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Thomas’s First Tour


The 2018 Tour de France winner talking about his first experience of the race.

Words and photos: Chris Sidwells

One month after the 2007 Tour de France I went to Tuscany to visit the rider who finished 140th. Not an auspicious result, and hardly reason to travel 1000 miles you might think, but at 21 Geraint Thomas was easily the youngest rider in the race, and his focus at that time was four minutes of intense effort on the track, not 90-odd hours of flogging around the roads and mountains of France.

Image of Geraint Thomas

Getting around the Tour at 21 in the way Thomas did it; well, I thought it was a marker. Not many 21 year olds have taken on the Tour, and in the post-stage interviews I saw Thomas looked more like he’d ridden to the shops. He seemed to soak up whatever the race threw at him. It’s easy to say now with hindsight, but I thought there was a lot more to Geraint Thomas than what he was focusing on back then.   

I met him in Quarrata, where British Cycling’s under-23 academy had its summer base. Thomas left the academy when he turned pro, but having other British riders around him he decided to rent a house in the town. When I poled up another academy graduate, Mark Cavendish was visiting Thomas with former pro Max Sciandri, who looked after the academy riders in Italy. It was a home from home, a colony of Brits bang in the middle of Italy’s cycling heartland.

Image of Geraint Thomas

“It’s great for training, the weather is good and you’ve got mountains right on the doorstep. When I’m at home in Cardiff I have to ride for about ninety minutes before I get to a good climb. Everyone knows you here, and they are interested in you. When it was announced that I was going to the Tour the locals got really excited. I like the atmosphere here too. I like the culture where you can come out and have a coffee and just sit and talk.”

And that’s what we did first, sat down for pre-ride espresso outside one of the cafés in Quarrata’s main square. I’d gone to Italy to get photos of Thomas riding his favourite training route for one of the ‘Ride With’ features Cycling Weekly magazine did then, but it was this longer interview I was really after.

Image of Geraint Thomas



Image of Geraint ThomasI started by asking him where he felt home was at that time, Cardiff or Quarrata? “Here, I’m going to buy a house in Manchester first, but I want to buy one here as well. I think Cav (Mark Cavendish) does too, and maybe Steve Cummings,” he said. Cavendish and Cummings did buy in the area, and by pure coinicidence I was with Cummings on another trip here the day he bought his first flat.

The home Thomas planned in Manchester was because he was still at the heart of British Cycling’s Olympic track squad. The Tour de France might have opened his eyes to his potential as a road rider, but the track is where he saw his immediate future. Although what he said next was prescient.

“I sort of see myself following what Brad (Wiggins) has done. I see myself as a track rider first. My big ambition next year is for the Olympics in the team pursuit. Then I’ll focus on the road for a couple of years, then it’s the Olympics in London.”

Image of Geraint ThomasNow I’m a bit old fashioned, and I see road racing as the pinnacle of cycling. As Thomas said 11 years later; “It’s the Tour de France, man” And he’d just absorbed the Tour at 21 like it was an intense three-week block of stamina training for the track.

If he achieved his number one ambition of a gold medal in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which he did, why wouldn’t he just pursue a career in, my prejudices again, the biggest bike races in the world; the classics and Grand Tours. 


“I really want to ride the Olympics in Britain and the track is my best option. The team pursuit would be first again, but maybe I could take on the Madison by then. I would love to ride the Madison in London with Cav,” he explained.

So far I’ve made it look like Geraint Thomas was just breezing through cycling in 2007 like it was second nature, but of course he wasn’t. He never underestimated the work he needed to do, neither did he shirk any.  “There are seven or eight riders who could step into the team pursuit. It isn’t a production line. A lot of people think that you just rock up and join the plan, and next thing you are world champion. It doesn’t work like that, a lot of hard work and commitment goes into it from everybody,” he said.

Image of Geraint Thomas

British cycling success was still a novelty in 2007, and most of it was on the track, although there were some green shoots of a road revival. In the early years of lottery funding, BC’s performance planners spent the money they had on the track because the odds were better on getting a return, but they always believed the endurance track talent they nurtured would eventually flower on the road.

And 2007 was the year when Cavendish and Thomas, the first 100 percent graduates of the lottery-funded performance plan, took on the Tour de France and other top level road races. Cavendish won the Scheldeprijs, then stages in both the Four days of Dunkirk and Volta a Catalunya, as well as two top-tens in Tour stages before pulling out on stage eight. 

“Me and Cav have known each other for years and grew up through the academy. It was an amazing experience to be at the start of the first stage of the Tour de France this year in the centre of London. We were stood next to each other with big smiles on our faces, both taking it in. It was an incredible feeling,” Thomas told me.

Image of Geraint Thomas

I then asked him what other impressions of the world’s biggest bike race, the race he eventually won, had made on him during his first encounter.

“It was fantastic, an amazing experience. I didn’t think it would affect me like it did, but when I caught my first sight of the Eiffel Tower on the last day, that was special. I will never forget it. I was riding alongside David Millar when I saw the tower. I really got caught up in the atmosphere that day. We had to chase a breakaway, and I was on the front going up the Champs-Élysées. That was the best experience. And then there was the view when you came out of the tunnel each lap,” Thomas said.

Image of Geraint ThomasBut there were plenty of bad times before the good ones in Paris. “I knew I would struggle to finish, but I was never going to get off. I was always going to try and get to the end. The first bad day was the stage to Tignes. I was dropped early and spent 100 kilometres chasing on my own. Eventually I caught the grupetto. I knew there were two long climbs and the grupetto would take them steadily, so I just stuck at it. I was really proud of that.”

Thomas discovered things about himself in the 2007 Tour de France, hidden strengths. “I discovered how to hurt myself. Looking back, every day at some point I was on the limit. And on stages ten and eleven I was on the limit all day. It was very hot and I have never suffered as much as I did then.  Getting through was a big boost for my morale though. I was proud to do it, and I was surprised that I didn’t feel so bad in the last week.

“The first couple of races afterwards were disappointing. I developed a bit of a chest infection, but I felt the difference finishing the Tour has made to me physically last week in the Tour of Burgos. It’s a tough race, but right through I felt strong. I wasn’t flying, but I could just ride and ride. That’s what guys who had done the Tour told me I would feel like.

Image of Geraint Thomas“I also noticed the difference in my head. Where before I’d be thinking, right this is a five day race, now I’m thinking this is only a five day race. Before I’d be, right there are three climbs today. Now I’m saying there’s only three climbs today, and they are only 300 metres.

“Bradley Wiggins told me it would be like that after the Tour. I spoke to Brad a lot, we had plenty of time to talk on some of those 20-kilometre climbs, and he said that four kilometres would never seem the same to me after the Tour.

“I was also amazed how big a deal the Tour was, how I had two or three journalists wanting to talk to me before every stage, and two or three after. I don’t think it all sank in until I was back with my friends in Cardiff, away from the Tour and looking back at it. Then I thought to myself; that was a big month I’ve just had.”

What did he do during that week off in Cardiff? “I had a few beers, and a few more besides. I did a lot of sleeping too. It was really nice to be normal for a week”

With a lot of good pro races, including the Tour de France, in his legs, Thomas had started to get a picture of where his abilities might take him on the road, and where he might be in the future.

Image of Geraint Thomas

“I think one day I might be able to go for the same kind of races and stages that Filippo Pozzato goes for. I think I can be a rider like him, who can get over the climbs, not the biggest ones maybe, and still be in there,” he said.

I then asked him what the single biggest lesson he’d learned from his first year as a pro road racer. “The thing about being a pro is that you have to go to a race for the team. In the GB team it’s all about you, about what’s best for you. You ride this race or that race just because that is part of your build up. As a pro you ride races for the team, and you have to race for the team.”

Image of Geraint Thomas

Thomas left a big impression on the 2007 Tour de France. The quiet dignified way he fought through to Paris impressed people. And the Tour left a big impression on Thomas. Without any family background in cyclinghe didn’t enter the sport all starry-eyed about the Tour de France, but I got the feeling that day in Tuscany that doing well in the Tour one day ranked alongside his Olympic ambitions.

But the Olympics and the team pursuit were what he wanted in 2007. A gold medal, something he’d dreamt about as he progressed through British cycling, was within his grasp. He knew that. What’s more he loved the speed of track racing. His eyes lit up when he talked about the Tour de France sprint finishes he’d just experienced, and they did the same when he talked about the speed of the British team pursuit squad.

“It feels incredible, there is nothing like whapping around a track at that speed with everybody so close. When we do our flying kilos in training and Ed Clancy kicks in at the front, it feels amazing,” he said.

I asked him what qualities do good team pursuiters have? “Well it’s very technical,” he replied. “You’ve got to get the changes perfect every time, and you’ve got to ride smoothly and dead close to the wheel in front. It takes a lot of practice. I‘ve done a lot of track racing over the years, riding scratch and points races, and it all helps you to follow a wheel and move around the track.”

Image of Geraint Thomas

Thomas’s GB team mate Chris Newton once said that the team pursuit is like doing four flat out sprints with no recovery in between, and Thomas agreed. “Yeah, it’s flat out but it’s smooth. It’s difficult to describe how you do it. The first two turns are critical, they are full on, but you can’t overdo it. The last two are sprinting, but still controlled. It’s a real fine line between being fast enough and overdoing it.”
 
And how are the skills perfected, I asked? “Practice. With the academy we did drill after drill after drill, and always at race speed. It becomes second nature after a while, but it takes hours and hours to get there.”

My final question revealed something Thomas was to repeat in the 2018 Tour de France, when he was asked how he was coping with the pressure of leading the race. My question was had being a team pursuiter helped in his debut in top-level road racing?

“I think the biggest help it’s been is in dealing with the pressure. There is no pressure like sitting with three of your mates waiting to go up before a team pursuit final. That’s intense,” he replied.

In 2018 he reiterated this by saying; “Wearing the yellow jersey is nowhere near as nerve-wracking as waiting at the start of an Olympic final.” Track racing helps road racers in many ways, but more than anything its binary get it right or wrong helps them deliver under pressure.

Image of Geraint Thomas

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