Asking G about the D-word
Geraint Thomas is poised to win the 2018 Tour de France. He’s been asked a lot of things but the race has somehow been void of questions about doping… so, on the eve of the final weekend, he explained why he believes it is not relevant to him.
There has been plenty written about how the public has responded to Team Sky and its dominant performances at the Tour de France in recent years. It seems that a champion of the race simply isn’t celebrated like a winner ought to be – and we understand some of the reasons why. Cycling, like all pro sports in the modern world, suffers because of doubt.
Riders and fans and the media have all been suckered into believing before and there’s a reason why there’s cynicism about good performances.
Much of the focus of many reports about the race in 2018 has been on the reaction from the crowds. Much has been written about the topic and many questions asked, and rightfully so. Some of the antics on the roadside have been rank and it should never come to this.
Of course, we want to believe – otherwise there’d be no sport.
If every win was derided and ridiculed by the public and the media, what is the point? Where is the glory of winning and then being forced to set about proving that the result is clean?
So much effort goes into winning a race like the Tour de France but champions of the modern era have been grilled with queries about how it came to be that they are better than the rest of an elite peloton. That’s how it was during the Armstrong years and we know why. He was questioned and he responded; often with blatant lies, regularly with the claim that he had “never tested positive”, and other such nonsense. When he came clean and confessed, it was too little, too late.
The damage had been done and although the Texan delivered a halcyon time for cycling, his cheating ways have turned people against his sport – or at least against the athletes who now strive to win while the mood of doubt lingers.
It is now 20 years since the Festina Affair began to expose just how severe things had been. That should have been the ultimate cleansing, when sporting fraud was considered a crime and jail time could have been the result of doping. But it continued – and, surely, continues.
So how to we overcome the doubt and find the love again?
When will the public stop booing and start applauding?
Who is the rider who will ultimately stand on the podium as a champion that is universally admired?
Photos: Yuzuru Sunada
Team Sky began with the claim of having a “zero tolerance” policy. The plan was to win the Tour within five years with a British rider and it duly set about achieving that lofty ambition.
In 2012, Bradley Wiggins was lauded on his way to victory. He provided some entertainment, some panache, some wit and even some humour – and, we wanted to believe, a little bit of honesty.
It’s possible Sky’s first victory would have come a year earlier had ‘Wiggo’ not crashed out of the Tour in stage nine… instead, there was an Australian winner at a time when the champion of the previous edition was still under investigation. In 2011 Cadel Evans won the title and many believe this to be a ‘clean’ win.
In recent years, cycling has prospered in Britain, similarly there was more interest in the sport than ever before in Australia and success in the Tour de France can take some of the credit for this growth.
But the USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision’ highlighted how stupid cycling had become. Armstrong’s confession came after Wiggo’s win and before Chris Froome began collecting title. What this translated to was an atmosphere at the Tour in which almost every press conference was filled with queries about doping.
How Chris? Why Chris? Is it possible, Chris, to be so much better than the others and do so clean?
He became accustomed to the queries and managed them in fine style.
Thomas and Froome on the starting grid of stage 17 (above).
Froome became an ambassador for the new era of cycling and, he promised, his results would stand the test of time. That’s what he said on the podium that evening in Paris when he won the 100th Tour and he has repeated sentiment to that effect ever since.
And while he has been cleared of his ‘adverse analytical finding’ and a comprehensive explanation (eventually) given, doubt remains. This is cycling and that’s how it is.
This is the reason for the behaviour or some in the crowd: they don’t want to subsequently find out that they cheered someone who lied to them. And, in 2018, rather than being given the reception worthy of a rider who could be lavished with praise he has been subjected to taunts.
Of course, it’s not everyone in the crowd. It’s even a minority… but they are vocal and they earn media attention and for those outside the sport who tune in when the biggest race of all is being contested, it’s not surprising that they are led to believe that cycling remains stained – dirty, rotten… and that the winners are scoundrels.
Enter Geraint Thomas: a rider who has raced through the British system since he was a junior. He has achieved impressive results on the world stage, won Olympic gold, set world records and given prominence to track cycling as part of a system that had manage to eke out the best of an impressive collective of athletes.
At 21, he was good enough to find himself selected to compete in the Tour de France when the race began in London in 2007, but he reached the finish ruined – “on my knees”.
That was then, this is now. G is just days away from becoming the first Welsh rider to win the yellow jersey. Cool, huh?
Many questions have come his way since he first took the lead and started having to attend the post-stage press conferences as he made his way from the Alps to the Pyrenees as race leader.
What was it like to win a mountain stage at La Rosier?
How did you feel winning at Alpe d’Huez wearing the yellow jersey?
Who is the leader at Team Sky?
When did you realise that Chris Froome would be racing to help you?
Plenty of other questions propped up, ones that had little to do with the race but a lot to do with the crowds and the reception received by his team.
As he has done since his formative years, Geraint Thomas responded to each query with as much honesty as he could conjure. He didn’t shy away from any topic and never once was he heard uttering, “no comment”.
Surprisingly though – and in total contrast to the barrage endured by Wiggins and then Froome – G was never once asked to provide a comment that would help alleviate concerns of the cynical public.
And so we reach the point of this yarn…
While the Tour of 2018 was in the Pyrenees, it became apparent that Team Sky had a new leader for the race… the 32-year-old Welshman known simply as ‘G’.
In Laruns, at the end of the 105th Tour’s rendezvous with the mountains, Geraint went through the usual post-race rigmarole. He was asked about the Tourmalet, about Froome, about the winner of stage 19, Primoz Riglic. And he offered good, interesting explanations all of which were duly recorded by the media and some will even appear in stories in the days to come.
But G hadn’t been asked about the D-word. It seems odd. What about doping G? How can we believe you have done this clean?
Wiggins, Froome, Vincenzo Nibali have all won the title since Armstrong’s belated confession and each of them endured endless queries about their successes. But, as I said at the end of an anxious question from the press room, “It has been Tour void of questions for you about that topic.”
* * * * *
A champion who can be lauded? Isn’t that what cycling needs?
Question time: the D-Word
Not wanting to accuse, not seeking scandal, not trying to be clever, rather just wanting to know how he would respond, I took the microphone and asked the following question.
“G, I’m trying to word this the right way, but when Bradley and then Chris have won the Tour, there’s been quite a lot of talk – a lot of speculation – about doping and lots of questions about doping. There’s been TUE references and obviously issues with asthma. And it’s a cynical world. I wonder if there’s something that you could say to overcome any doubt that the public has – the media has – for performances [by] Team Sky as a whole.
“It has,” I concluded, “been Tour void of questions for you about that topic.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. What can you say? I think all I’ve got to do is know I do it the right way, the team does it the right way,” he said.
His answer provided an overview of some reasons why Team Sky looks likely to win again. And that’s all he could do.
He was hardly going to talk about any miracle elixir that made him better than all others. But perhaps the most interesting thing that came from the exchange was to watch and see if he squirmed or tried to avoid the topic. But he is G. He is cool, calm, collected and he said what came to mind while in the video conference bus in the ‘zone technique’ (while I asked the question via video hook-up from the press room).
This is the rest of his answer, verbatim…:
“We train super hard and, you know, there’s nothing I can say to prove it.
“I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and it will stand the test of time, I guess.
“The team here is super strong. Just look at the individuals we have…
“Kwiato, he wins Classics, he’s been world champion.
“We’ve got, obviously, myself, Froomey, Egan – the brightest talent/climber in a long, long time.
“Luke Rowe who is up there in all the Classics, he’s a super strong guy.
“I’ve probably forgotten someone. Ah, Wout… you know, Wout has won Liège.
“You know, the team is just phenomenally strong.
“It’s not just having good legs as well, it’s having good heads, and we ride together really well. We don’t panic.
“Like today, I think really showed that and there’s nothing more I can say really – just that I work super hard and it’s really nice to finally… I’ve had lots of bad lucks and things and it’s nice that it’s paying off. There’s one more big, big day.”
When the time trial of stage 20 is over, if he’s still in the yellow jersey, he will give the winner’s press conference before jetting off up north for the procession to Paris.
Geraint Thomas has achieved something genuinely special. He is going to win the Tour de France. And perhaps he’s the kind of character who can make the cynics believe again. Only time will tell.
– By Rob Arnold