While Dani Martínez and Adam Yates have been penciled in for leadership roles at the Tour de France, Geraint Thomas is quietly going about his business and plotting his trajectory towards the race he won in 2018.
The Welshman starts the Tour de Romandie on Tuesday with firm hopes of defending his crown from twelve months ago. But the bigger picture at present is of a 35-year-old, and former Tour de France winner, taking a more relaxed approach to racing.
Relaxed doesn’t mean Thomas isn’t focused or determined, it’s just that his attention isn’t entirely fixated on the GC at the Tour de France. Thomas knows all too well from previous experience that building your season around one goal and putting pressure on yourself to perform for that single focal point doesn’t always translate into good fortune or results.
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“I believe I could, but it’s not really something that I’m really thinking about,” he tells VeloNews when asked if he could nudge himself into the conversation about Tour leadership.
“For me, it’s just about the process of enjoying these races and getting there as best as I can. Once you’re racing you can do all the talking you want. That’s what I’ve learned over the last few years, that you can do all the talking that you like but once you get on that bike so much can happen.
“I don’t want to even waste energy on it, going on about it with the team, especially so far out. Once you get there and you’re at the Tour, they’re going to have their order of things and how they want things to happen but it can all change in the blink of an eye.”
2022 Tour de France: ‘I don’t feel like I have anything to prove’
Thomas’ new approach stems from a number of factors.
First and foremost he had a winter to forget with shoulder surgery and a bout of COVID-19 taking him out of action for over two months. That set him back dramatically and meant that the opening races of 2022 were about supporting his teammates and slowly coming back to fitness.
Secondly, Ineos’s management has designs on supporting Dani Martínez and Adam Yates at the Tour de France with Rod Ellingworth previously telling VeloNews that Thomas still needed to fight for his place. Finally, Thomas’ track record in grand tours since finishing second to Egan Bernal at the Tour in 2019 isn’t anything to write home about with a crash taking him out of the 2020 Giro d’Italia and another fall in the 2021 Tour de France robbing him of his best form.
“I’m just enjoying racing my bike,” he says of his new approach to racing after signing what will probably be his final contract before retirement at the end of 2023.
“The last six months of last year were pretty crap, to be honest. So it’s been nice to start a new year and get going. I definitely didn’t want to stop last year, and I wasn’t going to but part of me was thinking it would be easy to. I would never want to stop like that though. It was just a bit of a shit few months.”
All that said, the Tour de France remains the absolute pinnacle, and while Thomas doesn’t have the recent back catalog of results to back up a leadership claim he remains the only Tour winner on the books at Ineos. He knows all too well, especially from the year in which he won the race, that if he arrives at the Grand Départ in top form he has a chance of stepping into a leadership role if he survives a hectic first week that will include cobbles, crosswinds and crashes.
“It’s hard to not do it,” he tells VeloNews when asked if he will still peak for July.
“And if you’re going to do it you don’t want to get there not at your best. The approach is slightly different though because I’m not just thinking about the Tour all the time now. That’s not ‘the thing’ and I’m not ticking boxes on the way there. I’m here and I’m enjoying racing. Mentally it’s different, even if the program is different.”
“To be honest I’ve not really spoken to the team too much about it. They know that I’m going to get there in the best shape that I can. It works for the team if I’m in my best shape, whether that’s going for a stage, helping, or maybe just being there on GC as a card to play later on.
“It works for everyone if I’m going to the Tour de France at my best. We’ve not sat down and talked about specific plans but it’s clear that Yates and Dani, especially with the way Dani has gone this year, are going to go to the Tour for the best result possible.”
“At the same time, I’m not thinking about only the Tour. I’m thinking about going for a good time trial, and then you’ve got the cobbles and the wind, and you might take the jersey. That would be a success. Then there’s Planche des Belle Filles. So much can happen in that first week. It’s just about enjoying riding my bike and getting my son along to a few races. He’s mad for it, and I’m just a lot more relaxed.
“I’ve won the Tour and finished second the following year, and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone. It’s just about enjoying racing my bike and doing the best for me and the team. Up until this point, it’s been about helping the team because I’ve not been in the shape to do anything for myself. But I’m getting to that point now where I can start thinking about things more selfishly.”
Last Sunday Thomas managed to avoid the huge crash that took down his teammates and several competitors in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The mass pile up with just under 60km to go left world champion Julian Alaphilippe with multiple fractures and a collapsed lung, while scores of other riders were left nursing wounds.
Mass crashes in professional cycling are not new but Thomas believes that their frequency and severity have increased in recent years due to a number of factors.
“I wasn’t in that crash. For once,” he says.
“I was just behind actually and saw all the chaos. Luckily I had time to brake. I looked for my team but didn’t see anyone and kept going. Tom [Pidcock] was down a ditch though. It was a mad crash really. It’s a bit of a dodgy road with quite a few holes anyway but that’s just the way it is now with so many people knowing when to be in the front. The level is so much better, bikes are quicker, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few more big crashes like that over the next few years.”
“I think that people are more aware about the smaller roads throughout the day. Everyone has their presentations so they know what’s coming up at kilometer 78, whereas before ignorance was bliss. Nobody really knew and then you’d go through a section and think ‘that was quite tight’. You don’t even know to be in the front in those cases.”
“Everything is more competitive. Everyone is training better, everyone has a better diet and then with software everyone has better data about everything. It all adds up and it’s a lot more professional.”
Tour de Romandie and his young team
Thomas is at the Tour de Romandie with a young team around him which includes Magnus Sheffield and Luke Plapp.
The two WorldTour neo pros have had sensational starts to their season with Plapp standing out in the UAE Tour and Sheffield already taking two massive wins on the road.
Preview: Tour de Romandie
For Thomas, who turned professional back in 2007, the next generation of younger riders are far more dialed in and focussed than they were in the mid-2000s. There are pluses and minuses to that, argues the Welshman, but the overall result is that the up and coming riders are able to make instant impressions on races they’re thrown into.
“The young guys, it’s rare that one of them drinks alcohol now. Which I find a bit crazy. That’s just the way it is and it’s probably the way it is in other sports. It makes me feel a bit sorry for Macsen because they’re all on it. Magnus Sheffield tells me about aero stuff, you know. That’s just how the sport is going,” Thomas says.
Youth 🤝 Experience
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) April 25, 2022
“I still would want to turn pro these days but I definitely feel like I was in a good era. I got to enjoy life as much as anything and I got to see lots of different parts of it. You can still make the progression from track to one-days like I did. That’s 100 percent possible but I think that now it’s just so much more intense. I would be able to do it but I would need those little blowouts from time to time. Juniors are living like that now. There’s so much more available and out there. So when I was a junior it was so much harder to know how pros trained, and I think that adds to it.”
The immediate aim for Thomas, however, is to build on his start to the season and take a GC result here in the Tour of Romandie.
The field is strong, but with poor weather expected and two time trials, the Welshman should be in the mix. For those with long memories, he won a time trial in the snow here back in 2012. That stage took place in Lausanne, the same location for Tuesday’s prologue.
“It was a bad winter to be honest with my shoulder operation and then COVID. I missed about nine weeks in total. I would normally miss three. It was a slow start but I just had a slightly different program and I feel like I’ve moved on after every stage race and the classics last week were decent enough. I was actually better than I thought that I was. I’ll definitely be there or thereabouts this weekend. I don’t think that I’m in the same shape that I was this time last year but I don’t think that that’s a massive stress.”