Uncharted: Geraint Thomas steps into the unknown with Vuelta GC campaign

The evergreen Welshman is still as strong as he's ever been, but faces a new challenge at this year's Vuelta a España

You only have to take a quick glance at Geraint Thomas’ career stats to realise there’s very little he hasn’t experienced in the professional game. From Olympic success on the track, to the cobbled Classics, to stage racer and Grand Tour winner; there’s few avenues left for the 37-year-old to try something new.

Ever the realist, Thomas has been exceptionally candid in acknowledging that 2024 or 2025 will be his last season as a professional rider. And rather than go through the motions or take on a less demanding supporting role in his twilight years, he’s admirably strived to eke out the very best of himself in settling any unfinished business. That’s included the likes of the Giro d’Italia so far, where a second place overall finally got the monkey off his back that’s been lingering since his two previous general classification campaigns were cut savagely short. But it has also included ticking off some new experiences, including a debut at the Tour of Poland, a second-ever appearance in the World Championships time trial, and later this year a possible debut at Il Lombardia, the only Monument he’s never ridden.

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The Vuelta a España is another of these relatively new experiences, too. While Thomas has ridden the Spanish Grand Tour – in 2015, an experience he describes as “horrible” – it came at the infancy of his burgeoning stage racing career. Moreover, it was perhaps ill-advisedly tacked onto a season that began at the Tour Down Under in January and barely stopped via the Spring Classics and to the end of the Tour de France. It is, in fact, the only time Thomas has completed, or attempted in earnest, two Grand Tours in a single season.

Geraint Thomas

Since then, the Vuelta has not factored in consideration like the Giro or the Tour de France, the latter in which Thomas secured a victory and two podiums in his last four appearances. This lap of Spain, with its trademark brutality of almost constant climbing, is therefore very much uncharted territory for the Welshman as a GC contender. He is “a bit more prepared this time” compared to his one and only appearance, he says, but admits it will be a “tough” race on several fronts: the route, the competition, and attempting to peak twice in a season. It’s been “strange trying to have two peaks”, Thomas says in a pre-Vuelta press conference, but confirms, in his characteristically understated way, that he’s “feeling alright” heading into the opening team time trial on Saturday.

It’s not just the training though that has proven a burden in a double-up of Grand Tours. For the first time it’s demanded an longer, extended period away from his wife and young son to train at altitude in the middle of the year, something Thomas describes as feeling like “starting season again but it's like June, July”. But much like the decision to take on a more adventurous calendar in the first place, knowing that his career will soon be over makes “quite easy to commit” to. “I've got the rest of my life to sort of chill and drink cocktails”, he adds.

It’s also easy to see why Thomas is more than happy to accept the opportunity to lead another Grand Tour for Ineos Grenadiers. There aren’t exactly many 37-year-olds in the WorldTour peloton leading teams into the Giro and the Vuelta, but Thomas’ remarkable consistency (and perhaps Ineos’ lingering transition period) has yet to see him ousted by a young up-and-comer. And while his team have yet to announce the signing of a new GC contender for 2024, they have allowed the likes of Tao Geoghegan Hart, Pavel Sivakov, and Ben Tulett to exit their ranks, something Thomas describes as a “big shame”. Despite all that, Thomas says as much as he’d “love to go back to the Tour” next year, he doesn’t know if that will be as a leader of the team. Before looking too far ahead though, it’s a case of getting “through these three weeks first and then have a few drinks”, the latter part presumably whether the Vuelta is successful or not.

Though, deservedly, Thomas remains unchallenged at the head of his young and talented team, his success in the Vuelta will be challenged by a host of other young and exceptionally talented riders. That will include the formidable Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), the 26-year-old winner of the Tour de France in July, who, like Thomas, will also be venturing into a first career double-up of Grand Tours in the same season. UAE Team Emirates’ Juan Ayuso, third place finisher last year at just 19, looks to be a substantial opponent given his prospering talent, and will ride in joint leadership with one of Thomas’ Giro rivals, João Almedia. The 33-year-old Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) returns in search of a historic fourth overall victory, and could provide Thomas with some extra incentive after Roglič inflicted that bruising Giro defeat on him in May.

Geraint Thomas

Then there is Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step), defending champion, and another of cycling’s current crop of young super-talents. There is clearly some endearment between Thomas and Evenepoel, the Belgian having garnered the affectionate nickname ‘little bastard’ from Thomas and Luke Rowe’s Watts Occuring podcast, on which Evenepoel recently appeared. Likewise there were messages shared between the two when Thomas inherited the pink jersey from a Covid-stricken Evenepoel who was forced out of the Giro d’Italia. Thomas says though the former road race world champion remains “a favourite” for this Vuelta, his strengths are “more suited to one-days and one big effort at the moment”, leaving the Jumbo-Visma duo of Roglič and Vingegaard in pole position.

That seemingly is a sentiment Evenepoel is in agreement with, saying in his own pre-race press conference that he expected to “ride a bit more defensively” this year and that the “big names” and their teams will “take all the pressure and workload on their shoulders”. Flying under the radar isn’t necessarily something Thomas expects Evenepoel and Soudal-Quick-Step to be able to do though, suggesting that “the weight of the race will fall on to them a bit as well as Jumbo”.

Whoever is burdened with controlling the race, even if that’s Ineos Grenadiers, there’s no doubt Thomas is motivated to enjoy and absorb every experience from his final throws as a professional rider. Even in the face of potentially the toughest Grand Tour line-up he’s ever had to face, he continues to find drive in the face of that challenge. “That’s what motivates you”, he said previously, “the bigger the challenge the more you get from it”.

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