisse as Tour prep last month but crashed out of race, leaving Colombian climber Bernal to assume leadership and win overall.
“This year has been a little bit unfortunate with the accident in Suisse and various other setbacks, so he hasn’t quite had the profile or exposure maybe that you’d normally expect,” says Brailsford.
Ineos has typically always backed one sole leader with one sole objective – no exceptions. Staff say they diverged from that last season with Thomas and Froome and have so this year with Bernal.
Bernal, 22, is similar in public demeanour to Froome and despite his age and limited experience as a second-year professional, has shot from sensational rookie and 2018 Tour MVP to title contender in 12 months.
The pre-Tour hype around Bernal stole headlines from the patient Thomas, who was neither ignorant of – or affected by – considerations that he in turn may be a one-hit Tour wonder.
“He is very much what you see [is what you get]. I agree,” says Brailsford.
Thomas rarely if ever says no to the media as a champion or otherwise. His race commences before kilometre zero and ends well after the finish line of any particular stage. However, he still cuts the figure of a guy you could easily go to the local pub and have a beer with.
“He’s got quite a dry sense of humour, but he’s a funny guy. I think the older he’s got, the more he’s got a calmer surrounding. He’s chatty, he’ll have a bit of a laugh, but he gets into a very focused, discipline zone in a race. He sits in that space as it were in his head for three weeks. It works well for him.”
Thomas let the legs do the talking on the first mountaintop finish of the Tour this week, where he was the best of the title contenders, accelerating past yellow jersey Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to place fourth on La Planche des Belles Filles. The burst on gradients up to 24 per cent was both a display of power and confidence from the Tour winner, shining light into the shadow.
On Stage 9 he regrouped quickly following a crash to safely re-join the main group and maintain his fifth place standing on the general classification, one place above Bernal.
“He rode a brilliant race last year there is no doubt about it. He didn’t put a foot wrong and he was the strongest guy in the race. Everybody, all of the top riders, accepted he was the strongest rider in the race,” says Brailsford.
“From what we saw [on Stage 6] he sort of picked up from where he left off last year. Let’s see if he can carry it through.”