A year ago, Leah Thomas was about to have her cycling future pulled from under her feet.
Now, she’s laying the foundations for her big-ticket move to Trek-Segafredo next year and preparing to end a year-long stint at Movistar with a flourish.
In August 2020, the American had penned a new contract with Equipé Paule Ka after finishing on the podium at Strade Bianche. Six weeks later, the team would fold, and Thomas was left scrabbling for a new contract in September when most of the spots on major teams had already been snapped up.
“I want to say a huge thank you to Movistar because their roster was already full. They made space for me and gave me the opportunity to be a part of their team in October, which is pretty crazy,” Thomas told VeloNews.
“Going into this off-season with a team, there are already talks about equipment. That amount of forethought already into the next season is really helpful mentally for me, and I feel there’s so much less stress. Going into the next year, there’s time to tweak things as they need to be tweaked.”
Thomas had already traveled home for her off-season when the news broke about Equipé Paule Ka. With few opportunities to have a real break during the racing season, suddenly having to find a team took up the little time to herself that she did have.
“I don’t really feel like I had a proper rest,” Thomas said. “I went home early because I was dealing with some sickness issue. So, it was bad and then there was the stress with the team. I really didn’t feel like I had a solid break. The nice thing was that none of us raced a full season. Having lockdowns, that was my break, so I didn’t feel as drained, but I definitely am looking forward to having a break in October.”
Though she only spent a short time with Movistar, it was more than just a stop-gap until she could get a spot on Trek-Segafredo — the team had looked at adding her to its roster last year but did not have space.
Thomas played a more supportive role at Movistar than she had in Paule Ka — previously named Cérvelo-Bigla — giving her a new sting to her cycling bow.
“When I was racing at Bigla, we raced really aggressively together. This has been more of a protection role and maybe a little bit more defensive in terms of style,” Thomas explained. “So that’s been something new to learn and I’m really grateful to have had the perspective and really kind of dabbled my feet into it. As things go on, in whatever situation I’m in I will have those tools in my toolbox. So that has been beneficial.”
While she has been grateful to gain the experience of how to defend a race lead, Thomas is looking forward to getting back to what she loves the most; attacking and being aggressive.
“I really learned about things that are more true to me this year. I am glad to have experienced defensive racing, but I really love being aggressive,” Thomas told VeloNews. “I like going for breaks, putting those cards on the table and seeing what will happen, and gambling a little bit. It makes bike racing really fun.
“It plays to my strengths to have an aggressive style of race and a hard race. An easy race that gets really hard at the end isn’t something I excel at, and so to be able to just participate in the hardest race and make it as hard as possible is something I am good at, and I feel like those align closely with Trek.”
One of Thomas’ highlights during the 2021 season came with her selection to Team USA for the Olympic Games. She was part of the team that took on the Tokyo road race, finishing in the top 30 while teammate Coryn Rivera took seventh. For Thomas, the best part was the people who got in contact to congratulate her for just being there.
“It was really special. I don’t have anything to compare it to so, in my mind, it was special, but everybody else says it was very different from a normal Olympics,” Thomas said. “My favorite part has nothing actually to do with bike racing.
“The Olympics are so important to the U.S. and I had so many people reach out to me from all different walks of life, like my gymnastics coach from when I was 12, and my grandparents who don’t really understand cycling. There were people from all these different times and places in my life reaching out just to congratulate me and not even caring how I did in the race. To have that support was really special and reading all their messages was really energizing.”
Thomas still has a few race days in her calendar with the ongoing Challenge by La Vuelta, the Tour de l’Ardèche next week, followed by the road world championships and a ride at the first-ever women’s Paris-Roubaix. Her final races will be about continuing the learning process and going toward next year with a positive mindset.
“I’m trying to go into this last part of the season without pressure on a specific thing,” she said. “The Olympics and making the team was so full of pressure and I need a break from that. So, I’m trying to focus on different ways I can continue to grow as an athlete to make myself a better rider for the coming year.
“I’m focused on the process and not the outcome and so my goal is really just to keep that mindset throughout the rest of the season. Hopefully, that will be enough to take me to some good places.”