An injury for Chris Froome in the days leading up to Tirreno-Adriatico set in motion a sequence of events that led to Geraint Thomas being given leadership responsibility at Team Sky for Paris-Nice. An lo, four days into the French race, the Welshman is wearing the maillot jaune with an advantage of three seconds over dual stage winner John Degenkolb.
The quick overview of how this all came about goes like this: Froome was originally to be the leader of Sky at Tirreno-Adriatico; he got a sore back and was replaced in the line-up by Richie Porte who would take over leadership for the Italian race that started yesterday; Porte, the defending champion of Paris-Nice, was flown to Italy… and Sky nominated Geraint Thomas as the team’s protected rider in France. He’s got the number-one dossard and now he’s the race leader.
‘G’, as he’s known, has been a professional for eight years. He’s led a WorldTour stage race before and has worn prize jerseys in some of the biggest races in the world. He’s won two Olympic gold medals as part of the British pursuit team (in 2008 and 2012) and has a record that suggests he was born to be a bike rider.
As Thomas revealed in an interview with RIDE early in 2013, however, he wondered if he had what it took to be a professional cyclist.
“When I first started the Tour de France in 2007, I’d just turned 21 and was the youngest rider in the race.”
The Tour began in London that year and Thomas was part of the Barloworld outfit that had received its first wildcard invitation. In Montpellier, his team-mate Robbie Hunter became the first South African to win a Tour stage offering reason to celebrate but the young Welshman admits it marked the day he very nearly conceded defeat. This cycling caper, he concluded, was too difficult.
“When I think I’m tired now, it’s like, ‘Actually, I’m not that tired… just remember the 2007 Tour…’ After stage five I was already feeling like I was completely broken. By the first rest day I had blisters everywhere. My arms and knees… everything was just aching. The rest day came at the right time, sure… but never again have I suffered like that!”
Two months after his 21st birthday, he limped into Paris in 140th place. He was exhausted but he insisted on finishing.
When asked if there was a time that he simply wanted to quit, he confidently tells it like it is: “Yep.” No hesitation. And he knows exactly when it was that his cycling career almost came to an end. “The day that Robbie Hunter won [in Montpellier].
“It all split in the crosswinds when ‘Vino’ attacked just after the feedzone. I was absolutely at my maximum just holding the wheel in front of me. We were the back group and I was with Charlie [Wegelius] and he’s not known as a rider for the crosswinds. I looked at him and said, ‘There’s no way I can go anymore…’ and I freewheeled for a split second…” his voice trails off in the retelling. He rolls his eyes upward as though he can see the memory of that moment in a thought bubble above his head. And then he continues the story.
“I was, like, ‘Oh shit no! What am I doing?’
“So I got out of the saddle, sprinted, got back on the wheel and stayed there holding on for grim life. That was my worst day on my worst Tour ever.”
He said this in January 2013. In July that year he crashed in stage one of the Tour de France, fractured his pelvis and it was recommended that he quit the race. Again he insisted on finishing. Again he made it all the way to Paris. Again he finished in 140th place on GC.
The vicious cycle got him…
“There’s something about it,” he says of the Tour. “Once you start the day, you do not want to stop. It feels like you’ve got to get to the end. And then, in the evening, you’re like, ‘Oh f—, I just can’t start tomorrow – I’m just dead.’ Then you go to sleep, you wake up, and you think, ‘Okay, well… I’m here. I’ve got to start. And as soon as you start, you’re like, ‘No, no, no… I’m not stopping now!’ It’s a vicious cycle.
“I had a few days when I was like… well, the day before the first rest day in 2007 I was out the back on my own for, like, 100 kilometres. I was doing nothing in the race, just chasing the grupetto and I just managed to catch them on the last climb. Everyone was feeding me gels and stuff. That race is just hell.
“The first hour – or two hours – was just killing me every day. I just really struggled. I was just hanging in there to finish each stage. But once I did it was, like, ‘Phew! I managed it today.’
“I was rooming with Hunter and everyday he’d be, like, ‘Right, you’ve got to get to here…’ and he’d point to a mark on the course in the road book, ‘You’ve got to get to this point and then they’ll sit up and it’ll be easy.’
“But then there are the transitional stages as well. Everyone is like, ‘Oh, they’re just the transitional stages…’ as though it’s just like getting from one point to the other. No way! They’re the toughest for sure. Nobody sits up because, well, you can’t because you’ll lose too much time. And it was just breaking my balls every day. But I just felt so strong after it was all over!”
* * * * *
The track is what lured him in. As a 17-year-old he won medals in four events in the junior events at the British championships: bronze in the ‘kilo’ (won by Mark Cavendish), silver in the pursuit (won by Ed Clancy), silver in the points race (won by Ed Clancy) and bronze in the scratch race (won by Bruce Edgar, with Cavendish in second place). The next year, 2004, he was the junior scratch race world championship.
Ten years later, the track is part of his past. He’s moving on. The Olympics in London when he joined Steven Burke, Peter Kennaugh and Clancy to set a world record in the final of the team pursuit was his last hurrah on the velodrome. Once 4,000m has been ridden in 3:51.659, it’s fair to ask: what else do we need to prove? Now he’s dreaming of emulating another former pursuit specialist.
The leadership responsibility at Paris-Nice helped Richie Porte get a better understanding of himself in 2013. He had a team behind him and he not only took the yellow jersey midway through the race, he held onto it all the way and won the TT up the col d’Eze on the final day.
This year there’s no TT in Paris-Nice. There’s no defending champion but there is a rider from Sky wearing yellow after stage four. And it’s the inspiration that Thomas gets from what his team-mates have achieved that spurs him on.
“I now definitely think, ‘Why not?’
“I don’t think, ‘No, I can’t do that.’
“Yeah. Definitely. Why not? Why not?!”
Inspiration comes from all around: Porte and Froome have played a part, so too Sir Dave Brailsford and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Thomas has grown up in the British cycling system. He’s been part of the evolution of the track program and an original member of Team Sky. And the achievements of recent years remind him that he should never consider freewheeling instead of chasing again. More than that, he wants his progression to continue.
“What riders I know have achieved definitely changes my approach. It makes me think I can win races as a pro.”
It remains to be seen if he can become the third successive Sky rider to win the title at Paris-Nice – following the trail blazed by Wiggins in 2012 and Porte in 2013 – but at least he’s motivated to try.
“The main thing for me would be to work on my weight and my climbing,” he explained about where improvements can be made. “The weight is something that I’m slowly starting to chip away at…
“Seeing Brad do what he’s done has impressed me… he’s won the hardest race there is clean, so why can’t I do something similar?
“That’s what kinda made me think, ‘Yeah, go on the road full time now and go for it!’ Otherwise I could just do what I’ve done the last few years and tick away earning a decent wage on the road, not do anything too special, and then go back to the track and get some glory that way.”
Thomas had a terrible run of luck in the Spring of 2013 but before that he was optimistic about what needed doing in advance of his return to the Tour de France. “As soon as the Classics are done,” he said last January, “I want to go to Tenerife with Brad and those guys and just chase them up the climbs, I guess. I want to work on my threshold and really try and push that on.”
There’s a new mental approach when switching disciplines and the physical differences are also significant. Thomas is adapting to the changes and believes that he has what it takes to become a GC man. “When I started the Tour in 2011, I was 70kg. When I went for the first time , I must have been 73, easily.
“Everything has stepped up since that original Tour – strength wise, and with recovery and endurance and threshold… But even by the Giro a year later, the one before the Olympics in Beijing, I felt like a different rider. I felt like that first Tour definitely changed me in every way: physically but mentally more so, really. Nothing has ever been that hard again.”
– By Rob Arnold