From Mulholland Drive to Champs-Élysées: Geraint Thomas prepares for biggest test of his pro cycling career
Geraint Thomas lines up this week refreshed, recharged and as motivated as ever in a season that will see him fight for the yellow jersey, and an Olympic gold medal.
For Thomas, those questions and doubts are all in the rearview mirror. His road back to the Tour begins this week at the Volta ao Algarve, but the foundation to his 2020 season was paved in California. For the second year in a row, Thomas spent the winter in Los Angeles.
Far away from the cold European winter and the media glare that comes with the yellow jersey, Thomas could hit the re-set button under the warm glow of the California sun.
“I went to LA on January 1. I had four really good weeks there,” Thomas said on the team website. “I did some good training and it was nice to get away from Europe, in my own little world, my own bubble. It’s all NFL, basketball—and no one really cares about cycling.”
In a city packed with stars, Thomas can train in relative anonymity. Only a few cycling fans will recognize him, allowing him a chance to enjoy some quiet time with his wife and their new infant son. Thomas found refuge in Los Angeles, after his breakout Tour victory, in 2018. In Los Angeles, it’s Thomas who’s in awe of sport stars or rappers, bringing out his inner sports fan, rather than the other way around, when he’s walking around in the UK.
“I just love sports,” Thomas told VeloNews in an interview last year. “Los Angeles has got all the major American sports. We went to see the NBA, the NFL—everything is happier in the United States, or at least in California.”
Overwhelmed by media requests back home, and the hunger to do something different than train on Mallorca with his teammates or race at the Santos Tour Down Under as he had done throughout his career, Ineos brass gave Thomas the green light to spend a month in California to kickstart his 2019 season. His wife, Sara, has family in Los Angeles, and Thomas linked up with pro triathlete and new Ineos teammate Cameron Wurf. This year, Ben Swift joined the pair. Over the winter, Thomas’s Instagram feed was filled with stunning sunsets and selfies in Aston-Martin sports cars.
“Last year was very different to any other in my career really, coming back from winning the Tour,” Thomas said last week. “[In California], you can just get on with your thing and I had the family there with me, too. I did some good work out there.”
The surprising Tour victory in 2018 changed his life forever; Thomas was overwhelmed with media attention and overdue adulation from fans. His hometown paid homage and he spent the winter promoting his book and hitting the chat shows. He was so busy with once-in-a-lifetime events, like meeting Lionel Messi, Thomas estimated he spent twice as much time off the bike during the off-season than he normally would.
By January of 2019, he needed to buckle up. By his own admission, that hectic 2018-19 winter might have cost him in July. Thomas said he never was quite at maximum potential despite still finishing second in Paris, behind teammate and winner Egan Bernal.
This past winter was a lot more seamless and low-key. The yellow jersey buzz and pressure is a now centered on Bernal. Chris Froome’s ongoing recovery is also chewing up a lot of bandwidth with the media. There are no new books, and no chat-show appearances. This winter was about family, hitting the bike, and building the base for 2020.
“There’s nothing worse than being at a race when you’re not quite fully at your best,” Thomas told BBC Sport Wales, at Algarve. “Last year was the anomaly really. I’ve basically just got a lot more bike riding under my belt, and a lot more training hours [this winter]. I’m really happy with where I am.”
Thomas opens his 2020 season this week at the Volta ao Algarve. Thursday’s explosive uphill finale saw him out of the GC frame, finishing 20th at 1:02 behind stage-winner Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). That’s fine with Thomas, who won back-to-back titles at Algarve in 2015 and 2016. Thomas is taking the long view on this season, with the Tour and the Olympic Games as his two main targets.
“Usually I start the season quite strongly. This year I’ve not been as intense as normal and it’s a little different these days where the Tour is the sole focus for the whole year but I’m feeling better,” he said. “I’m not at race weight yet but my power numbers are encouraging. I’m still a lot lighter than this time last year and my numbers are better as well.”
Throughout the season, he’ll be battling not only against a younger and faster peloton, but also his teammates Bernal and Froome for Tour supremacy. Thomas demurs when asked about any internal intrigue inside Ineos, insisting that the road ultimately decides who is the strongest. That’s how it played out last summer in France. Bernal took up the initiative in the weather-shortened stages in the Alps, and ended up carrying yellow into Paris.
“The Tour will be the top goal again, and the Olympics are still important to me,” Thomas said earlier this season. “The Tour is the Tour, and I want to give it one more good go. You’ve got to be in it to win it. Once you’re there, you do what you can. If I don’t win, a podium or a top-10, it doesn’t matter. There success will be getting there in my top shape, and going from there.”
Two winters ago, he was swept up by yellow jersey fever, and he savored every moment of it. Now he’s back on a more familiar trajectory. Will it be a repeat of 2018? Thomas knows pulling off the surprise won’t be as easy, but he also knows that racing with big-budget Team Ineos—even with Bernal and Froome as his top rivals—is the best place to be to try win another yellow jersey.
Confidence breeds more victories, and after defending the honor of the yellow jersey with a very tenacious second place in 2019, Thomas knows he has nothing to prove.
At 33, he also knows he cannot let any opportunities slip by.
“I’m not Peter Pan,” he joked to BBC. “I’m not going to be with a chance of winning the biggest races year in, year out. It’s going to come to an end at some point. But I’m certainly not slowing down at the moment. I’ve still got other races in the back of my mind that I want to go to and perform well in—the Giro, the classics—there’s still a lot I want to do.
“Winning the Tour de France in 2018 settles you down,” Thomas said. “I’m not desperate now. It just takes that internal pressure away.”
For Thomas, the road to the Champs-Élysées goes through California. And after a solid winter season, Thomas is hoping the 2020 season will have a Hollywood ending.