In a hotel on the outskirts of Dunkirk, two armchair philosophers are debating this and that, mostly cycling-related and mostly regarding the following day’s ride to Roubaix taking in a host of cobbled sectors before finishing with a lap of the famous velodrome, then washing away the dust and grime in the almost equally-famous shower block.
These two gentlemen, as a reference point for British readers of a certain age, are deeply reminiscent of the characters Peter Cook and Dudley Moore played in TV sketches of the 1970s: not as sweary as their Derek and Clive alter egos, and not dressed in mackintoshes and flat caps, but with strikingly similar nasal estuary accents and a not dissimilar line in flawed observations of life in general, but especially cycling.
Should Pete and Dud be before your time, dear reader, think of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’s equally inane talking heads from their TV series the following decade. Should neither of these references ring any bells due to you having the good fortune to be too young, or not having watched British television comedies of the 20th century, just think of those bizarre snippets of conversation overheard on public transport or in cafés that have you chuckling quietly to yourself. Or, in my case, reaching for the notebook.
“So,” says Dud. “Geraint Thomas. What do you make of him?”
My ears prick up. I lean back in my seat, all the better to hear what expert opinion the man sat behind me will proffer on the Welshman who will accompany our blast over the pavé the following day.
“Well, ’fing is,” says Pete, pausing momentarily to think this through. “The ’fing is…” My neck is now craned back so far our heads are almost making contact. “He’s bone idle, from what I’ve heard.”
I shoot forward in my chair, fighting to keep a mouthful of coffee from spraying the table and suppressing what threatened to become an uncontrollable laughing fit.
Geraint Thomas, the man whose ride to Roubaix ‘Pete’ has paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to join for this weekend in northern France, is “bone idle” – not according to him, you understand, but according to what he’s heard.
Tempting as it is to turn round and vent my spleen, I jot down this comedy gold as a reminder to test it out on the slacking Welshman when I next sit down with him.
Geraint Thomas no longer has a spleen to vent, having lost it to a particularly hairy crash back in 2005. And were he still in possession of this organ that it seems we humans can manage well enough without, it’s doubtful he’d want to vent it anyway.
He laughs at this anecdote and takes no offence at what is a peculiar take on a man who has won Olympic, Commonwealth and World gold medals, and clearly works his backside off to reach the highest heights of bike racing. If Thomas has ever exploded in indignation at any insult hurled his way, then we’ve never witnessed it. And Team Sky certainly came in for some volatile abuse during this year’s Tour de France. What started as verbal unpleasantry spread to punching, urine hurled in Chris Froome’s direction and accusations of doping thrown in the entire team’s direction.
Water off a duck’s back, says Thomas. “When you are racing, the boos drive you on. Throwing piss is a bit different… Or getting punched, like what happened to Richie Porte. I don’t read all the stuff online afterwards – I stay away from all that. But on the road, it spurs you on.
“The only thing that does get annoying is that Sky get all that abuse. Froomey won one stage of the Tour and gets all that crap for the rest of it, while other teams win races, other riders perform well – I’m not saying they are doing anything wrong, but nobody questions them. It is strange that Sky gets all of the abuse. You don’t see the other big riders getting as much. It’s kind of strange.”
The Manchester United syndrome, I suggest. No matter what our football allegiances, we will back whoever can topple the formerly mighty Reds from their perch – bar Chelsea, of course. Big money teams draw flak from every direction. The Arsenal supporter agrees, with provisos. “Yes, but when Nibali won in 2014, people loved us then, when we didn’t get a result. Nobody seemed to question Nibali or his team though.”
That’s about as ruffled as Thomas gets. Which is not very ruffled at all in the great scheme of things. His ability to finish a gruelling stage of the Tour and provide a witty soundbite for the waiting TV crews within minutes is admirable. His comment after the dramatic stage 16 crash that saw him barged off the Col de Manse descent headfirst into a telegraph pole and disappear over the edge was priceless. “The doctor asked what my name was, so I told him: Chris Froome.”
And it is this very unflustered, calm reaction to all the surrounding madness that, I put it to him, leads to the likes of Pete and Dud forming the opinion that Thomas is perhaps not fully committed to the job in hand; that he lacks the ambition to take his undoubted talents to their logical conclusion: a tilt at Grand Tour victory.
“I don’t know how people see me. I think this year has changed it though,” says Thomas, the day after finishing the Vuelta, his second Grand Tour of 2015, ending a long and gruelling season that has borne fruit in several departments and given the 29-year-old and his bosses at Team Sky much food for thought over the winter. Having led at week-long races and in the Spring Classics and ticked off those boxes, stepping up to top dog status for one of the ‘big three’ now looks to be on the cards. Both the team management and, crucially, Thomas himself, feel the time is right. Self-belief is sky-high following the Welshman’s best season to date.
Asking for his personal highlight of the year produces a flurry of options. “The Tour was incredible: Plateau de Beille, in the front group, riding all the way to the line. That was a breakthrough moment.
“But Algarve, kicking it all off, was also a key point, I think – the confidence, the belief. Then winning E3, the first big one-day race I have won, the biggest win of my career so far for sure. And to do it when I was with those two guys, Sagan and Štybar, the way I did, was special.
To see how weak Sagan was at the point where I felt so strong. A great day.”
It was a perfect curve of a year, with victory at the five-stage Volta ao Algarve providing the springboard for E3-Harelbeke the following month. Twelve months earlier, the Welshman may not of fancied his chances up against Peter Sagan and Zdeněk Štybar. As he says above, belief is the crucial difference.
“I waited until Štybar had just finished his turn, because I sensed he was the stronger of the two, and as it turned out he was, then I fully committed. Once you get a gap in a race like that, especially if they start looking at each other, you’ve got a real good chance.
“Maybe the others were slowing a bit. But I was just floating. I knew when I was going to attack, how I was going to attack, from 25k out, with 4k to go. It was one of those days when everything falls into place.
“It was kind of like being a junior again: doing what you want, feeling good, and getting better throughout the race.”
It’s a long way from the scrawny Cardiff kid who joined the local club based at Maindy track with the Rowe brothers, Matt and Luke, then thankfully plumped for cycling over the other sporting options available.
“I was a good swimmer but they wanted me to train in the mornings before school and I wasn’t going to be doing that,” says Thomas, which may lead ‘Pete’ to consider him bone idle. Sounds like common sense to me.
“I enjoyed rugby but everyone else started growing… So I did a bit of everything as a kid, but then stopped everything else around 14 or 15 for cycling.
“It was good fun, travelling away on trips, all together in a mini bus. Next thing you know you are riding junior races, then the junior Worlds, then going on to the Academy. Then the next thing you know, you are lining up for the Tour, lining up for Roubaix. It’s a bit nuts really, how it all happened.”
Put like that, it does indeed sound “a bit nuts”. His brief summary of a steady upward career trajectory is a typically understated Thomas outlook. The last time Rouleur interviewed him following a memorable Tour de France stage finishing at the mouth of the Arenberg Forest in 2010, he had taken the young rider’s white jersey in a break featuring Fabian Cancellara, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Thor Hushovd – an échappée royale, plus a young Welshman who couldn’t believe his good fortune.
His ability on the cobbles came to the fore again, much as it first did back in the junior Paris-Roubaix back in 2004, when Thomas and Ian Stannard entered the velodrome together for an unlikely British one-two.
Presumably he had previous experience of the pavé? “None. It was the very first time. I had some pipe lagging taped round my handlebars.
“Roubaix just sort of happened. It wasn’t like I’d had the whole winter thinking about it. It was a last minute thing. It was on the same day as the pros, so the whole experience as an 18-year-old was crazy. You watched it on TV and dreamed about leading the race, and suddenly me and Stannard were doing it. Surreal, like living your dream. It was some day…”
If Roubaix provided ammunition for the pipedream of becoming a full-time cyclist, winning the scratch race at the junior track Worlds later that year cemented the idea in his head. “Once I had won the junior Worlds, I thought I could make a career out of this. Even after winning Roubaix, it still seemed like such a far-off dream, turning pro on the road.”
Italian-based team Barloworld provided a first taste of life in the pro peloton in 2007. Thomas was straight in at the deep end, the youngest rider in that year’s Tour de France starting in London.
Unsurprisingly, he took a kicking in the early days. “Experiencing proper climbs for the first time… You think you have done them back home in Wales, then go to Italy and it’s a shock to the system, especially after riding the track and carrying that extra weight. It took a long time to acclimatise.
“There were some races in the first year where I felt I belonged there. But then you do the Tour and realise there is some gap. How can anybody go there trying to win the race when I am just hanging on to finish every day?
“But even the Giro in 2008 felt so much easier, like I knew what to expect. I felt so much stronger. I think the amount of suffering I did in that first Tour stood me in good stead, because all I have to do is think back to then to realise I am not that tired in comparison.”
Road strength gained from Grand Tours converted back to track success, with team pursuit gold medals for Thomas at the Beijing and London Olympics, and at the corresponding years’ World Championships. There’ll be no appearance in the Rio velodrome, however. For now, it’s all about the road.
Does he miss the track? “I miss the racing. I don’t miss the three or four months training in the build-up to it; all the hard yards you have got to put in on the track. It is pretty grim getting up at six to ride in the velodrome in the morning, and then again in the afternoon. You are stuck in there most of the day. It’s so precise, structured, laid out, whereas the road, if you don’t fancy doing a climb one day, you can do a different one. There is so much more variety on the road.
“But I miss that feeling of lining up for a team pursuit with three of my mates. When you are going well and the whole team’s buzzing, it is special.”
Best mate Ed Clancy turned best man at Thomas’s recent wedding to Sara, while another of the GB Academy intake that year, Mark Cavendish, was also in attendance. The sprinter has never been backwards in coming forwards, even as a young man.
“Cav always used to say to me ‘Oh, lad, you need to get on the road now and leave the track behind.’ But London was an awesome experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“The road is starting to go really well now. Maybe if that had started a few years earlier, it would be even better, but I still wouldn’t change it. I think riding the track will only prolong my road career anyway. I haven’t had those hard years on the road that most guys my age have. The last three years were the only three proper road seasons I have really had.”
Thomas makes a valid point. David Millar told me, on retiring after an 18-year professional road career, that it’s definitely the head that goes first, not the legs. Thomas is still very much on the way up. He’s just taken a bit longer to get there than some. And the best is yet to come.
Sadly for fans of the Spring Classics, the lessons from 2015’s race programme suggest that something’s got to give. Flanders and Roubaix may have to go on the backburner if a serious tilt at the Tour is on the cards.
“I would certainly back-end the season and not race early on. Down Under, Dubai, Paris-Nice, all the Classics, Romandie, Suisse, Tour… It’s like, foof! You can’t do that. If I was to do the Tour and Vuelta again, I probably wouldn’t even start racing until March.”
This is a noise Thomas makes at regular intervals when words fail to adequately describe his work. Bone idle? Yeah, right. “Foof!” says it all. Geraint Thomas is totally “Foof!”
Slapping the Vuelta on the end of an exacting season – he sensibly pulled out of the World Championships in Richmond in favour of watching Wales in the Rugby World Cup – seemed like unnecessary self-inflicted punishment. But there is method in the madness. Dave Brailsford and the Sky backroom team see another Grand Tour in the legs of Froome and Thomas as miles in the bank. As with the Welshman’s Giro debut in 2008, when you have suffered that badly, it puts the pain of the Tour de France into perspective. Froome’s fractured foot following his stage 11 crash put him out of the running, but Thomas slogged through to the end in Madrid. And did plenty of suffering along the way.
“The Vuelta was always in the background pencilled in, but everything else was set out beforehand. It helps to have it in mind already, otherwise you finish the Tour, two weeks go by and somebody throws the Vuelta at you, it’s sort of like… foof! But already knowing it’s a possibility makes it all right.”
Thomas has a book out, as you are probably aware, which is rather good fun: a suitably Geraint approach to life as a professional cyclist, with plentiful serious insights mixed with humorous anecdotes, “breaking the norm of doom and gloom and ‘why I cheated’ and all that – a celebration of cycling and everything I love about it.”
It works, and makes for a refreshing change from the misery memoirs that many former pros release. The book even includes a diagram depicting how – and how not – to take a corner, with the perfect curve (Thomas, let’s say) taken out by the kamikaze dive-bombing dotted line tearing round the inside to disastrous effect (Warren Barguil, perhaps?)
Thomas says the diagram was drawn before the hair-raising incident at this year’s Tour. Any likeness to Barguil’s wayward trajectory was purely coincidental…
Has he seen film of the crash? “I quite enjoy watching it. It is the best type of crash, because it looked really spectacular on TV but there was no damage. I was really lucky though.”
He enjoys watching it? Sick. But does he bear any ill will towards Barguil? “He finished about 30 seconds ahead of me on GC, and I lost about 40 that day. Not that I was bothered or anything, but when I saw that in Paris, I thought that was just typical.
“It’s not like he intentionally did it, but hopefully he learnt from that. I saw the video and a few corners later, he was dive-bombing someone else. He just needs to chill a bit, you know? He is only young, but it wasn’t the best manoeuvre, that’s for sure.”
That’s a magnanimous response to what was possibly the most gut-wrenching crash of the whole race, certainly from a TV viewer’s perspective, even if the victim himself makes light of it. Makes you wonder what it takes to stress him out. Heights, helicopters and thunderstorms, Thomas replies. Especially when all three combine.
“I’m not the biggest fan of heights anyway, but during this helicopter ride we had in the Vuelta recently, there was lightning in the mountains going to Andorra. I thought I’d stay on the bus, but ended up going on it. We had to land and drive the last two hours because the weather was so bad.”
Thomas may not have a head for heights but seems to have grasped the nettle when it comes to the possibility of leading Team Sky next season. Sitting in fourth position overall going into the closing stages, which would have been considered highly unlikely pre-Tour, the climbs of La Toussuire and the Croix de Fer – plus some blistering accelerations from Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana team – unhitched Froome’s loyal lieutenant, leaving Thomas to trail in 22 minutes later and tumble down the standings.
Could he tell there was a day of misery ahead, or was it out of the blue? “I always knew it was going to come, but hoped it might not arrive until Monday! I was quite a bit lighter that morning than previous mornings. So I knew I was depleted. But once you start, you know.
“It was a case of sitting up, taking it easy and recovering to hopefully do a decent job the next day. I could have carried on fighting all the way and only lost 15 minutes instead of 25, maybe, but twelfth or fifteenth on GC doesn’t matter. Helping Froomey win the race is what matters, it’s a no-brainer really.”
And what about “helping Froomey” next year? Could we see a Wiggins versus Froome-style putsch at Team Sky in the Tour? It’s hard to imagine, frankly. But Thomas is ready to step up if required.
“Next year is time to target it and go there as a back-up GC guy; go there with a mindset of actually trying to look after myself that first week and not doing everything for Froomey. I think that will make a big difference.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, especially as there was no time-trial – it was a climber’s race, totally the opposite of what I thought would be good for me.
“So hopefully I can get a little result out of it for myself as well… well, it wouldn’t be a little result…”
No, Geraint, it would not be a little result.
Dunkirk earlier in the season, the night before we rode to Roubaix. Thomas is the subject of a lighthearted and extremely funny post-dinner interview. His phone rings mid-flow; he puts it on speaker: “All right, Froomey? What’s that? No, I can’t come bike riding tomorrow. I’m in Dunkirk, speaking in front of a couple of hundred people. And you’re on speaker phone, by the way…”
The interviewer throws in one serious question at the end. What are your big targets for the year? “To get married, settle down and raise a family,” says Thomas without hesitation. Nicely done, I thought.
It’s not his style to make public declarations of massively ambitious plans for the future. He nibbles away at success in his own sweet time, and persistently makes small steps in the right direction. Yet now, post-season, talk of a “little result” at the Tour is creeping into the newlywed’s thinking. I’m rather excited at the prospect.
And for Thomas to get a “little result”, well, that would be… “Foof!”
From issue 59 of Rouleur. The World According to G is published by Quercus Books