Back in January 2016, Geraint Thomas had begun to make the commitment to become a genuine GC rider. This flashback feature is from #RIDE71 (published in March 2016) when the Welshman spoke about the challenges he faced at a critical time in his cycling career…
Geraint Thomas interview:
“more isn’t always better”
– Originally published in March 2016 –
Diet. Hunger. Racing. Living.
He’s one of the more versatile riders in the pro peloton. He has won Olympic gold and Classics, he can time trial and climb… and Geraint Thomas is another pursuiter who believes he could get on the Tour de France podium.
– By Rob Arnold
Geraint Thomas has achieved a lot already but he believes there’s a lot more yet to come from what is a most interesting career. After the London Olympics, RIDE spoke to him about his accomplishments as a track cyclist and what he expects will come next. He explained that finishing his first Tour de France tested his willpower more than just about anything in his riding career. But now he’s aiming to finish on the podium.
“I now definitely think, ‘Why not?’” he said about this topic a few years ago.
“I don’t think, ‘No, I can’t do that.’”
We caught up with ‘G’ again after stage one of the 2016 Tour Down Under to talk about his hopes for the season, how he manages his responsibilities and why cycling still means a lot to him 10 years into his pro racing career.
Twenty-four months after the chat at the Tour Down Under, Geraint was the champion of the Tour de France (above).
Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco
The issue of weight management…
Geraint Thomas was part of one of the most formidable pursuit teams ever. The gold medal ride at the Beijing Olympics was followed by a world record-breaking 4,000m ride in London and another Olympic title. Until 2012, the Welshman was an interesting amalgam: a track specialist who raced on the road when required. With the ‘home’ Olympics over, he switched focus and the Tour de France is his objective in his 10th season as a road cycling professional.
He was the youngest rider in the peloton when he made his debut at the Tour in 2007 and he limped to Paris as a member of the wild-card team, Barloworld. Since then the transformation to a GC specialist is becoming a reality. He’s been part of the Sky line-up for every Tour since the team began, except for 2012 when his focus was pursuiting.
Last year, in his sixth Tour start, on his way to assisting Chris Froome to a second title, he was Sky’s chief lieutenant, positioned in the top 10 on GC for 16 of the 21 stages.
It’s another Olympic year but, for the first time since G turned pro, he’s not concerned about the pursuit. Instead, he continues his evolution and a glance at his legs is enough to remind you that there’s a dramatic change taking place. Photos don’t tell the full story. There’s sinew and muscle but Thomas is very lean! We start the interview asking about the obvious, the dramatic difference in his physique.
“Yeah,” he says of the body shape change, “it’s big.”
There are reasons why he appears to be shrinking; any change of cycling priority at this level will alter body shape. Still, the rider has to be disciplined if he is to fine-tune a body from lean to leaner and retain strength. “Obviously, on the track you don’t even have to worry about weight. It’s all about power… some days you do maybe less than four kilometres but it’s all intense, powerful, explosive stuff and you can do all the muscle damage and you still have to take on your food and proteins and recover for the next day. It’s just that you bulk up and obviously you get more fat as well.
“So, yeah,” he confirms, “since leaving the track each year I’ve managed to get a little bit lighter.”
Not a lot bothers G but he admits that keeping weight off is a challenge. His coping mechanism is based largely on knowing what will come if he does let his guard down.
“The weight thing is the hardest,” he says about his new ambitions. “I find it easy to go out and train; I do that and I enjoy that. I really love it so the hardest bit is the food because it’s there 24/7 and you can’t just switch off from it. You’re constantly thinking about it. ‘Oh, I’m pretty hungry, I could eat this or that…’ You’re always craving the bad stuff and the grass is always greener…
“But then that’s why I have the little blow-outs… after the Classics in the past, I’ve had a week off where I go out for a few meals and have a few drinks. And then obviously in the off-season then I make the most of that for sure.”
It doesn’t take long for the novelty of pizza and beer to wear off. “As soon as you’ve had two weeks off, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I feel unhealthy and I want that routine now and that healthy living again…’”
How does a rider who binges only a couple of weeks for the year feel unhealthy? “You’ve usually got a sore head from a few too many drinks and you feel bigger,” explains Thomas. “Your insides just don’t feel healthy and clean.
“You’re so used to eating really good and healthy food: rice and quinoa, chicken, salads… and training like 20-30 hours a week, to doing nothin’ and eating burgers and pizzas and just feeling really sluggish and lethargic.”
There’s an obsession about weight in the pro ranks and that filters through this magazine because dieting is part of the sport. It’s a fine line between healthy eating and the need to resist hunger in the quest of weight loss but Thomas believes he is managing the balancing act. “It is genuinely an issue, I think, for some people.
“I can go out and have a meal – a steak or something, and ice-cream – and I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, yeah… it’s okay it’s just a once a week,’ and I won’t beat myself up about it. Whereas some guys probably would. It’s such a big issue.
“A kilo in a Grand Tour could make a difference from being top 10 overall, to being outside the top 20.
“For me this year it’s kinda like I want to get to that next level again and that will be the main factor, really, with it. Obviously training more specifically for climbs, and all this and that… but, at the same time, being a kilo lighter than I was last year – which is kind of like the target at the moment – will make a big difference.”
Direction by Sir Dave… in Gap, stage 16 of the 2015 Tour de France (above).
Photo: Rob Arnold
Shifting focus: from track to road
When we talked about his Olympic success several years ago Geraint told me he wanted to follow the lead of Bradley Wiggins, get lean and aim for GC results on the road. He’s close to the ideal mark and it’s come via experimentation and understanding what extremes he can push his body to.
His weight is down and that explains the lean aesthetic he presents early in the season in 2016. The numbers reflect the visuals. “At the Tour I was around 68kg,” he says about July 2015. So how does that compare with his track days? “Oh, I was big,” he laughs. “I must have been something like around 74, 75 probably on a big day.”
It is dramatic, especially for a rider who already appeared to be lean. “Yeah. I think the constant riding does that,” he surmises. “Just training purely on the road the whole time, you just lose weight. Even if I didn’t watch my diet I reckon I’d easily been down to 71, just by riding my bike more and cutting back a bit but just doing more volume, and a different style of training – low intensity. You burn more fat anyway just because of that.”
His weight loss is part of the package. “I’d be a lot leaner anyway but then when you really knuckle down and you work with nutritionists and you really sort of plan what you’re eating and things, it comes off even more.
“It’s kind of infectious though. And that’s when it can go bad because you think, ‘Oh, I want to keep going… keep going!’ Or, ‘Oh, I’m 68 today and feel good so why can’t I be 67 or 66?’
“And there is a point where it will all just fall away.
“It’s like when you’re training and you feel really good, so you go, ‘Oh, I’ll do another hour today’, or ‘I’ll do another effort today…’ and suddenly a week later you go over that edge and you’re nailed and you’re knackered and you go to a race and don’t do as well.
“It’s a knock-on effect and it’s a similar thing with weight. It’s about being just able to have the confidence to hold back and not do as much.
“More isn’t always better.
“You have to rest.
“And that’s why Tim [Kerrison] is really good with me. That’s the biggest influence he’s had with me. He obviously pushes you and takes you to that limit but at the same time he has to hold me back sometimes as well and keep me from, like I say, going over that edge.”
What is the edge? Has he slipped over it? Has he gotten to 66 and gone, ‘This is not efficient; I’ve got no power’?
“No, I’ve never gotten too light but I’ve had days where I’ve been training hard and really pushed the diet and then you do okay for two or three days and then all of a sudden you’re just like, on the fourth day, ‘Oh, I just can’t… I just feel empty.’ You waste two or three days of training then. And then you’re kind of like, ‘Why did I even do that?’
“It’s obvious afterwards.
“If it was Pete Kennaugh or somebody else doing it, I’d see it – think really logically – and be like, ‘Come on mate, what are you doing…? Blah, blah, blah.’
“But when it’s you, you just get wrapped up in your own little world and, like I say, you just want to keep pushing.
“Training is… it is addictive. It’s infectious.
“When you’re feeling good you just want to keep pushing. You want to feel better. You want to be lighter. You want to be stronger…”
The novelty hasn’t worn off. He still loves competition.
“I just love the racing for sure, but I love riding my bike as well; even those days when you’ve got those big, hard efforts to do. But when you’re in a group there’s such a nice feeling of satisfaction when you’ve done big hard day on the bike and you get home and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that was a good day ticked off.’ A good day in the bank, sort of thing.
“You can enjoy your rest day, go out for a meal or have a couple of beers or whatever and it’s okay, you know?”
Cool, calm, composed… in Adelaide for the 2016 Tour Down Under (above).
Stage racing versus Classics ambitions
He admits that the track years helped prolong his road career and he suffers no lack of motivation or enthusiasm for cycling even though it’s been his job for over a decade. The buzz of training remains a theme even if the drills have changed from short bursts on the velodrome to long sessions climbing up Spain’s highest mountain.
Thomas enjoys most of his job and seems to take much of it in his stride. When he flew off the road on the approach to Gap at the 2016 Tour in stage 16, bashing his head into a telegraph pole at speed, he laughed it off. “Some guy pulled me up and I was alright,” was his appraisal.
It was after that incident late in the Tour that he started to fade in his bid for a podium place. Only in stage 19 did he slip from fourth overall to 15th; by then his job was done and Sky no longer needed a contingency. Those three weeks highlighted the enormous potential Thomas has for when the time comes for Team Sky to find an heir to Froome.
He will turn 30 this May and he’s maturing into a rider who could potentially finish on the Tour de France podium. Does he believe this is a realistic proposition? “That’s the goal: to be in a position to be able to win the Tour. I think, ‘Why not?’ Shoot for the stars, or whatever they say…
“It’s a big learning year for me,” he said in January. He spoke about “hopefully taking a leader’s jersey” and dealing with everything that this involves – “the drug testing and just getting back to the hotel half an hour later”.
By February he had mastered the task, picking up the overall title in the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal. He did not take the lead, however, until the final day – a climbing stage that was won by Alberto Contador.
“Those week-long races are my chance to really perform,” he said. The second successive GC victory in the Portuguese race is a confirmation that he is living up to expectations but this year he plans to forfeit the Classics in favour of being in the best possible shape for the Tour.
His best individual result in a Tour de France stage was an impressive second on the pavé leading to Arenberg in 2010 (behind Thor Hushovd). He’s one of the few GC guys who also has a good record on the cobbles of the Classics but can he contend for the one-day races and stage races?
“I think you can [try for both]… to an extent but I don’t think you’ll ever be as good as you could be in either,” he says before outlining his plans for the early stanza of 2016. “That’s why I’m going down the stage racing route.
“I’m going to do [the Volta] Catalunya instead of GP E3 and Gent-Wevelgem… Then we’ll go to Tenerife and then Liège-Bastogne-Liège and then Romandie.”
He won E3 in 2015, shortly before a 14th place in his favourite race of Classics season, the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The lure of Flanders is strong and G admits he cannot resist, not even in the year where GC is a priority. “I’m going to drop in and do Flanders anyway,” he laughs, “just because I can’t miss it! And I think Catalunya might even be better preparation for it.
“The only thing I won’t have is that style of racing; it’ll just be fly straight into Flanders and do it…” and then fly out again and set off for the training camp on a volcano.
Almost any other rider who has been on the podium of multiple Classics – and finished in the top 10 of Flanders and Roubaix – would make these races a focus of the year, but Geraint has another priority. He could dabble in both stage races and Classics but admits that he wouldn’t be at his best for either. “I think diversity in the seasons helps.
I haven’t done too much of the same thing all the time… that keeps it fresh and it keeps me motivated and keen – certainly now, with the whole stage racing angle, it gives me some real sort of drive. I’m super excited for it.”
Sara Elen (above), moments after her husband became the champion of the Tour de France.
Photo: Rob Arnold
Changes to life off the bike…
Geraint married Sara Elen last October and he’s about to embark on his 10th year as a professional road cyclist. This is yet another season of change for him but he admits that starting a family is still a few years away. He’s still adjusting to the fame that comes with it but he seems grounded. He has seen what it’s like for Wiggins and Chris Froome when they’re hunting yellow jerseys and Thomas can put that experience to good use if he finds himself in that situation.
Considering he’s someone who has got two of the 20 Olympic gold medals ever won by someone from Wales, it’s logical that he would be recognised at home in Cardiff. Still, he admits that it’s what he’s done at the Tour de France that has a greater impact. “After [the 2015] Tour was the biggest shock I’ve really had,” he says about the effects of fame. “So many people recognise me now, it’s unbelievable.
“It’s weird when some are too shy to say ‘Hello’. Then they Tweet you and say something like, ‘Oh, I saw you in Tesco but I was too embarrassed to come and say hello…’ or whatever. That’s just really surreal; it still feels nice. I don’t think that’ll ever get old. I genuinely like it, I appreciate it when people recognise me.
“It’s just a weird feeling to think that you give somebody else who doesn’t even know me or isn’t even related to me just as much happiness as Sar’, my wife, when I do well. It’s weird but it’s really nice as well.”
The bike has served him well and he admits that sport has helped him maintain a steady focus. “It gives you that discipline and a little bit more structure.” When he does stop racing, he doesn’t intend to be idle. He’d like to compete in an Ironman – “100 percent, I’m going to do one” – and sport will still be part of his life. “The Lions Tour, that’s the big one on my list for when I stop.”
The young man has grown into a true protagonist in the pro peloton. He is dreaming of the Tour de France podium and believes it’s within his reach. Maintaining enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be a problem, diversity in competition keeps him engaged with his job and, for now, he wants to race until he’s 40… but “maybe just one day I’ll wake up and just be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do it anymore – I don’t want to hurt myself anymore.’ Hopefully,” he concedes about such a scenario, “that’s a way off yet.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold