The more the Giro d'Italia changes, the more Geraint Thomas stays the same – Analysis
On Monte Bondone on Tuesday, it was Primož Roglič who faltered. At Val di Zoldo on Thursday, it was João Almeida's turn. Geraint Thomas, however, continues to withstand everything this Giro d'Italia throws at him. Two days from the end of the ultimate elimination race, the Welshman remains on course to carry the maglia rosa to Rome.
Two days ago, Thomas cut his cloth smartly on Monte Bondone, bridging across to Almeida's acceleration just as the gradient relented and then combining with the Portuguese rider to put half a minute in Roglič. On stage 18, meanwhile, it was Roglič who made the splash and Almeida was the man treading water, but Thomas, as ever on this Giro, was swimming smoothly.
The maglia rosa didn't yield an inch here when Roglič, paced by Jumbo-Visma teammate Sepp Kuss, forced the pace on the penultimate ascent of Coi, and he tracked the Slovenian all the way to the finish, picking up 21 seconds on Almeida in the process. In the overall standings, he retains his 29-second buffer over Roglič, while Almeida drops to third at 39 seconds.
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"It was good to gain some time on Almeida and not get dropped by Primož," Thomas said when he arrived in the mixed zone afterwards, but then he said something pretty similar at Monte Bondone, just with the names reversed.
The more this Giro d'Italia changes, the more Thomas stays the same. A subdued opening time trial aside, he has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew since the race left Abruzzo. He has used his energy sparingly throughout, responding to attacks rather than making them.
Roglič delivered a show of force at Fossombrone, but Thomas absorbed the blow. Almeida had his moment at Monte Bondone, but Thomas didn't miss a beat. In an attritional Giro, Thomas has made it calmly towards the final weekend by largely avoiding any alarms and surprises.
After the opening time trial to Ortona, Remco Evenepoel looked to be on another level to the rest, but his challenge was cut short by COVID-19 on the first rest day. Thomas' teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart looked to have the condition to win this race, but he would be forced out with a broken hip three days later.
But then, as Thomas knows better than anyone else, staying on your bike is a fundamental part of Grand Tour racing. A glance at his record illustrates as much. After placing 15th at the 2015 and 2016 Tours de France while racing in the service of Chris Froome, the Welshman was finally handed the freedom to chase three-week glory of his own from 2017 onwards.
Before this Giro, Thomas had raced in seven Grand Tours since then, and four – the 2017 Giro, the 2017 Tour, the 2020 Giro and the 2021 Tour de France – were either ended or compromised by crashes. He had clear runs at the Tours of 2018, 2019 and 2022, however, and he finished on the podium each time.
In one key respect, Thomas' Giro d'Italia performance is an outlier. This is, supposedly, no longer a sport for old men, yet the maglia rosa turned 37 on Thursday and he is on the cusp of becoming the oldest Giro winner in history.
And yet, in other ways, his display here is entirely in keeping with the logic of his career and his even-handed nature. Maybe a marathon slog like this Giro, with its extremes of weather endured and altitude gained, was always likely to reward steadiness over spectacle.
"I was feeling good today and I was able to respond to Primoz when he attacked, which was a good sign," Thomas said on Thursday. "But I'm not getting carried away. Anything can happen, so we just have to keep doing the basics."
The road ahead
The terrible beauty of the Giro d'Italia's final week, however, is that the previous narrative structure of the race can collapse upon itself in an instant. Even a rider of Thomas' experience and consistency is not immune to the sirens that can sing a man to shipwreck just as the race approaches the shore.
Ahead of the final passerella in Rome on Sunday come the two most daunting stages of the entire Giro. The Dolomite tappone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo is followed by a most unpredictable hybrid time trial up Monte Lussari, where just about any permutation seems possible among the top three in the overall standings.
That, indeed, will be a considerable tactical consideration for Thomas and Ineos on Friday. Earlier in the week, directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto suggested that Thomas might need a more sizeable buffer over Roglič ahead of the mountain time trial, but he knows that any additional effort made on stage 19, which features three climbs over 2,000m in altitude, will have inevitable consequences on Saturday afternoon.
Thomas is racing, too, with a reduced Ineos guard after the crashes that took out Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov, and the illness that sent Filippo Ganna home. His four-man supporting cast responded well on Thursday's trek to Val di Zoldo, but Friday's 183km slog by way of the Campolongo, Valparola, Giau, Tre Croci and Tre Cime di Lavaredo is a very different beast.
Laurens De Plus and Thymen Arensman will carry a heavy burden, especially if Roglič and Jumbo-Visma are tempted to test the waters from a distance. The Dutch squad will certainly be reassured by Roglič's display at Val di Zoldo after his struggles on Monte Bondone.
"Each one of them will have a bad moment in the coming days and it's just about making sure that you keep the time gap as small as possible to your competitors at that moment," directeur sportif Marc Reef said after that stage.
If Thomas has had a bad moment thus far, he has hidden it remarkably well. Roglič and Jumbo-Visma will surely ask some more probing questions on Friday, while Almeida isn't out of the contest just yet, even if he surrendered a lot of momentum on Thursday together with those 21 seconds.
Elsewhere, Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-Alula) confirmed himself as the best of the rest on Thursday, with another assured display at Val di Zoldo. The Irishman is full value for this 4th place overall, but he knows, too, that barely two minutes cover the rest of the top 10. Nothing is set in stone at this Giro just yet.
The Monte Lussari time trial will, inevitably, create differences, but it's hard to imagine that the dial won't already have moved significantly after Friday's haul through the Dolomites. The stage – and its wickedly steep closing kilometres, in particular – put one in mind of last year's grand finale on the Marmolada, where Jai Hindley suddenly put daylight between himself and Richard Carapaz at the very end of a deadlocked Giro.
There is a total of 5,400m of climbing on stage 19, but, cruelly, the harshest gradients come at the very end. Sometimes, the legends of the Giro can blur its reality, but Tre Cime di Lavaredo is an ascent that lives up to its lofty reputation as the mountain that made and then almost broke Eddy Merckx. The average gradient of 7.6% is daunting but deceptive. The real brutality comes in the final 3km, which averages 11.7% and reaches pitches of 18%.
Thomas, by dint of his consistency and racecraft, has calmly answered every question asked to this point, but he knows as well as anyone that the hardest is still to come.