HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Wales seems like a world away from Belgium and the bumpy, cobblestone roads of Flanders. As a teenager growing up near Cardiff, Geraint Thomas and Sky teammate Ian Stannard used to watch videos of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix belonging to John Barkley, a legend in UK cycling, who would ferry aspiring riders across the Channel to witness the northern classics in person.
Flash forward more than a decade, and the 28-year-old Thomas took the reins of E3 Harelbeke, delivering a race-winning attack against Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) in a move worthy of any highlight reel.
“I grew up dreaming about these races. I was traveling over to Belgium with some guy in London who took us over,” said Thomas, referring to Barkley. “Ian [Stannard] and I would turn up at his house on a Friday night, and we’d watch these DVDs, with the bad weather, the cobbles. I dreamed of wanting to be a part of them, so to be here, to be competitive, and winning today, it’s fantastic.”
It’s been a dream-come-true for Thomas. More than a decade ago, Stannard and Thomas were gangly teenagers, dreaming of perhaps racing as professionals. Just arriving to the pro level and starting races like the spring classics seemed like a faraway mirage, but Thomas said fellow Welsh rider Nicole Cooke helped stoke their imaginations.
“I remember seeing Nicole Cooke as a kid. She only lives down the road, if she can do it, why can’t I do it?” he said. “It’s that whole snowball thing. It’s been great for British cycling the past few years.”
He’s been part of the wave of tremendous success in UK cycling over the past decade. And Thomas’s road from Wales to the victor’s podium in Harelbeke on Friday has been one full of highs, lows, and setbacks. After being part of Great Britain’s track “dream team,” winning back-to-back gold medals in the team pursuit in 2008 and 2012, Thomas has completely focused on the road. After three years with Barloworld, he joined Team Sky in 2010, and has slowly matured into the one of the anchors of the team.
“I now have the experience and confidence to race these races. By far, it’s the biggest win of my career,” Thomas said. “When you look at guys who’ve won this race, they’re all legends.”
Nicknamed “G” by his teammates, Thomas would often go on the attack, but just as often, he would end up on the tarmac. Battered and bloodied, Thomas always picked himself up, and kept fighting. That perseverance paid off in spades Friday. When he helped initiate the winning attack up the Oude Kwaremont, only Stybar and Sagan could follow. This time, there was no bad luck.
“Crashes are part and parcel of the sport. I’ve had a few crashes over the years,” Thomas said. “In these races, you just don’t want any bad luck.”
Even since they were teenagers, Stannard has been right alongside Thomas. On Friday, despite a hacking cough that deflated his chances for Milano-Sanremo last weekend, Stannard could celebrate the victory of his friend and teammate.
“It must be amazing for him, and it sounds like he tore it up there in the end. That’s the best way to win it, solo. That’s pretty cool,” Stannard told VeloNews after crossing the line. “It’s a massive win for ‘G.’ It’s just as hard as Flanders. They chuck the climbs right from the start. This win really lifts the team.”
Things couldn’t be going better for Team Sky. Also on Friday, Ben Swift won a stage at Coppi e Bartali in Italy while Richie Porte took over the GC lead at the Volta a Catalunya, which ends Sunday in Barcelona. The victories are coming from riders who are maturing into the team’s next generation of leaders. With Bradley Wiggins set to race a farewell Paris-Roubaix next month, Sky is turning the page without looking back.
Sky sport director Servais Knaven, who won Paris-Roubaix in 2001, said the victory at E3 Harelbeke is not only well-deserved for Thomas, but also a confirmation that he can now challenge for the major monuments of the spring calendar.
“This is a great result for the morale for the team. This race has a big history. It’s WorldTour. All the big names are here, they all want to win,” Knaven told VeloNews’ Gregor Brown. “If you can win this race, you can also win Tour of Flanders. We knew he was in great shape. On these roads, he is one of the best in the peloton now.”
The victory at Harelbeke was as significant as it was impressive, and the experience from racing the cobbles over the past several seasons paid off in the key moments of the race. Thomas knew he wouldn’t have much of a shot against Sagan if the trio came in for the sprint, so he wanted to try his luck from far away.
“I wanted to go fairly early and try to catch them a bit by surprise. I waited for Stybar to do his turn, and for him to swing over, and hit them then, and hoped that they would look at each other,” Thomas explained. “That’s what gives you the gap. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
The shot was fatal. Thomas buried himself in the final 1,500 meters, dropping Stybar for good, who crossed the line second, 25 seconds back. Sagan was so demoralized, he gave up the chase, forfeiting his third-place podium to Matteo Trentin (Etixx-Quick-Step), and crossed the line 1:14 back in 30th.
Thomas admits he’s more professional than ever, and has stayed out of the pub in the off-season. He’s near his Tour de France weight of 152 pounds, and wants to stay there.
“I am trying to stay around that weight, but it’s not easy here in Belgium when you have ‘Speculoos’ on the table, breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he joked. “Weight is such a big issue in cycling. I am trying to be more professional, and I am still thinking about the Tour. I don’t want to finish Roubaix and ease off, because before you know, you’re 3kg [6.6 pounds] heavier, and that takes a month to lose that.”
Thomas and Team Sky now look ahead with renewed confidence. Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem and next weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) are two more races Thomas, Stannard, and Sky’s remaining classics crew can win.
“I am super happy about today, and that means we can go into the next few races and really enjoy the racing. We can get stuck in, and try to be on the front all the time, and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “Confidence-wise, this victory is great for us. Hopefully we can continue this momentum, without any pressure.”
Later tonight, alone in the team hotel, it’s not hard to imagine Stannard and Thomas pinching themselves to remind each other this isn’t a dream. And they’ll be hoping to ride that same way next weekend across the cobbles of Flanders to make another highlight reel.
Maybe some kid in Wales will be watching.