A tale of two heroes
On the cobbles of the Champs Elysees and with the world watching, Geraint Thomas finally won what had appeared destined to be permanently out of his reach. Always the Bridesmaid but never the Bride, ‘G’, finally held it all together for three weeks and won cycling’s greatest prize of all. Not only in South Wales did they go mad but pretty much everywhere else too, because his win also brought a closure for the rest of us who had ridden vicariously alongside him over the years.
Some will have tried to recall and compare the popular reaction when Chris Froome won his first Tour de France in 2013. It was the year after Bradley Wiggins had become the first Brit in 99 attempts to win so perhaps we didn’t have quite the same level relief on hearing our National Anthem blaring out across the streets of the 8th Arrondissement for the second year in a row. Yet even allowing for the passage of time, I definitely couldn’t recall anything like the same level of emotional outpouring. Nor did I recall it on any of the three subsequent occasions that Froome went on to win the Tour, nor when he won the Vuelta in 2017 nor the Giro d’Italia earlier this year. So how is it that when one of our greatest ever cyclists wins his 6th Grand Tour we clap politely and mutter ” well done” but when an emotional lad from Cardiff wins one, we descend into a collective paroxysm of delight?
Geraint Howell Thomas was born on the 25th May 1986 in Cardiff making him 32 years old and almost exactly one year younger than Chris Froome. By now of course the whole world knows his love of cycling was nurtured at the Maindy Flyers Youth Cycling Club in Cardiff and that his first success was in track cycling, notably in the Team Pursuit. But after 2012 and with 2 Olympic Gold Medals and 3 World Championship Gold Medals to his name, he then focused more and more on road cycling having joined Team Sky in 2010 at the same time as Chris Froome.
He established a formidable reputation as a Domestique extraordinaire, not least because of an apparent predilection for the dramatic. In 2013, an accident on Stage 1 of the Tour de France resulted in a broken pelvis. The pain was overwhelming but the hospital confirmed the injury wouldn’t get any worse through riding, it was just a matter of whether he could endure the pain. So he decided to carry on riding and made it into Paris alongside his leader who was celebrating his first victory and Team Sky’s second. That would have been the stuff of legend for most people but the crashes kept coming. At the 2015 Tour de France, a collision with Warren Bargueil whilst descending on Stage 16 resulted in a spectacular crash that also included headbutting a telegraph pole. Astonishingly, he not only remounted but finished the stage and retained 6th place in the GC. Yet still he wasn’t done. Down again whilst descending on the 2016 Olympic Road Race, down even on the Prologue of this year’s Criterium du Dauphine although on that race he got back up, carried on and eventually won.
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The theory goes that you can’t win Grand Tours over 3 weeks with that kind of track record and so the world (and probably G as well) appeared to have resigned themselves to accept that one of the strongest, most talented and definitely most likeable cyclists of his generation was destined to help others to victory but not taste it himself.
Which is probably the biggest reason the world was so delighted on July 29th 2018. This guy deserved it, really deserved it. He had put himself on the line for others on so many occasions, never appearing to expect anything for himself, that it just felt right for him to win. There is no obvious side to Thomas, no sense of an out of control ego, no sense of entitlement. Sure, he’s an elite sportsman with an incredible drive to succeed that does set him apart from the vast majority, but despite that he remains accessible, normal, the bloke you’d love to go for a pint and have a laugh with. That ability to connect with the rest of us is unusual and instantly endearing.
If Thomas wears his heart on his sleeve and appears an open book in every sense, Froome comes across as far more reserved, considered and closed. So although he may have won 6 Grand Tours, he may never win the public’s heart to the same degree.
Froome was born in Nairobi, Kenya in May 1985 to British parents and grew up in Kenya and South Africa. Since 2008, he has raced under a British licence but lives with his South African wife in Monaco. So although he has represented Team GB with distinction at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, the fact that he has also represented Kenya (in 2007 at the All Africa Games) makes it harder for many to accept him the same way as they do Wiggins and Thomas. Although his performances in front of the camera are unrecognisably improved from just a few years ago, he does not exude a natural ‘matey’ warmth and ease so for some, the sense of slight detachment is a challenge. Yet his palmares speaks for itself. Froome is not just one of our finest riders, he is one of the finest stage racing cyclists of all time and for many the greatest of his generation.
That recent business with Salbutamol and an asthma inhaler has not helped his quest to win the public’s affection (assuming he is even trying to win it). And yet his demeanour and approach on and off the bike over the last 12 months has been remarkable. One cannot begin to imagine the pressure he has been under since the moment someone leaked the fact a urine sample form the Vuelta has been under investigation. He’s been spat on, had urine thrown over him, been pushed and shoved (including by the French police this year). The provocation has been remarkable yet he has remained polite and measured pretty much the whole time.
He saved his classiest moment for this year’s Tour de France. When it became clear in the Pyrenees that he was not going to claw back the time and that Geraint Thomas was just too strong, he flipped seamlessly into the role of Super Domestique, looking out for his team mate and friend, protecting him where necessary so as to maximise the chances of Thomas (and Team Sky) winning the race. If you can think of another example of a “team leading” sportsman or sportswoman who has done that so publicly and so selflessly, then do let us know as we are struggling. It is moments like this that make it very clear that Froome is a thoroughly honourable and decent man and it was equally clear that the friendship and warmth between Froome and Thomas was real and not remotely contrived.
The Great British Public
We all love the underdog. Our recent sporting history is littered with so many examples of gallant sporting failure so it’s natural that we gravitate more towards those who try their very hardest yet fall at the final hurdle than we do those who seem to win with an apparent lack of drama. Winning without a crisis is hardly the British way!
Thomas fits the bill of our national psyche almost perfectly. One recalls our reaction to the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the 2005 Ashes series or even, dare I say it, the 2018 FIFA World Cup – quite simply, we’re not supposed to do so well. When we do, along with all the attendant guts, glory and nerve shredding drama (because it wouldn’t be an authentic British triumph without the nerves been shredded along the way), it’s all the sweeter. Which is why Thomas is the perfect British winner and we love him all the more for it. When Thomas says “It’s Alpe D’Huez, man”, we relate to him. Froome would never have said anything quite so normal, so spontaneous, so clearly unscripted. And so we connect with Thomas more readily for it.
Despite being shortlisted multiple times for the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards, Froome has never made the top 3. As for Geraint Thomas’s chance this year? Well, it’s probably more interesting to discuss who is likely to come second.
The Tour de France 2018 was one of the best editions of the race ever. Genuinely exciting from start to finish, Geraint Thomas rode the perfect race. His performance was sublime with Tom Dumoulin, the second place rider having to wait until Stage 20 and the Individual Time Trial before he could claw any time back from Thomas.
Thomas was superb and yet one can’t help feeling that whereas it might be a surprise were Thomas to win another Grand Tour, it would be just as much a surprise were Froome not too.
But for now, the moment is for Geraint Thomas to savour. The first Welshman to win the Tour de France, the first British rider to win on Alpe d’Huez, the first rider ever to win on Alpe d’Huez whilst wearing the Maillot Jeune and the third British rider to win the title overall bringing the total number of titles won by Team Sky to 6 in 7 years.
These are remarkable times for British Cycling whichever way you look at it. Congratulations to Geraint Thomas for making the last 3 weeks a race we shall remember forever. He has etched his name into the pantheon of the greats and it is thoroughly well deserved.