AFP — Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas says he faces a tougher challenge this year defending his crown as there are so many riders capable of competing for the podium spots.

The 33-year-old Welshman — who upset the script last year to beat his teammate and four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome — told The Daily Telegraph he had enjoyed the accolades but he was also glad that was all over and he had been able to focus on retaining his crown.

Thomas — like Froome riding for Ineos after they stepped in when Sky ended their sponsorship — found himself much in demand from having a selfie with football superstar Lionel Messi to being the main attraction at half-time of Wales’s 9-6 win over Australia in their rugby Test last November.

He appears unconcerned by indifferent form thus far this season — third in last month’s Tour of Romandie the highlight — saying he will be top shape when the race begins in Brussels on July 6.

“Though whether that (being in perfect shape) will be enough we will see,” said Thomas. “Everyone’s improving. The competition is definitely tougher this year. There are a lot of guys who could potentially podium.

“I just have to stick to the philosophy I’ve always had, which is just to do the best I can do,” he said. “I can’t affect how (Tom) Dumoulin goes, or Yatesy (Adam Yates) or Richie (Porte) or Jumbo-Visma with Steven Kruijswijk or (Primoz) Roglic.”

However, Thomas, who says he is not far off his optimum racing weight of 67kg (147lbs), knew last November the party circuit was not for him.

“Even though I still had three weeks of doing stuff (appearances), I was itching to get back on the bike,” he said. “That’s when I knew I’d be OK. Because I knew I didn’t want to be doing that (partying) anymore.”

Still, Thomas admitted that he enjoyed the attention throughout the 2018 offseason, which saw him voted the BBC Sports Personality Of the Year. In an interview with VeloNews, Thomas said he reveled in meeting Messi and other sports stars throughout the end of 2018. The fame of winning the Tour changed his life in his hometown, Cardiff.

“It’s not as easy going down to the local pub to have a quiet beer anymore,” Thomas said. “Winning the Tour and being the sports personality of the year, it’s been crazy back in the UK. That’s why living abroad helps a lot. Back in the UK, everyone follows cycling now and people stop me on the street.”

Thomas’s buildup to the Tour has been less than ideal thus far in 2019. He was a DNF at Tirreno-Adriatico due to illness in early March, and then had to cancel his altitude camp in late May on Tenerife due to snow.

Thomas roared back in May with an impressive third-place finish at the Tour of Romandie. In June Thomas will target the Tour de Suisse, rather than the Criterium du Dauphine, which he won in 2018 en route to his Tour de France victory.