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Thomas hoping for a smooth path to retaining Tour de France crown

 

Geared up: Geraint Thomas
Geared up: Geraint Thomas

By Phil Medlicott

Geraint Thomas joked he would be happy with an "uneventful" Tour de France as long as a Team Ineos rider is stood on the top step in Paris at the end of the month.

Chris Froome's absence leaves the impression that this could be one of the most open Tours in recent memory, though Ineos would like to maintain the stranglehold that has seen them win six of the last seven editions as Team Sky.

"Hopefully one of us wins and it's really uneventful," Thomas said with a laugh.

They will begin the race today with the top two favourites on the bookmakers' list in their ranks, with Thomas sharing leadership with young Colombian sensation Egan Bernal.

The defending champion certainly enjoyed his celebrations after last July's surprise victory but said the desire to get back to France has been building in him now for some time.

"I just love training, riding my bike and being with the guys," the Welshman said. "From November I was just super keen to get back. I'd had enough of everything else off the bike.

"It's just something inside you, you want to push yourself. Last year was a great race, an amazing experience, and I'd love to experience that again.

"I don't think I've anything to prove. Some people have said about being a one-hit wonder, but it's a pretty good hit to have."

Thomas was elevated to the status of Tour favourite after Froome's horror crash at the Criterium du Dauphine, but there is an increasing belief that this year's high-altitude route suits Bernal, whose stock rose further with his victory at the Tour de Suisse last month after Thomas crashed out.

At 22, and going into only his second Grand Tour after finishing 15th in last year's Tour, Bernal is short on experience, but Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford has absolutely no doubts over his credentials.

"I think you have a physical age and a mental age, but when you're ready, you're ready," Brailsford said. "He's ready."

For his own part, Bernal said the strength of Team Ineos gives him confidence.

"I'm young to be a GC rider, but I have a team with a lot of experience," he said. "For me it's a little bit easier when you have some team-mates that you can follow.

"I follow them and they put me in a good position and I try to do my best. With a team like this, maybe it's a little bit easier."

Brailsford also revealed that Froome had, on Thursday, left hospital for the first time since his crash almost three weeks ago.

"He left hospital yesterday and was transferred home," Brailsford said. "It's a big step for him. He's managed to put his feet on the floor for the first time in quite a long time.

"A few of the guys here have been to visit him and he's in remarkable spirits for the situation he's found himself in."

Meanwhile, Alex Dowsett is eyeing time-trial glory on the Tour as he starts the race for only the second time in his career.

The 30-year-old will line up for Katusha-Alpecin when the 106th edition of the Tour begins in Brussels today, with tomorrow's team time trial and the stage 13 individual race against the clock his key objectives.

Dowsett's only previous Tour appearance came in 2015 when he started the race for Movistar less than two months after breaking the Hour Record, but he was forced to abandon on stage 12 after struggling with injuries from a crash in the opening week.

The Essex rider comes into the Tour on the back of winning his record-equalling sixth national time trial title last weekend.

"I'm much better prepared than in 2015 when I was trying to scrape Grand Tour form after Hour Record form, so I'm ready," said Dowsett. "We've got a plucky team so we'll be stage-hunting, especially from the breakaway, and for me it's about the individual and team time trials."

The team's focus has changed since star sprinter and 14-time Tour stage winner Marcel Kittel cut short his contract in May to spend time off the bike.

"I think it's given us a new lease of life," Dowsett said. "We all had faith in Marcel and he's still one of the best sprinters in the world, but something wasn't working.

"When Marcel left he wished us all the best and we wished him all the best. I think it was admirable of him to make the call."

Without Kittel, Ilnur Zakarin - who finished ninth overall last year - is hoping to mix it with the general classification hopefuls, while Jens Debusschere and Rick Zabel will eye the sprints, but the rest of the team will be allowed to make their own targets.

"We've not come with a Geraint Thomas or Romain Bardet," Dowsett said. "We're a plucky team and we can fight together and have our own little targets as well.

"We have a team with depth so I think we can cause some trouble."

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