This year’s race visits four countries and covers 3,540 kilometres – including five mountain stages – before finishing in Paris on Sunday, July 23. One hundred and 98 riders from 22 teams were due to sign on for today’s opening short time-trial and for Thwaites, a 27-year-old from Burley-in-Wharfedale, it is a dream come true.
“It is the biggest race in the world for cycling and one everyone wants to do,” said Thwaites. “I’ve been pretty much 10th man the last three times for NetApp-Endura, which has been a bit frustrating. It has often been down to political decisions, having to take a certain number of riders from certain countries. It’s the same with every team, but it is nice to finally get the opportunity and it has been good in some ways because I’ve had time to get stronger and develop. Now I am better than I have ever been and I know I can definitely contribute to the team.”
Thwaites will be riding for Team Dimension Data, a South African squad formerly known as MTN-Qhubeka. He joined them last year and, even before selection for the Tour, felt that was the right decision.
“I’ve had a really good spring and I feel like I’ve fitted in well,” Thwaites said of a squad which also includes this year’s Tour de Yorkshire winner Serge Pauwels.
“It’s a great atmosphere in the team and even if I didn’t go to the Tour I’d still be happy here. But going to the Tour and having such good team-mates as Steve Cummings and Cav [Mark Cavendish] and working for those guys in the biggest race in the calendar, I am really grateful. It shows the team have got faith in me, they know what I am capable of and that I can bring something to the team at the Tour.”
This is Thwaites’ second Grand Tour – the name given to the trio of three-week stage races around Italy, France and Spain – after he finished 116th in last year’s Vuelta a Espana. “It was nice to do the Vuelta,” he said. “It is a bit more relaxed than the Tour and has shorter stages.
“It was a good introduction to the Grand Tour style of riding and I know what I need to do to get through the race and how to gauge my efforts, so it’s good to have that under my belt.”
Thwaites’ main role will be to boost his team’s chances of stage wins. In Cavendish they boast one of the best in the business. He has crossed the finish line first 30 times in previous Tours de France and needs just four more wins to pull level with record holder – and the greatest cyclist of all time – Eddy Merckx.
Cavendish could not have achieved those victories without help from his teammates, to pace him back to the pack after punctures or crashes, fetch food and drink from team cars, assist him over the mountains and ensure he is manoeuvred into the best possible position in the final few metres of a stage.
“There’s a lot of sprints this year,” observed Thwaites. “It is either sprints or mountains, with not so many intermediate stages. We will be focusing on the sprints and that’s the reason I have been selected. I will be part of Cav’s leadout for the sprint stages and once we get past those my options will be open, I’ll have more of a free role.
“I am not the best climber in the world so I’ll struggle when we get into the high mountains, but it would be nice to get into a breakaway and have a day out front. But I want to stay within myself and make sure I will be able to go the next day. It is a long, hard race and it is a big goal to get all the way to Paris. The Tour’s last stage is so iconic and I want to get there and be able to experience that.”
A win for Cavendish on the Champs-Elysees, with Thwaites helping lead him out, would be the perfect finale. Cavendish missed much of the early part of the season through illness, but Thwaites said: “He wouldn’t put himself forward for the Tour if he didn’t think he could win stages; he’s not the sort of person who would ride just to be in the top-five. If he has confidence in himself it gives the guys and the management a lot of confidence. It might take him a few more days to get going than previous years, but I think he is definitely capable of winning some stages.”
Great Britain’s Chris Froome is bidding for his fourth Tour de France title in five years. Other big favourites include previous winner Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana. Assessing the battle for the overall yellow jersey, Thwaites said: “I don’t think there’s much between all the favourites this year. It is very open. Richie is in great form and everyone’s saying Chris Froome isn’t. He will come stronger in the latter part of the race.”