Though his gangly frame and metronomic, smooth style as he speeds over mountains might convince you otherwise, Geraint Thomas has not always been a stage racer. In fact, he spent the first half of his career on the track, winning gold medals in the team pursuit. A three minute, intense effort around a velodrome, the pursuit requires an almost entirely different skill set than the one Thomas employed when he became the first Welshman to win the yellow jersey in the Tour de France some years later.
With two Olympic gold medals in his pocket from Beijing and Rio, it was after the 2012 Games that Thomas decided to dedicate himself fully to road racing. He didn’t find success straightaway in the hills then, either, winning one-day races like the 2014 Commonwealth Games road race and the 2015 E3 Harelbeke. In the latter, he attacked none other than Classics specialists Peter Sagan and Zdeněk Štybar in the final kilometres to take an impressive victory.
Wins in shorter stage races began to come thick and fast in the following years for Thomas as we saw a clear change in his physique. Gone was the extra weight that had aided him in punchy accelerations on the velodrome, and emerging was a lean climber who could compete with the best on summit finishes. The part of his career that follows needs no retelling. It was his 2018 Tour de France victory which catapulted the Welshman to global fame, earning him a Sports Personality of the Year award and making him a household name across the country.
So many wins and such a long, glittering career, it would be easy for Thomas to hang up his wheels, satisfied with his stunning palmares. Though he’s shown some promising form, recent years have been tough for the 34-year-old, with mishaps and crashes aplenty. Speaking to him at Rouleur Live 2021, though, Thomas appears far from disheartened, looking ahead to next season, which he expects could be one of his last, with a youthful exuberance.
Portrait: Véronique Rolland
“With the whole pandemic, I think it made me realise how much I do just enjoy racing and the lifestyle of it: travelling everywhere, doing training camps, and just that whole world,” he explains.
He looks back on 2021 with mixed emotions: “It was a good start, probably the best start I've had for a long time,” he says. Thomas won the Tour de Romandie and finished in third place at the Critérium du Dauphiné in the months approaching the Tour de France. “Obviously, the Tour, when I crashed on day three, was not ideal. And then the Olympics after that getting caught up in the crash there as well. But that's bike racing really as we all know.”
Though he was dealt a rough hand when it came to luck this season, the repeated misfortune means that Thomas has had to become an expert in overcoming setbacks. His approach involves remaining calm and measured, a trait which seems to come naturally to him as he casually discusses his outlook.
“It's tough at first, because you're obviously super disappointed, because all the hard work you've put in, then for it to just end, it’s tough to take,” he admits. “But you’ve just got to get on with it, there's no other way around it. Just get back on the bike the next day, keep pushing and trying to do something for yourself or the team.”
Returning from injury has been made even tougher in recent seasons as the peloton has only become stronger. The speed and difficulty of races has skyrocketed since Thomas began his career back in 2005, with technology and training methods advancing at an unprecedented rate.
The dominance of riders like Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič in Grand Tours has led to disappointment for the Ineos Grenadiers whose aim has been to win the Tour de France each season.
“They can definitely be beaten,” Thomas says with confidence. “This sport is always evolving and changing from equipment, to the way you're trained, to diets. I think that all filters down from the pros to U23s and juniors.”
Thomas at the 2018 Tour de France, winning stage 12 on his way to overall victory. Photo: Marco Bertorello/ Getty Images
“I think now we see the guys coming in from junior and U23 level are like professionals already, and they can step right in [to the WorldTour] as Pogačar has. Him and Roglič are setting the benchmark now and their teams are improving all the time. So it's pushing everyone to keep fighting, but that's what drives you as well, that competition.”
Riders like Thomas, who’ve raced in a different generation, have experienced first hand how new technological developments have shifted the sport’s trajectory. The use of power data across the board is one thing, but even more complex scientific approaches to training are being introduced by the day. From glucose monitoring apps to wind tunnel testing, it’s an entirely different peloton now to the one in which Thomas learnt his trade.
“I'm not someone to download my Garmin file after every ride and analyse it all,” says Thomas. “I do like the way technology is improving and things, I think that's great and that's what keeps us moving forward. But I also think you need to blend the old school as well. Just training a bit more on feeling, you need a mix.”
One digitised training method that Thomas has taken to, however, is Zwift, the indoor training app on which he spent 36 hours to raise money for the NHS during lockdown earlier this year. “It's a different way to mix it up,” he says when discussing his plans to use Zwift in the upcoming winter.
“With a young son as well, being able to just do it at home makes things easier. You don't have to do as much either, when you ride the turbo it's a lot harder than just going out for an hour on the road. I enjoy it as well. It's a good way to ride with other people all over the world.”
It could be these hours on Zwift that will contribute to what Thomas hopes will be a successful 2022 season. With stressful contract negotiations finally finished, he can look ahead to at least another year with Ineos Grenadiers, a team he’s been racing with for the last 12 years. “Ineos feels like home to me,” he says. “[Contract negotiations] were a long process. So I'm glad it's all almost done now and I can just focus on bike riding and losing weight.”
Though he looks ahead optimistically to 2022, Thomas is under no illusions about the hard work he has ahead of him if he is to be competitive for leadership roles in Grand Tours next year. As we speak, he’s coming to the end of off-season and admits his urge to return to training. “I do miss the bike after about a week because you start to feel really unhealthy and unfit pretty quickly,” he says. “You go from my training 23 hours a week eating salad and fish to eating burgers and drinking beers and doing nothing. So it's just polar opposites.”
Portrait: Véronique Rolland
With the aforementioned competition in stage racing so high, Thomas doesn’t rule out the possibility of racing a slightly alternative calendar next year, one that perhaps could see him return to his earlier, Classics-winning days.
“I wouldn't mind doing something a bit different,” he says. “Especially now coming into the last few years of my career. The main thing is just enjoying bike racing and I want to race as much as I can. I’ve got to look at the Grand Tours and the routes and stuff to decide if that's something I want to do or maybe I'll do something a bit different, but I just want to enjoy it.”
Being in what could be his swan song contract with Ineos, has the two-time Olympic Champion had any thoughts about what the next step will be when he finally calls time on his cycling career? “I'd like to help out the younger guys even in Wales, there's an Academy program which I've been quite close to,” he says. “I think there are a lot of options and I’m not going to say no to do anything, just keep my options open.”
Whatever the future brings, it’s clear that winning races remains at the forefront of Thomas’s mind for the time being. He speaks with a bright outlook on the upcoming seasons, clearly hoping to end a legendary career on a high note, with no regrets and with a love for the sport still firmly intact.
“I just still really love it and really enjoy it. I want to make the most of the last few years that I’m racing.”
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