In earlier times, Geraint Thomas would have been a shoo-in for this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. A Tour de France win for a British rider would have been more than enough to do the trick, even against a footballer who led England to a World Cup semi-final, a five-times grand prix champion and a former England cricket captain who made a glorious farewell.
Perhaps, as the bookmakers’ narrow favourite, the Welshman will still be crowned at next month’s ceremony. As the fifth victorious cyclist – after Tom Simpson in 1965, Chris Hoy in 2008, Mark Cavendish in 2011 and Bradley Wiggins in 2012 – the notably down-to-earth Thomas would be one of those winners, such as Andy Murray, whose behaviour reminds us that not all champions are consumed by self-importance.
It remains to be seen, however, whether his chances are compromised by the ambivalent attitudes towards Team Sky, whose logo he carried on his yellow jersey in Paris in July. His victory was Sky’s fourth in a row in grand tours, following Chris Froome’s hat-trick of Tour, Vuelta and Giro, and it certainly did not serve to increase their popularity among those alienated by three factors: the team’s response to the accusations over Wiggins’s use of TUEs (Wiggins insists he did not “cross the ethical line”), Froome’s adverse analytical finding for illegal amounts of salbutamol (Froome was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing), and the way Sir Dave Brailsford’s squad so methodically squeeze the life out of stage races.
Sky’s budget of more than ￡30m a year makes it possible for Brailsford to reward riders who would be leaders in most other teams with salaries that make them content, at least for a year or two, in the role of super-domestique. In some minds, a natural distaste for such blatantly money-fuelled dominance tends to mute what would otherwise be an unabashed appreciation of feats as dramatic as Froome’s astonishing and race-defining 80km attack on stage 19 of the Giro or Thomas’s majestic victory in the yellow jersey on the Alpe d’Huez.
With his modest manner and wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, Thomas is such an engaging character that he can almost rise single-handed above the morass. It helps that the world has seen him content to wait his turn, riding loyally in the service of Froome until this year’s Tour, when the realisation that he was stronger than the team’s designated leader finally allowed him to take his chance.
What that experience has meant for him is perceptively analysed in an essay by Philippa York in the first edition of The Road Book, launched this month as a Wisden of cycling. York, who won the Tour’s polka dot jersey as Robert Millar in 1984, describes the long process by which most riders gain status within a top team, and of the mental adaptation required. “When you’ve gone through the ranks you’ll have gotten used to helping other riders on your team when you don’t necessarily have to,” she writes. “Things like taking rain capes back and bringing bottles up – which might cost you a little energy but are thoughtful things to do for your colleagues – are no longer expected of you. Your job as leader means saving as much energy as possible until it’s time for you to begin racing. So those niceties are replaced by a selfishness to protect your own – and subsequently the team’s – chances.”
Taking on the role of leader, she says, involves becoming aware that “it’s more than just bike racing; it’s a business, and the whole team structure might well depend on how you perform. Team staff won’t be earning anything like the amount you do as the No 1 rider, and they’ll probably have mortgages and bills to pay. It’s not just your own livelihood that you’re defending any longer.”
This was certainly true in York’s time, and probably long before. Certainly well before Rupert Murdoch’s millions bankrolled Brailsford’s attempt to win the Tour “with a clean British rider”. What Sky’s money has changed is the level of professionalism brought to bear by the team management: a degree of control both of performance and tactics that David Lappartient, the president of the UCI, is trying to mitigate by reducing the size of teams (nine to eight riders this year, perhaps to six in the future), while Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s director, is threatening to ban power meters in order to bring spontaneity back into the racing.
Seeing the enthusiasm of the sold-out house for the Cycling Podcast’s live show at The Grand in Clapham last week, you wouldn’t imagine that cycling has a problem. But it does, and the rider-turned-sporting-director Tom Southam diagnoses it. “In 2018,” he writes in The Road Book, “bike racing is in a funny place: it looks less active and attractive than ever, yet winning is probably more difficult than it has ever been.” He witnesses “high-speed races where nothing appears to have happened at all – but then I see riders step on to the [team] bus, exhausted by the greedy speed of the peloton that seems to lay waste to the best plans to light up the race”.
He doesn’t offer a solution – for what it’s worth, I think that Lappartient and Prudhomme have got it right – but it’s another of the thoughtful pieces featured alongside the 50-quid volume’s mass of statistical information. Edited by the admirable Ned Boulting, its 1,000 pages include not just the results from each of the season’s races, women’s and men’s, but the weather, too, including the wind speed and direction.
An absorbing obituaries section is among Boulting’s Wisden-like touches, along with the nomination of riders of the year, selected by a jury containing several former champions.
Whatever happens in Spoty, there’s good news for Geraint Thomas here.