It’s Stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the race. The peloton, many of its members nursing wounds from the previous day’s crash-strewn stage, is fragmenting as the race heads over cobbles more familiar from Paris Roubaix, further chutes claiming the likes of Frank Schleck, who breaks his collarbone and abandons.
The Canadian Ryder Hesjedal is off the front alone, but behind him a very select group forms, riders who avoided getting held up, unlike others delayed behind the stricken Saxo Bank man – the escapees comprising brother Andy, team mate Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd, Cadel Evans and… whoah, is that Geraint Thomas? It is. “Bloody hell,” exclaim thousands of British fans watching TV back home. “Geraint Thomas!”
They're not the only ones surprised and delighted to see the young Welshman battling it out with such big names. Thomas, riding his second Tour de France – in 2007, when he was with Barloworld, he was the youngest rider in the race – is also pinching himself about the company he suddenly finds himself in.
“Once the break had settled a bit, when we’d gone over the cobbles where it all blew apart, I looked around and you could see all those names… it was really weird, it was crazy being that side of the camera, not being at home watching the front group on the cobbles and debating who was going to win, I was actually there, in the thick of it,” he explains to road.cc.
“I think over the last sector of cobbles, that’s when it started to sink in, like “bloody hell, it’s not a bad group and I’m in the thick of it!’ I had a bit of a chance to soak in the atmosphere, the crowds, the flags on the side of the road – definitely very special.”
The 24-year-old from Cardiff eventually finished second to Hushovd on that hot, dusty and brutal stage, resulting in him taking the white jersey as best young rider, and moved to second on GC behind Cancellara. It turned out to be far and away the most memorable performance by a Team Sky rider on this, its debut Tour de France.
While it may be his exploits on the track that have garnered the most headlines for Thomas in recent years – he’s a world and Olympic champion, after all, and last year set a time for the individual pursuit that had previously been bettered only by Chris Boardman – the Welshman has won over the cobbles before, taking the junior Paris-Roubaix title in 2004.
Moreover, his showing in the first week of the Tour de France, coupled with solid performances as part of Team Sky’s Classics squad and a cracking ride in the Criterium du Dauphiné, confirm his full recovery from a crash that pretty much wrote off his 2009 season.
Thomas acknowledges that Stage 3 of the Tour was probably the personal high point of 2010 for him, but is quick to add that he’s highly satisfied with the way the year as a whole panned out, saying, “it was the first time I concentrated on the road, and it was injury free, I really feel like I stepped up a level.”
Once there, he adds, he found himself in the kind of virtuous circle that arises from good performances boosting self-belief, explaining that “having a bit of consistency and being up there at most of those races, you just start getting some decent results so it rolls, your confidence is up and you believe you can do better and achieve bigger and better things.”
That July afternoon also saw the rare sight of the British National Road Champion’s jersey at the front of the Tour de France, and Thomas reveals that it “was really special” to be ride cycling’s biggest race in the white jersey with its blue and red bands that he had won less than a fortnight earlier in Pendle.
“Once I knew I was going to be on the Tour, that gave me that little extra incentive at the Nationals,” he explains, “and then when I actually won that it was great to think that I'd be in the Tour wearing the jersey. And then to go there and actually perform and get the jersey there at the front of the peloton, representing Great Britain, I was proud to be wearing it.”
Thomas, of course, will continue to ride in that jersey until the 2011 National Championships at the end of June, and will have plenty of chances to sport it in the early season Classics, in which he will figure for Team Sky, which as Dave Brailsford confirmed two weeks ago is departing from 2010’s “one rider, one race” approach.
“Last year was all about the Tour and Brad,” agrees Thomas, “and nothing else really mattered. But obviously there’s loads of other races around, massive races, Roubaix and Flanders, for instance.”
The Welshman believes that some of Team Sky’s new signings can help boost its performance in those races in the opening months of the season, as well as the Grand Tours. “Obviously with having Mick Rogers and [Rigoberto] Uran, the Colombian and [Xabier] Zandio, the Spanish guy, it’s just strengthening the team for the Ardennes Classics and one week stage races and also for the Tour and Giro,” he says.
Those latter two races also see Team Sky presented with the chance of getting a rider into the race leader’s jersey, and with the Giro d’Italia opening with a Team Time Trial in Turin, and Stage 2 of Tour de France sporting a similar format, Thomas agrees that the prospect of a team-mate – or himself, even – topping the GC in the early stages of either race is a tempting and realistic one.
“Definitely,” he asserts, “and for the Tour it comes on the second stage, there’s no time bonuses there and the first stage is likely to be a sprint, I think, so pretty much whoever takes that Team Time Trial will take the jersey.
“It will be a massive, massive race for us along with HTC-Columbia and Garmin and everyone else. I think we’ve got a real good team for it, that will definitely be a goal of ours for sure, to be at the Tour and really try in that Team Time Trial would be great, it’s something I really love to do, to be doing it at the Tour and potentially racing for the jersey would be amazing. That’s definitely a big focus of ours.”
As well as the Classics and what looks like a potential berth in the Tour, Thomas is also looking forward to some of the smaller multi-stage races, such as the Criterium du Dauphiné, where this year he put in top ten finishes in each of the first four stages, leading to a spell in the green points jersey.
While Thomas acknowledges that he’s likely to be riding for a team leader – Rogers or Wiggins, most likely – in races such as that, he’s also aware that a strong individual performance at some point might result in a change of game plan, with the attention turning on himself.
Talking specifically about the prospect of lining up for the Dauphiné again next year, he reveals “whoever rides it, it’s going to be a strong team, it’s going to be a team leader who can podium or even better. I think my job would be to go flat out in the Prologue for sure,” he adds, saying that he would then envisage assuming more of a supporting role, although he admits that isn’t set in stone.
“I’ll just take it as it comes,” he maintains. “Obviously this year I never planned to go there and get four top ten finishes and wear the green jersey for a bit, so if situations arise where I can get a jersey or go for a stage win in a sprint or whatever, I’ll race every race like that and try and take my opportunities again.
“But,” he continues, “I’ll try and and learn off people like Mick Rogers too, he’s been around a while, he’s got bags of experience, he’s a world class rider and there’s a lot to learn from people like that.”
While in its maiden season Team Sky may have fallen victim to its own hype, not to mention the high expectations from press and public alike, following its high-profile launch in January, Thomas is confident that the team’s management has taken the right approach and are sowing the seeds for future success.
“I think they’ve definitely gone about it the right way – it’s all learning really,” he insists. “Coming into the sport last year, for Dave [Brailsford] and Shane [Sutton] – Sean [Yates] has been around a while – it was a new experience, there’s going to be a lot of learning, but I think the next couple of years we’ll keep improving really.”
For Thomas, not to mention the other home members of the squad, most of the team’s management and backroom staff are familiar from their involvement with Team GB, and he echoes the comment made by Bradley Wiggins when he signed for Team Sky that it felt like “coming home.”
“I think it’s good that you know how the system works, it was a bit like coming home, the fact you know everyone –well, 50 per cent – of the staff, the whole philosophy of how the team’s run and things like that. And I think it’s easier just to get into the team and the training and the important stuff rather than getting to know the management and things like that, I think it helps us British guys a lot more, having that really.”
Contrasting the British outfit with his previous team, he says: “It’s completely different to Barloworld the way they run things – it’s good that you always have a goal and a specific thing to do in a race because with Barloworld sometimes you just went from race to race doing them because you had to, really, there was no sort of game plan or anything like that.”
The rider adds that it didn’t take long for he and his new team mates to find their feet at Team Sky and blend as a unit. “I didn’t really find it hard to gel as a team,” he says, adding, “there’s a lot of nice guys around and the atmosphere’s pretty good. Obviously now we all know each other that bit better, we’re definitely that much closer and we know how each other works and how they race which helps massively when it comes down to the end of the race.”
Away from the road, Thomas of course was a member of the British team pursuit squad that won gold in Beijing, breaking the world record they had set in the semi-final by almost two seconds as they beat Denmark in the final, and he’s determined to secure a place in the squad in Great Britain’s defence of that title at London 2012.
“I’ve been riding a bit of track just to sort of keep my track legs a bit, and I’m going to ride in the Manchester World Cup in February just because I think if you miss a season on the track, it’s quite hard to get back to that level again,” he explains.
“So I’ll be going for that, and then getting back on the track again next winter, 2011/12, that will really be when the focus turns onto the track. At the minute I’m still mixing both the road and the track, of course I’ve got the Classics and the Tour so you can’t really neglect the road, but I’ve got to get that bit of track in, that’s the thinking behind it.”
He rules out the possibility, however, of trying to target Olympic success on the road as well as the track in 2012. “I don’t think you’d be able to do it really, and I think the best chance of me winning a gold medal is in the team pursuit so that’s what I’m going to go for really.”
The Omnium, introduced to the Olympic track programme, does provide another potential opportunity for the Thomas, but with countries only able to qualify one rider for each event at the velodrome, he concedes that Ed Clancy has a stronger claim to that place right now.
“Ed’s riding it at the minute, he won the world’s this year so he’s obviously not bad at it! I’ll have a little look at that when the time comes a bit closer, but at the minute it’s just the team pursuit,” he says.
Despite the snow that has swathed most of Britain, Thomas is still getting out for training rides from his Manchester base and even seems to be relishing the conditions, which couldn’t differ more from that hot, dusty ride over the cobbles last July.
“I’ve been really fortunate actually, I’ve had three hours on the bike at the weekend, and I did four, five hours yesterday and today. I’ve been quite lucky round here, it hasn’t been too bad, there’s obviously been snow and a bit of ice, but it’s been rideable. We went over the Cat & Fiddle yesterday – it was closed, but it was just about rideable anyway, so a bit of an adventure for us!”
Whether it’s over the cobbles or over the Cat & Fiddle, let’s hope Thomas has many more adventures in 2011 and beyond. The season just finished has certainly given him a solid foundation to build upon.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.