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Anyone who watched Tom Pidcock’s stunning solo win at Strade Bianche on Saturday, the second major victory of his road racing career, would have been put in mind of his first.
The way Pidcock pulled away from his pursuers in the final kilometres in Tuscany, speeding down the race’s famous white gravel roads with complete disregard for his own personal safety, was strongly reminiscent of his daredevil descent off the Galibier at last year’s Tour de France, which led to his breakthrough win on Alpe d’Huez. Yet another masterclass in his fledgling career.
In fact there is a strong argument to be made that the 23-year-old from Yorkshire – already an Olympic gold medallist in mountain bike and a world champion in cyclocross – is the most entertaining bike rider in the world right now.
It will surprise no one to learn that Pidcock is not satisfied yet though. He has big ambitions, both in the classics this spring and on the roads of France this summer.
Take his verdict on his Alpe d’Huez win last summer for instance. “The performance on the day was not bad,” he says now, eight months on. “But it wasn’t the best. I know very well I won that stage from the breakaway. I didn’t beat the best riders in the race one-on-one. The next step is winning stages against the best guys. But I believe I can. I believe one day I can win the Tour.”
It is quite a statement from a rider who has not yet won a stage race of any description. But such is Pidcock’s versatility and self-belief, you believe him when he says it.
Sitting alongside Pidcock at the Ineos Grenadiers’ winter training base in Mallorca, Geraint Thomas smiles. The Welshman is at the other end of his career. In fact, this could well be his final season in the sport. The 36-year-old is out of contract at the end of the year and has not yet decided whether to renew.
One senses, though, that he is enjoying the autumn of his career alongside young bucks such as Pidcock. They rib each other throughout our interview. When I ask Thomas about his contract, whether he might sign for another team, he says something along the lines of “It’s Ineos or nothing”.
“That’s not putting you in a very good negotiating position,” Pidcock quips. “Say there’s lots of interest!” “There’s always lots of interest,” Thomas laughs.
But they are earnest too. Thomas says he feeds off the energy of youngsters on the team such as Pidcock, Josh Tarling and Ben Tulett, describing their enthusiasm as “infectious”. “If you hang around the same people year after year you end up getting stale,” admits the Welshman. “The younger guys are so enthusiastic, even if none of them want to do a turbo with me in the morning yet! Maybe one of them will crack by the end of the camp.”
“Do you want to come running in the morning instead?” asks Pidcock, a sub-15min 5km runner.
“Can’t. Don’t have the right trainers,” Thomas fires back.
Pidcock, for his part, says he has taken a huge amount from watching how Thomas trains and acts at big races.
In particular at last year’s Tour, where the 2018 champion finished a very creditable third overall behind Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar, thereby completing the full set of Tour de France podium finishes in his career.
“I grew up watching guys like G on TV,” he says. “And last year we were riding the Tour together. It was incredible. To see first hand what it takes to be so solid in a grand tour. The preparation, the consistency, the work it requires, the concentration.
“I mean, I’m not the most patient person in the world at the best of times. But grand tours… on the first day you think ‘Alright’. Then you get to week two and you’re thinking ‘It’s not so bad’. By week three, I was just completely on my knees. Experience shows. And you can learn faster by watching guys like G and Luke [Rowe]….”
Pidcock says in particular he allowed himself to get too carried away by his epic win on the Alpe. “I had about two hours sleep after that stage,” he recalls. “Things went downhill fast from there.”
Pidcock has already shown he is prepared to compromise in pursuit of his goals. He chose not to defend his rainbow jersey at the Cyclocross worlds in Hoogerheide last month, in order to give himself “a proper crack” at the classics this year. “Last year couldn’t have gone much more wrong for me at the Classics,” he says. “This year, I want to do myself justice.” Judging by his performance at the weekend, that decision paid off. The next few weeks promise plenty more entertainment.
Thomas, meanwhile, will be hoping to use of all that aforementioned experience at this year’s Giro d’Italia, his main goal for the season. It is a race the Welshman might have won a couple of times in the past but for bad luck. With a parcours this year that includes three time trials, the route should suit him. He turns 37 during the race and says he is looking forward to it.
Will it be his final grand tour? Will he renew? “I don’t know,” he admits. “I was thinking I would stop at the end of 2023. But I might possibly do another season. It depends.” On what? His form in the first few months of the season? ”Not really. It’s a decision I’d like to make fairly soon to be honest. Because if it’s going to be my last year I want to just, you know, take it in and make the most of racing with these guys while I’m still here.” He smiles. “Obviously Tom is the main man in the team now.”
Pidcock looks a little embarrassed by the compliment. But this is not a man lacking in self-confidence. After the classics season is over, he will take some time off to go mountain biking – he wants to defend his MTB gold in Paris next year – but after that it is all systems go for the Tour.
Asked how quickly he expects himself to be challenging the likes of Pogacar and Vingegaard on the biggest stage of all – Pidcock stayed up in the top 10 for two weeks last year before fading to 16th – he does not flinch. “For now, I want to win stages outright,” he replies. “Obviously, after last year, I’ll have less and less freedom to be able to go in breaks and win like I did last year. So yeah the next step in my development is winning stages outright.”
And the yellow jersey? “In the future, yeah why not? “I think I know myself quite well. I know what my limits are. Whether it’s mountain biking or the Olympics, or with cross, or where I can get to with the classics… I feel like when I believe it’s realistic to win something, so far I haven’t been wrong about it.”