Geraint Thomas will wear the race leader’s jersey on Tuesday in the 10th stage of the Giro d’Italia following the withdrawal, late on Sunday night, of Remco Evenepoel following a positive test for Covid-19.
The 23-year-old Belgian had been the outstanding favourite to claim overall victory in Rome on 28 May, but after a weary performance on Sunday in the 35-kilometre time trial, in which he beat Thomas by a single second, he withdrew that evening. The world road race champion relinquished the leader’s pink jersey, or maglia rosa, to Thomas.
“Leading the race is a massive honour,” Thomas said. “It’s not the way you want to take the lead but it’s what’s happened and that’s the way it is. So yes, I’ll wear it with pride.”
Thomas said he was “shocked” when he heard, direct from Evenepoel on Sunday evening, that he was leaving the race. “I speak to him a bit and he messaged me, just before his announcement. At first, I thought: ‘Is he winding me up?’ But it’s a huge disappointment, even for me. I was looking forward to a really good battle. It’s a huge disappointment for everyone.”
Covid-19 has already exerted a significant influence on the Giro this year, forcing a hasty reshuffle on the part of Primoz Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team shortly before the race started. Thomas said his Ineos Grenadiers team would now be further tightening their own health protocols.
“I guess we need to be a lot more aware of it and go back to what we used to [do] when we were in our own little bubble and wearing masks, in public spaces,” said Thomas. “As a team we’re going to go back to that kind of strategy.”
Despite the presence of the virus in the peloton, there has been no indication as yet from either the race organisers, or the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, that teams will retreat into the strict isolated bubbles that characterised the 2020 season.
“If everybody on the race does the same thing then it will stop other riders going home,” Thomas said. “Obviously it’s a massive loss losing any rider to Covid, especially a world champion like Remco.”
Thomas and his Ineos Grenadiers team are now in a dominant position tactically. With the second-placed Roglic sandwiched between the 2018 Tour de France champion and, in third place, the 2020 Giro champion Tao Geoghegan Hart, the British outfit can afford to wait for Roglic to make his move.
“Myself and Tao are both co-leaders [in the team],” Thomas said. “I’ve got the jersey but he’s close behind. Roglic is super close and the top 10 is all still close. We haven’t done a mountain top finish yet, and the race is still in the balance.”
One of Thomas’s great strengths in Grand Tour racing is his durability. “I don’t feel too much pressure or expectation,” he said, while admitting he “didn’t expect to be the leader on the first rest day”.
Thomas added: “I’m normally at my best level in week three and I hope that will be the case again. My time trial on Sunday was already much better than the first day, so hopefully I will continue to improve.”
An understudy to Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome for so many years, before his Tour win five years ago, Thomas is now among the most consistent performers in the peloton. Maybe too, it’s about time he was taken more seriously.
“Everyone always doubts me,” he said after narrowly missing out on a stage victory in the time trial on Sunday. Perhaps his dry and sometimes self-deprecating humour works against him, yet even his own team management were forced to admit they had misjudged his form after last year’s Tour, in which he finished third overall to the runner-up Tadej Pogacar and the champion, Jonas Vingegaard.
Neither Pogacar or Vingegaard are racing in Italy, which leaves Roglic and teammate Geoghegan Hart as the main obstacles to a second Grand Tour win.
“Both me and Tao are in a great position,” Thomas said. “I’m leading the race but as soon as someone stands out as the more likely to win then... I’ll be happy to help Tao, if he’s more likely to win and I’m sure he’d do the same thing.”