Geraint Thomas, at age 36, still has something left in the tank. The 2018 Tour de France winner finished 2nd from the GC riders in Tour de Suisse stage 7, practically winning the GC as the last stage is a flat time-trial, and his closest rivals in the GC, Sergio Higuita (two seconds ahead) and Jakob Fulgsang (17 seconds behind), are not known for their time-trial ability.
Stage 7 finished with the steep Malbun climb (12.6 km, 8.73%) in Liechtenstein. The climbing level in the Tour de Suisse has not been as high as expected, as both the pre-race favourites Dani Martinez and Remco Evenepoel were not close to their peak levels and Bora leader Aleksandr Vlasov had to abandon due to contracting COVID. With Thomas a second behind Fuglsang on GC ahead of the pivotal final stage time trial, INEOS just needed to control the tempo on Malbun, setting a steady pace for Thomas in the hot conditions.
Other teams did not dare to challenge INEOS. Bora-Hansgrohe had the best climber of the day, Sergio Higuita, who was 3rd in the GC before the stage. His teammates, Maximilian Schachmann and Felix Großschartner where holding in the group for a long time, but did not fully commit for Higuita as they were probably trying to finish in the Top 10 in the GC themselves. Schachmann paced at the front for a brief moment with 7 km to go, but after Evenepoel’s short attack with Fuglsang on his wheel, INEOS took to pacing again, with Martinez’ presence likely a major deterrence for early attacks, as he was able to do a 5 kilometre pull.
After Martinez was done, Higuita attacked from the reduced group with 1.7km to go. Thomas did everything perfectly and just drafted Fuglsang, knowing he would take a lot of time in the upcoming time-trial. Thomas is an ITT specialist and feels more comfortable with a steady pace and then his customary final 500 metre surge.
Higuita beat Thomas at the finish only by 11 seconds after Thomas dropped Fuglsang, the latter of whom slowed down considerably at the end and lost 29 seconds. Higuita became the GC leader with Thomas being 2 seconds behind, which means he will use the INEOS skinsuit for the final time-trial, which will be 25.6 kilometres long and avoid any press obligations this evening.
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The tempo on Malbun was pretty high, with Higuita doing 5.96 w/kg for 39 minutes. On the previous stage on Moosalp, the GC riders went way slower, doing 5.52 w/kg for 52 minutes and 19 seconds in very hot conditions.
It was one of the best performances for Thomas in recent years, considering the big heat in Tour de Suisse. This year’s Tour de France suits time-trial specialists and northern classics competent GC men, so Thomas might be the best shot for INEOS with Dani Martinez as a co-leader. There is a big question mark over Adam Yates, who tested positive for Covid-19 in Tour de Suisse.
The performance is at a lower level than Roglic, Vingegaard and O’Connor on Solaison, but the Dauphiné, although not ideal conditions for top climbing performances, was not near the sweltering conditions experienced by the riders in the Tour de Suisse this week.
How Much did the Heat Affect the Riders?
Evenepoel seemed to struggle in the hot conditions in Tour de Suisse, with temperatures being over +30C degrees and Quickstep stating that he was not racing with illness. Evenepoel showed the first weakness on stage 5, where he got dropped on the hilly parcours, which was similar to Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the race he won in April. The Belgian struggled also on the longer climbs, dropping early, despite a slow and steady tempo compared to Tour of Norway stage 3, where Evenepoel produced 6.5 w/kg for 30 minutes and beat such riders as Tobias Johannesen and Esteban Chaves by more than 80 seconds, both of whom later produced good performances in Criterium du Dauphiné and Mont Ventoux Challenge.
Many big riders in Tour de Suisse like Aleksandr Vlasov, Adam Yates, and Tom Pidcock tested positive for Covid-19, but not Remco. The reason why Evenepoel struggled so hard, maybe, is that he is relatively worse in the heat compared to riders like Fuglsang or Thomas. According to the Jake Nichols article about The Impact of Temperature on Relative Power Output, the optimal temperature for cycling is 13C, which was the temperature range seen in the mountain stages in the Tour of Norway 2022 and Tirreno-Adriatico 2021 and 2022. Of course, every rider responds differently to different temperatures and so the graph below is not a one-size fits all for a rider’s watts drop off. The most extreme case might be Portuguese Conti team riders who are able to do high level performances even in 40C heat.
Given the temperatures in the 30s in the Tour de Suisse mountain stages this week, either Thomas is extremely resistant to the heat or his shape is at his peak ever level and his climbing performances are even more impressive. Unfortunately for Thomas, climbing speeds have progressed significantly since 2018 when he won the Tour de France, and he and INEOS will need huge time gains in the tricky first week of this year’s Tour if he is to even finish on the podium.