PARIS (Reuters) - When an apple-cheeked 21-year-old Geraint Thomas finished his first Tour de France in penultimate position, nobody would have guessed Wales would go bananas for their first champion in the biggest cycling race 11 years later.
Thomas always had ‘the engine’, as his 2008 and 2012 Olympic team pursuit gold medals proved, but he looked more poised to win one-day races than a grand tour.
But just like many riders before him –- such as five-time champions Jacques Anquetil or his compatriot Bradley Wiggins -– Thomas gradually shed weight in order to follow the best in the mountains and his progression has been steady, making it little surprise that he paraded with the yellow jersey on his shoulders on the Champs Elysees on Sunday.
“It doesn’t feel like anything I have experienced. Geraint is so fiercely, or proudly Welsh. The Welsh angle brings a whole different dimension,” said Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, who was also brought up in Wales.
With his title, Thomas joins rugby’s Sam Warburton and football’s Gareth Bale in the Welsh sports half of fame as all three of them were educated at Whitchurch high school.
“It’s just proper, proper happiness,” Brailsford added.
While before him Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, or even Chris Froome were not hugely popular in the peloton, Thomas is one of the nice guys of the bunch.
“You’re not going to find anybody who’s got a bad word against Geraint,” said Brailsford, who did not even have to manage his two leaders’ conflicting ambitions.
Thomas wanted a first Tour crown, Froome a record-equalling fifth, but there was never tension between the two as the road settled a potential dispute.
Both riders sat next to each other and chatted happily in the plane that took the peloton from Pau to the outskirts of Paris for the final stage.
“These two guys deserve so much credit for the way they have handled themselves. I haven’t had to manage them at all -– they have worked it out for themselves, and that takes some doing,” said Brailsford.
The youngest member of the British pursuit team in 2006, Thomas put his road cycling career on hold to focus on the Beijing Olympics, where he won the first of his two team pursuit gold medals.
In 2012, he was not riding the Tour when Wiggins, another track cyclist turned grand tour ace, became the first Briton to win the race.
The year after, he broke his pelvis in the first stage of the Tour but ground his teeth throughout to help Froome secure his first title.
“He is a true fighter,” Brailsford noted.
His track cycling days behind him, Thomas, who lives and trains in Monaco like Froome but often goes back to Wales, started to get decent results in the classics. He finished eighth in the Tour of Flanders and seventh in Paris-Roubaix in 2014, 10 years after winning the juniors’ event of the one-day cobbled race.
But he was meant for more and Sky promoted him leader on some week-long stage races and he quickly delivered, winning Paris-Nice in 2016 one year after finishing second in the Tour de Suisse.
To win the Tour, with two prestigious mountain stage wins along the way, Thomas had to shake off his unlucky tag. Last year, he crashed into a police motorbike during the Giro.
“Anything can happen on a grand tour; especially with me,” Thomas joked on Saturday.
This time, however, there was no wobble.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge