INTERVIEW: GERAINT THOMAS
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"