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Geraint Thomas - from helper to leader

Mark Bailey
28 Dec 2015

Some riders are known by just their first name, but only one is recognisable by the first letter. Cyclist talks to Geraint Thomas.

‘Have you ever had a Byron burger? What’s it like?’ Geraint Thomas is standing in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, asking questions about burgers, and I’m beginning to think we’ve made a terrible mistake. The plan was to go for a walk to get some photographs. The reality is we’ve just dragged a lean and perpetually ravenous professional cyclist to one of the most highly concentrated, grease-soaked restaurant hot-spots in Manchester. Beckoning branches of Pizza Express, Barburrito, Nando’s and Byron surround us, like a sort of architectural no-no list of every chain a 68kg pro cyclist would kill to eat in, but can’t. I wince with guilt. But Thomas’s innocent question sums up the invisible divide between their world and ours. We wonder how it feels to ride 3,360km across France. They wonder what a Byron burger tastes like. 

I’d happily buy the Welshman (and, yes, Thomas is a 100% daffodil-waving Welshman, despite Chris Froome calling him ‘English’ in his autobiography) a burger myself, but I’m concerned I’ll get wiped out by one of Dave Brailsford’s drones on my drive home. Fortunately, it’s the winter off-season and Thomas says he’s enjoyed a few burgers already, which is why he’s intrigued: basic research ahead of next year’s annual burger treat. Anyone with the ferocious willpower to complete 20 stages of the Tour de France with a fractured hip, as Thomas famously did in 2013, can stroll past a burger joint without cracking. Plus, it’s only 10.14am. 

Geraint Thomas portrait

‘At this time of year I like to completely switch off and enjoy a few meals out – burgers, beers, pizza, and the stuff you don’t eat in the season,’ says the 29-year-old, who is known by his fellow riders as ‘G’. ‘I go out and I make the most of it. But it’s funny because after a few weeks you feel fat and unhealthy so I’m ready to get back on the regime now.’

Thomas’s body is like a finely tuned engine. Even his beloved Welsh cakes (a delicious griddle-baked riot of fat, sugar and dried fruit) throw a spanner in the works. ‘In the off-season you go from quinoa and salads to all these calorific foods so you actually start craving the healthy stuff again. It’s weird, I know. But once you start doing the healthy stuff again, because you’ve had a taste of the other food, you start craving the bad stuff again. It’s a constant battle. It’s almost a lesser sort of addiction in a way. You know you’re doing well in training when you think, “I’m really looking forward to a nice apple when I get home.”’

Bin bags and razors

2015 has been a potentially career-changing year for Geraint Thomas. He won the Volta ao Algarve stage race and E3 Harelbeke one-day race, took third place in Gent-Wevelgem, despite being blown off his bike by a freak gust of wind, and secured 15th place in the Tour – his highest finish yet. He was in fourth position after Stage 18 before his selfless efforts helping Chris Froome to a second yellow jersey finally consumed him. Thomas began the season as an invaluable Grand Tour lieutenant and gritty one-day rider hunting solo wins. Now it’s clear he is
a possible future Tour de France champion. 

Thomas also enjoyed a special year off the bike, marrying his partner Sara in October. After winning E3 Harelbeke, he received his weight in beer as a prize, which went down well at his wedding reception. On his messy stag-do in Berlin, he wore a dragon onesie. He’s just got back from his honeymoon - a nine-day road trip across California, topped off with five days in Hawaii. ‘The wedding was brilliant but I didn’t have any of my own wedding cake,’ he says. ‘Not that I wouldn’t, but when it’s your own wedding you just don’t get to do all that as it’s so hectic. I even missed the magician. I was gutted.’ 

Familiar face

Geraint Thomas Team Sky

As we walk around Manchester, a man stops Thomas for an autograph for his son. ‘I always feel surprised if I’m asked for an autograph when I’m in normal clothes,’ Thomas tells me. ‘At a race you’re ready to be asked for autographs and on the roads in Cardiff somebody always beeps or shouts, “Alright, G!” But when we were on holiday in Las Vegas me and Sa were sitting at a table gambling and this bloke comes over and asks, “Are you Geraint Thomas?” He was a British Army guy. A couple of days later we were on Alcatraz and somebody else said, “Are you Geraint Thomas? Can I have a picture?” I never thought one day somebody would ask for my autograph onAlcatraz.’

Thomas, who lives in Nice, has come to Manchester to sign copies of his new book, The World Of Cycling According To G. From the very first chapter, his musings on bibshorts (they make you look like ‘a Freddie Mercury impersonator’), the first time he shaved his legs, aged 14, with a disposable razor in a portaloo in Germany (‘hacking away like a blindfolded lumberjack’) and the day he wore a bin bag for a rain jacket (‘you wouldn’t see that in a Rapha store’), quickly remind you that Thomas is different to other riders. With his revelations about the strange skills of pro cyclists (intriguingly, they are amazing at go-kart races) and his golden rules for riders (always ‘wee wide’), it’s a celebration of cycling life seen through the prism of Thomas’s wry humour.   

‘I didn’t want to write the usual autobiography because I just thought, well, who cares about my life?’ he says. ‘It’s not like I grew up being chased by hippos, like Chris Froome did. I wanted it to be fun, you know?’ He also seized the chance to gain revenge on Froome, a Kenyan-born Brit, by calling him South African. 

Geraint Thomas cyclist

Thomas is relaxed and playful company. He turns up in casual jeans and a jacket with his trademark bed-hair and happily chats about Arsenal’s title challenge (he’s a big fan) and the new Bond movie. He even natters to a random Mancunian who sparks up a conversation in the street. I’m not sure he knows who Thomas is, but the Welshman has a mellow, approachable vibe that makes people just start talking to him.  

‘I’ve always been quite chilled really,’ he says. ‘It’s maybe from my track background because I’m used to doing interviews and meeting people so I just chat to everyone like I would chat down the pub. I don’t let things get to me. Like, if someone thinks I’m shit, I don’t care - unless it’s Dave Brailsford and I don’t have a contract.’

Star of the future 

Geraint Thomas was born in Cardiff on 25th May 1986. He went to Whitchurch High School, the same school attended by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton. With most kids mad about football and rugby, following cycling was, he admits, a bit odd. He joined the Maindy Flyers Cycling Club when he was 10 and begged his dad to get Eurosport so he could watch pro races. The first time he used bibshorts he wore pants underneath. 

He grew up racing with current Team Sky teammates Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard. ‘I remember riding around with Luke when I was 10 and he was six, racing around parks and pavements - same with Stannard and Swifty. Even when we were older, racing was just about fun weekends away. We’d travel to races in a minibus and someone would bring a big stereo. I remember getting pulled over by the police because we had toilet paper unravelling everywhere and they gave us a telling off.’

Geraint Thomas interview

Thomas turned 18 in 2004 and it proved to be a pivotal year. He won Junior Paris-Roubaix, finished second in the points race at the European Junior Track Championships and claimed gold in the scratch race at the Junior World Track Championships. His talent earned him an invitation to join the British Cycling Academy alongside riders such as Mark Cavendish and Ed Clancy. He trained hard, but enjoyed a few pranks and occasionally slipped out for a few sly beers. ‘It was a great time, riding with good mates and learning a hell of a lot about yourself,’ he says. ‘All those lads are the same now as they were then. Even Cav – people probably think he’s got big-headed over the years, but he had that confidence when he was 12.’

Pain on tour 

In keeping with the British Cycling development philosophy, Thomas blended work on the track with time on the road, including a season racing in Italy. ‘The main difference was the climbs and descents,’ he says. ‘I’d never gone up hills like that before, so it was a shock. But also the descents were pretty sketchy. We were racing down them like kids and had a lot of crashes, which is pretty stupid when you look back. The racing was super-tough and I was still riding track so it was pretty hard doing climbs when you’re heavier than the other guys. It was
a steep learning curve.’

Initially Thomas prioritised the track, winning the team pursuit World Championships as senior in 2007, 2008 and 2012 and claiming two Olympic gold medals in the same event in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. But he simultaneously raced on the road, entering his first Tour de France in 2007 with Barloworld when he became the first Welshman to compete in the event since Colin Lewis in 1967. He was the youngest rider in the race and finished 140th out of 141 riders. ‘I still draw on that first Tour today,’ he says. ‘I know however bad it gets now I am never as bad as I was then. The suffering in those three weeks was horrendous. Looking back, I don’t think I could suffer like that again, but when you’re in it, you just do it.’ 

Geraint Thomas crashes on Stage 16 of the 2015 Tour de France

Thomas joined the newly formed Team Sky in 2010 and won the national road race championships that year. Victories followed at the Tour of Bavaria in 2011 and 2014 as well as the Commonwealth Games road race in Glasgow last year. The British public has grown with him. ‘You can tell there is more of an understanding about road cycling now,’ he says. ‘My nan always used to say, “Why did you sit up like that? You were leading with 200m to go. Why let Cav pass you? You were doing really well.” Now a lot more people understand the sport.’  

Thomas is jovial by nature but given his progress on the road there’s a serious question to ask. The Welshman has proven that he has the talent to mix it with the best, and with Team Sky’s number two Richie Porte departing for BMC Racing, Thomas is certain to be Froome’s chief back-up next July. But is he ready to step up to become
a yellow jersey contender himself? 

‘You can’t help but think if I’d ridden for myself this year, even without the support of the team, would I have blown up when I did? I don’t think I would have, and maybe I could have hung on to a top five place – certainly a top 10. And it was a climber’s Tour, with only 14km of individual time-trials. It makes you think, “What if I completely commit to the Tour next year?” There are 40km of time-trials, which is good for me. I would love to go down that route. The week-long races like Paris-Nice will be the ones where I can go for a result myself, but I still want to go to the Tour and be a good back-up for Froomey, but hopefully not do too much in the first half and think about myself a little bit more.’

Geraint Thomas 'G'

How does a rider negotiate that all-important promotion to number one? ‘I guess it’s about form and experience and past results,’ says Thomas. ‘This year will be key for me. I will see how the Tour goes. If I feel like I’m riding for Froomey and pushing for myself as well, that’s good. Maybe in two years I might think I know what I need to do to win - and if I can’t lead the team at Sky, maybe I will lead it somewhere else. But it has to be the right team. I wouldn’t go anywhere just to be a leader as you could have 10 kids with you. If you’re back-up in a really good team like Sky and something happens, you’re in the strongest place.’

Beer and sausages

His move into Grand Tour contention doesn’t mean he’s prepared to give up on his love of the Classics. Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders still call to him. ‘I’ve watched them since I was a kid and I love the mud, the drama and the crashes,’ he says. ‘I’m certainly thinking about the stage racing route but I love the Classics so it’s a big tug of war in my head. Sometimes I think it would be better to just be told: “Do this.” But I definitely want to ride the Tour of Flanders.’ 

He loves the gritty atmosphere as much as the racing. ‘At the Classics you can smell the hot dogs. You can even smell the beer on people’s breath when they are shouting at you. It’s just an immense atmosphere. There is nothing like it.’ Not that the pungent aromas make him crave a beer mid-ride. ‘You try to block it out but you don’t really fancy it when it’s off someone else’s breath. At the Tour one year Adam Hansen offered me a beer he had been given on a climb. I said, “I don’t want it now, I want to enjoy it.” So he took it to the top for me and I had it then.’  

You sense that the odd dollop of normality – a post-season burger, a mid-season night out – helps keep Thomas sane when he returns to the monkish lifestyle and media scrutiny of the pro peloton. ‘It works for me but we’re learning to enjoy success more at Team Sky,’ he says. ‘After Paris-Roubaix we always have a drink and a few sausages. We’ve got better at celebrating the Tour. In the past it was almost like: that’s done, what’s next? We do feedback at Sky and one of the things we raised was celebrating our wins more. Dave has taken that on. There were times when we took it for granted, especially the year Brad won everything, and it probably took missing out in 2014 to realise there are no guarantees and we should enjoy it when we do win. I always do.’ 

Geraint Thomas has learnt a lot during his five years at Team Sky. It seems like they’re learning a few things from him too.

The World Of Cycling According To G is published by Quercus (£20) and is out now.