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Analysis: Here’s why 2021 is so important for Geraint Thomas

Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion, faces a pivotal 2021 that will undoubtedly impact the next chapter in his career.

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The coming season is likely to be a pivotal one for Geraint Thomas.

Thomas is striving for his second Tour de France win and another Olympic medal as he creeps ever closer to 35 years old. He’s in the final season of his three-year contract with Team Ineos Grenadiers, and his results in the big races could determine whether David Brailsford offers him another multi-million Euro deal for the future. And the squad now has three other grand tour champions on its bench, and all three are in their mid-20s.

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What does that mean? No matter what grand tour Thomas targets, he will have to share leadership with a younger yet equally accomplished teammate.

Add to the mix the fact that Thomas’ longtime friend and teammate Chris Froome is now on another squad, and you come up with a number of twists and turns that the Welshman will need to navigate in this most important 2021. As a fan of Thomas’, I cannot wait to follow along.

Thomas was my guest this week on The VeloNews Podcast, and if you have 30 minutes to burn, I suggest giving it a listen. He gave some insight on the Tour route, his thoughts on Jumbo-Visma and Tadej Pogačar, and how he dealt with the disappointment of crashing out of the 2020 Giro d’Italia.

There were a few of Thomas’ answers that I feel warrant some deeper analysis, as they shed light on how he may tackle some of the previously mentioned dynamics that will shape his season:

Thoughts on the 2021 Tour de France route:

I think the TTs are going to be key and I like the look of them. Jumbo is obviously super strong, been getting stronger the last few years, last year they stamped their authority on cycling, so they will be good. It’ll be interesting to see UAE-Team Emirates. They have the defending champ. They’re going to have to step up as a team. I don’t think it’s out of line to say he was a different level compared to most of the guys racing with him. The way he rode off the back of Jumbo worked really well. Once you’ve won something that big all eyes fix on your and it’s a bit different then. And obviously, our team, Ineos Grenadiers. We obviously were disappointed massively last year with how it went. Seeing the success we’ve had in the race, and then obviously there are so many guys that can perform on GC as well. I think it’ll be competitive as ever. It’ll be interesting.  

My take: Thomas should be viewing this Tour de France as his last great opportunity to win the race outright. For the last two years, the Tour organizers have plotted routes that are light on individual time trials and heavy on the mountains, in an effort to keep the GC as tight as possible into the final week. These courses, while exciting, did not cater to Thomas’ prowess as a big diesel engine, and a skilled individual time trialist. By contrast, this year’s more traditional route caters a bit more to the Geraint Thomases and Tom Dumoulins of the peloton, and less so to more explosive climbers. Plus, the total collapse of Egan Bernal at last year’s Tour likely convinced Ineos Grenadiers management to enter the race with two GC leaders, and not just one. On paper, Thomas is the man for the Tour. And if Bernal’s woes continue, he could be the team’s primary card to play.

Getting older and the end of his career

You don’t know where your peak is until you start coming down. I don’t feel like I’m on the way down yet. And I’m still keen and motivated to keep going, so yeah. Anyone at the top of their game so young it’s hard to maintain — you look at Sagan and he’s struggled the last two years and he’s been around 10 years already. There are guys like Sagan who break the mold. Most guys can only be at the top of their game for four or five years and it’s hard to keep going and going. 

My take: Thomas is smart and must realize that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And the whole four or five-year peak thing is an interesting comment as well, as this season will be Thomas’ fourth as a bonafide grand tour contender. Whether Thomas is still at that peak form, or whether he’s entered the Vincenzo Nibali phase of his form, is something to keep an eye on as the season goes along.

Ineos Grenadiers trying to race more aggressively

I think I enjoy that type of racing, the classics sort of style. But at the end of the day, we have a framework that works for us. I wouldn’t say you have to race like that. You need to be able to adapt, obviously, but there’s no point in going too far off from what has worked for us. How many times have we won — 7 tours in 9 years? You have to adapt and change with the times, but I don’t think you need to be completely different. Maybe you do it at those smaller races. We have the tendency to race the same as we did in the tour — which could be a bit boring. There’s other ways to race, and I think that it would be great [for] giving other people chances and being more aggressive. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, that’s for sure.

My take: OK, this is pretty interesting. I asked Thomas his thoughts on Brailsford’s proclamation after Tao Geoghegan Hart’s win at the Giro d’Italia that winning with a more aggressive style was more fun than winning with the team’s traditional defensive strategy — perhaps a hint that the team would abandon the ‘Fortress Froome’ for more attacking racing at the Tour. Thomas doesn’t seem to be too keen on this plan, and seems pretty dedicated to the team’s old way of racing. Hey, I understand why, as like he said, that style of racing brought the team seven Tour wins. But the landscape of grand tour racing has shifted dramatically, with Jumbo-Visma having an equally terrifying train as anything Ineos/Sky could muster in its heyday. Plus, Pogačar seems to be the ultimate antidote to defensive racing.

Can Thomas and Ineos Grenadiers summon the memories of 2018 and create an impenetrable train at the Tour de France? Thomas seems confident that the squad still has it. I’m a bit more pessimistic, for the reasons above. How the team navigates this delta will be a compelling storyline to follow throughout the year. And how Thomas navigates the ghosts of the team’s storied past, with the potentially harsh realities of the present, could determine where he lands on the results sheet.