Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas is in cracking form at the moment, a top-ten finish in last weekend’s Tour of Flanders coming just a week and a half after he came second behind the surprise winner of that race, Saxo-Bank Sungard’s Nick Nuyens, in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Here in an exclusive interview with road.cc, the British champion reflects on last weekend’s race, looks ahead to Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, and gives us his thoughts about the build-up to London 2012.
When hot favourite Fabian Cancellara of Leopard-Trek responded to Tom Boonen’s attack 41km out on Sunday and quickly bridged across to the Belgian’s Quickstep team mate and lone leader Sylvain Chavanel, most of those watching believed they’d seen the defending champion make the winning move.
That’s a view that Geraint confesses he shared, albeit briefly, before the group in which he was riding got the chase going in earnest. “When he first went, I was a bit further back, and the first thing I thought was, ‘crap, it’s all over,’” he confides.
“But then you realise the group’s still big, there’s a number of teams there and quite a few good guys in there, so I knew that he’d have to do a super ride to stay away. If anyone could do that, you’d say that Fabian could. But at the end of the day, he’s not Superman, is he?
“We were lucky that BMC had so many guys up there and took it on. I’m sure that if they hadn’t then we would have stepped it up because we had five men up there as well. I think it helped that the group was still pretty large and naturally picked up speed going up to the climbs as we were fighting for position. “
“It could have gone either way really, but I thought that we had a decent chance of catching him. We didn’t see it as race over, but it was certainly dangerous, without a doubt.”
Even once he had been caught on the Muur, Cancellara had enough left in the tank to go for one final burst for glory with a couple of kilometres left to ride, Chavanel and the eventual winner Nuyens going with him.
Thomas came home in tenth place, confirming a growing feeling among fans and the media that he’s very close to challenging for the top honours in the big classics.
Indeed, top photographer Graham Watson, who from his vantage point riding pillion on a motorbike has been in the thick of the action more than pretty much anyone else over the past three decades, predicted on Twitter earlier this week that the Welshman would clinch a podium spot in Roubaix, behind Cancellara and Boonen.
“It’s a massive compliment when someone like that says I’ll get on the podium,” admits Geraint. “It’s nice to hear it from someone like Graham, but obviously I won’t let it get to my head. I’ll just get stuck in and do my best, and if I need to ride for the team, or if I get a chance to do something, we’ll see what happens.”
His performances to date this season are likely to see the 24-year-old move up to the position of Team Sky’s co-leader for Paris-Roubaix with Juan Antonio Flecha, but Geraint is keeping his feet on the ground.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone about it actually,” Geraint reveals. “I’ve only seen it in the press as well, so I’m not sure,” he continued, adding that he’ll find out the exact race plan when he joins up with his team-mates later today.
“I think obviously the team’s strong and got a few cards to play so we’ll all have our opportunities really to get stuck into the race,” he explains, including perhaps looking to get into a move if one develops.
With two of the longest and most punishing races on the calendar coming just seven days apart, how does a top pro ensure that he balances recovery and preparation to ensure he is in peak condition for both?
“It’s pretty simple really, just ticking over, keeping active, try not to get too lethargic, but at the same time resting up as much as possible,” explains Geraint. That means a massage on Monday, an hour’s ride on Tuesday plus four hours yesterday, as well as spending time with his girlfriend.
Today, it’s a bit of motor pacing behind the car, and then tomorrow the route recce on the infamous pavé, 27 sections of which feature on Sunday’s race. Our own Mat Brett will be out on that recce with Team Sky, so look out for his thoughts on what it’s like to ride the route of the Hell of the North with the pros.
Perhaps more than any other, Paris-Roubaix is a race in which a rider has to concentrate and keep their wits about them the whole day, while each will have their own specific approach, for Geraint it’s all about ensuring that you’re in the right place to minimise the chances of encountering problems.
“You’re thinking about being as close to the front as possible, it’s a bunch finish into each section, especially one like Arenberg. It’s a massive fight and you just want to be up there.
“The other thing about the pavé,” he adds, “is that you’re thinking about being at the front at the start of it, because there could be a crash or something, and everyone wants to ride on the same part of the road.
“You’re all behind each other and some people could be on their tops and not brake so quickly, or their reactions might be slower because they’re tired, which is really dangerous in that situation.
“You’re just racing to be at the front. You need to be there in case it does kick off, or if there’s a crash and you’re at the front, you don’t have to chase to get back on, especially the closer it gets to the finish when the race is really on.”
While Geraint is evolving into a genuine classics contender, he has of course already shown himself to be one of the very best in the world on he track, with an Olympic team pursuit gold medal, as well as a couple of rainbow jerseys to prove it.
In summer 2012 he’s aiming to be part of the Great Britain team that will defend its title at the London Olympics, which means some changes to his competition schedule as he makes the switch back to the track.
Although nothing’s been finalised yet, that is likely to see him ride the Giro d’Italia instead of the Tour de France, which ends just under a fortnight before the team sprint competition gets under way.
“I think it will be the Giro instead of the Tour, that’s what I did in the run-up to Beijing,” Geraint confirms, although he adds, “I haven’t looked at it that closely with my coach Dan Hunt or Shane Sutton,” head coach at British Cycling.
“It’s about two weeks after the Tour, so it might be a bit tight, especially the way the team pursuit’s going now, it’s so fast, so I think I’d need a bit more time than two weeks to get back on the track.”
Part of his preparations might also include the Track World Championships which will take place in Melbourne exactly a year from now, meaning that he may also miss out on the Classics next year, although nothing is set in stone as yet.
“That’s another thing, obviously I love the Classics and I’d be gutted if I missed them but with the Olympics in London, it’s once in a lifetime, so I’d want to give myself the best chance of winning there.
“If that means I’d have to miss the classics next year, I’d probably have to do it. It’s one of those conversations I haven’t had yet. I’m focusing on the here and now at the minute,” he concludes.
That here and now, of course, is the 258km from the town of Compiegne, north of Paris, to Roubaix on Sunday over pavé on which Geraint has already written his name, winning the junior version in 2004 and finishing second behind Thor Hushovd when the Tour de France rode over some of the route on Stage 3 last year.
British fans will be hoping that he can write another thrilling chapter in his personal history of Paris-Roubaix this weekend.
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.