IN­TER­VIEW: GERAINT THOMAS

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer Ed­ward Pick­er­ing Por­traits Joseph Branston

The Tour cham­pion, at home in Monaco, tells us that his life has changed, but he hasn’t

Geraint Thomas rocked the cy­cling world when he won the Tour de France this year, dom­i­nat­ing the race and win­ning two pres­ti­gious stages along the way. He tells Pro­cy­cling why he’s tak­ing it all in his stride

Go­ing to the shops back home to get a pint of milk used to take a few min­utes for Geraint Thomas, but these days it takes the best part of half an hour. “Ev­ery­one wants pics and a lit­tle chat,” he says. “It’s nice, but it’s also nice to come away from all that.” Right now, from the per­spec­tive of his base in Monaco, where the warm af­ter­glow of the Tour win in which Thomas has been bask­ing since July has phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion in the post-sea­son warmth of the French Riviera, there’s no sense that the sat­is­fac­tion of hav­ing won the world’s big­gest bike race is in any way tar­nished by the pres­sures of fame.

Thomas is in hol­i­day mode. He’s been in hol­i­day mode since he won the Tour de France, re­ally. We’ve met at Sky’s team house on the Moyenne Cor­niche road high above Monaco on the day of the World Cham­pi­onships men’s road race, and the yel­low jer­sey he has brought for the photo shoot, the one he wore on the last day of the race, is a lit­tle tighter on him than it was in July. The tan has faded a bit and the bags un­der his eyes are now the re­sult of a hec­tic sched­ule of pub­lic ap­pear­ances, in­ter­na­tional travel and par­ties, rather than the strain of rid­ing 170 kilo­me­tres a day, faster than any­body else in the world. You’d say he looks a bit di­shev­elled, but the bed hair and mous­tache, which some­how al­ways looks like it’s had about four or five days’ worth of growth, are peren­nial – I Googled Thomas’s wed­ding pic­tures and he looked ex­actly the same then.

Thomas, sim­i­lar to an­other Bri­tish Tour win­ner, Bradley Wig­gins, needs to wind down af­ter months of fo­cus. He worked as hard as he ever has to win the Tour, but he has struck a bar­gain with his psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing, that if it doesn’t let him down while he’s liv­ing like a monk for months at a time, he’ll be nice to it for a while. “I’m ei­ther on or off,” he says. “There’s no in be­tween. It’s like a light switch. I’m ei­ther 100 per cent and it’s fish and salad and quinoa and six hours on the bike and ap­ples. Or it’s ev­ery­thing else – burg­ers and piz­zas and beer and ev­ery­thing.”

The burg­ers and beer are the easy bit. The more com­pli­cated part seems to be com­ing to terms with be­ing a Tour win­ner. On one hand, Thomas is ex­press­ing the same

mix­ture of good-na­tured in­credulity and re­fusal to get car­ried away about the fact he has joined a club which num­bers only 24 liv­ing mem­bers that he did dur­ing his win­ner’s press con­fer­ence at the end of the Tour. On the other, he’s pro­cess­ing some of the more com­plex is­sues about his Tour win – hav­ing to go about the del­i­cate mat­ter of usurp­ing Chris Froome as Sky’s team leader, and squar­ing the kind of al­most cocky con­fi­dence that comes from be­ing quite clearly the best rider in the Tour with the boy-next-door per­sona.

Thomas, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, has al­ways ap­proached life with a kind of dif­fi­dent, blokeish equa­nim­ity. He ver­balises this him­self with an un­tran­scrib­able plo­sive sound with which he pre­fixes many of his an­swers to ques­tions from jour­nal­ists – you’d write it as ‘phwa’, per­haps, al­though the ‘w’ is half­way to be­ing an ‘r’. It’s a kind of au­ral shrug, the sound he makes when he doesn’t quite have the words to ar­tic­u­late what he’s feel­ing. It’s how he starts sen­tences when you ask what it’s like be­ing a Tour de France win­ner, or how he felt when he won on Alpe d’Huez while wear­ing the yel­low jer­sey. It’s what he used to say when you asked whether he could have won this or that race if he hadn’t crashed. It in­di­cates that he has ba­si­cally taken all this in his stride. He’s spent a few years un­der­achiev­ing in the grand tours, and the crashes and bad luck never knocked his equi­lib­rium. Win­ning it doesn’t seem to have done so ei­ther. Ev­ery­thing has changed for Geraint Thomas in 2018, but you’d have to say, he has not.

Thomas’s Tour win was ut­terly dom­i­nant, from the out­side. (In­side was a dif­fer­ent story, which we’ll get to later.) He floated through the first nine days be­fore the moun­tains, never get­ting caught be­hind splits, never punc­tur­ing or crash­ing, even pick­ing up bonus sec­onds here and there. With the foun­da­tions of his win thus laid, he set about build­ing an im­preg­nable fortress in the Alps, win­ning con­sec­u­tive sum­mit fin­ishes on stages 11 and 12. At La Rosière, he dropped ev­ery­body, and in ret­ro­spect, if you had to pick a sin­gle mo­ment which won him the Tour, it would be that one; the next day, at Alpe d’Huez, he won the sprint from a group of five. Through the Mas­sif Cen­tral and Pyre­nees, he raised a flag on his cas­tle in de­fi­ance of his ri­vals by de­fend­ing his lead with­out ever look­ing like he could be dropped. An in­di­ca­tion of how much bet­ter he was than ev­ery­body else was that the run­ner-up in Paris, Tom Du­moulin, didn’t gain time on Thomas un­til the penul­ti­mate day’s time trial, where the Dutch­man put an un­threat­en­ing 14 sec­onds into him.

"I'm ei­ther 100 per cent and it's ish and salad and quinoa and six hours on the bike and ap­ples. Or it's burg­ers, beer and pizza"

The race was, com­pared to the rest of Thomas’s ca­reer, quite anoma­lous. (Not in that way – Thomas is a dou­ble Olympic team pur­suit gold medal­list, so he has the en­gine, and there are anec­do­tal re­ports that he is the only rider on Sky who is ca­pa­ble of match­ing Froome’s fear­some train­ing vol­ume and sched­ule.) But his road ca­reer has been punc­tu­ated by crashes and bad luck. He’s crashed out of Mi­lan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour, the Giro, Paris-Nice and more. When he has stayed up­right at the Tour, he’s rid­den in the ser­vice of Froome. Some­thing has al­ways gone wrong. How­ever, in 2018, ev­ery­thing went right. It had an ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fect on his con­fi­dence, and by the fi­nal moun­tain stage, over the Col d’Au­bisque, he was en­joy­ing the fight.

“Froomey got gapped and I just stayed in front,” he says. “By then I was the most con­fi­dent I could have been. I watched a doc­u­men­tary re­cently about Joe Calza­ghe and there was a fight where he was win­ning and he had his guard down, like, right in the face of who­ever he was fight­ing, and I felt like that. Like a boxer who was show­boat­ing. I didn’t show­boat, but in my head I was, like, ‘Come on Du­moulin, come on Roglic, give me what you’ve got!’

“The way I won the Tour, it felt like I was in con­trol the whole time.”

The Tour win was straight­for­ward, but that’s not to say that it was easy. “It was hard at mo­ments,” he says. “The hard­est day was prob­a­bly Alpe d’Huez. It’s strange, be­cause I won that day, but that was where I had my rough­est patch, even mid-stage when it wasn’t that hard. To get through that was big for my con­fi­dence. I wasn’t even think­ing about the stage, I was just think­ing about stay­ing in the front group and stay­ing with the best guys. Win­ning the stage wear­ing the yel­low jer­sey, there was a mas­sive buzz off that.”

Thomas, then, beat his ri­vals on dif­fer­ent teams by con­sis­tently out­rid­ing them. But he also had to beat one on his own team.

Geraint Thomas is the kind of Tour win­ner you could imag­ine go­ing down the pub with. He likes sport, and talk­ing about sport, and his Twit­ter feed is a mix of rugby, foot­ball and box­ing, though he’s not big on watch­ing bike races. We’re miss­ing the fi­nal 90 min­utes of the Worlds road race, and he couldn’t care less. He is af­fa­ble and doesn’t seem to get ruf­fled eas­ily. This lat­ter as­pect of his per­son­al­ity might be a func­tion of his ex­pe­ri­ence through the Bri­tish Cy­cling Academy and Team Sky, where the highs and lows are smoothed off by the fetishi­sa­tion of the process. Or per­haps he’s just like that. “I think it’s al­ways been in me, in­stilled in me by my dad, with­out even know­ing,” he says. “It’s the way he thinks and deals with things and it’s the way I think and deal with things.”

But he’s more emo­tional than he lets on to other peo­ple, and pos­si­bly to him­self. He was as blind­sided by the tears which flowed in the flash in­ter­view that fol­lowed the fi­nal time trial of the Tour as we were. Press con­fer­ences and set-piece in­ter­views, the kind you get in the jour­nal­ists’ mixed zone at the Tour, aren’t gen­er­ally good for Thomas. Es­pe­cially at the Tour’s press con­fer­ences this year, he tended to­wards the safe and repet­i­tive. Look­ing back at the stage, he’d in­vari­ably be sat­is­fied and pleased with how it had gone. Look­ing for­ward, he would be tak­ing it day by day and see­ing how it went. He’s more in his el­e­ment in more re­laxed or im­pro­vised in­ter­views, where his dead­pan de­liv­ery and dry sense of hu­mour find bet­ter ex­pres­sion. But that in­ter­view, shortly af­ter he’d es­sen­tially con­firmed that he would win the yel­low jer­sey, showed Thomas stripped of all his de­fence mech­a­nisms and ego, giv­ing us a rare glimpse of the cy­cling en­thu­si­ast within. When you fin­ished the TT, I say, you burst into tears.

“Yeah,” he says. “I was sup­press­ing it the whole race and not get­ting car­ried away. Be­ing a fan of it, still lov­ing the Tour and cy­cling, know­ing how big it was and what it meant, I was sup­press­ing that all the way through. If you’re emo­tional, the va­ri­ety of per­for­mance you get is all over the place. If you just fo­cus on the process you’ll al­ways be within a cou­ple of per cent. But sud­denly, it was all over and it was like, ‘Sh*t, I’ve just won the Tour.’ And then, boof, it hits you.

“It showed more than peo­ple usu­ally see, or even that I al­low my­self to see. The real me, so to speak. Even though the process

"I felt like like a boxer who was show­boat­ing. I didn’t show­boat, but in my head I was, like, ‘ Come on Du­moulin, come on Rogli , give me what you’ve got!' The way I won the Tour, it felt like I was in con­trol the whole time"

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