Renaissance man: Geraint Thomas on proving doubters wrong and making the most of his time left

'It’s hard when you’ve got two incredible guys like Vingegaard and Pogačar. You can’t just click your fingers and train a bit harder or eat a bit less' Welshman says as he talks Ineos, Giro-Tour and being the underdog

Clock15:12, Monday 13th November 2023
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) would welcome a return to the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France or both in 2024

Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) would welcome a return to the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France or both in 2024

In 2021, for the briefest of moments, Geraint Thomas felt as though his career was petering towards a sad and underwhelming end.

A crash at the Tour de France had robbed him of his best-ever summer build-up, while another fall at the Olympic Games a few weeks later virtually ended his season in a competitive sense. Contract negotiations with Ineos Grenadiers had dragged on for months, with whispers within the upper echelons of the team management that the 2018 Tour winner was no longer the force he once was. In his mid-30s, and without a Grand Tour result in two years, Thomas’s career was on the precipice.

“That was certainly the most difficult time in my career, in 2021,” he tells GCN from his home in Monaco during a lengthy interview.

“I had that crash early on in the Tour and it was really up and down. It was a shit race really but I had the best build-up I’d ever had, which was the ironic thing. Even around that time, pretty soon after the Tour, I started chatting to the team and they felt I was almost done in terms of leadership.

“Contract talks were ongoing and then I went to Tokyo for the Games thinking it would be different and a bit of a fresh start but I ended up crashing after 100km and falling on the same side I landed on at the Tour. I was just riding along and thinking ‘what have I done for this to happen’.”

Since then, Thomas has bounced back in the most impressive – but perhaps least surprising – way, becoming Ineos Grenadiers’ Mr Consistent in Grand Tours. A third place in the 2022 Tour de France behind Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) reasserted his position as a Grand Tour leader, while second in this year’s Giro d’Italia reinforced the idea that, despite his advancing years, the 37-year-old is as hungry as ever going into the new year.

Thomas’ solidity over three weeks has reached such levels of dependency that there’s talk of returning to the Giro, another shot at the Tour, and even chatter of combining both Grand Tours, albeit with different roles at each. For a rider who was deemed to be a fading force, Thomas has shown an incredible amount of resolve and grit.

“I’ve still got the hunger to do it, and go for it. Just being competitive in the biggest bike races is super motivating for myself. And the fact that I’ve done it the last two years means I don’t see why I can’t do it next year. Obviously, there is going to come a point where I’m not able to but I don’t feel like that’s within the next nine months,” he says.

December discussions

Much of Thomas’ 2024 campaign will be decided next month when he and the rest of the Ineos squad gather in Mallorca, Spain, to set out their plans for the coming year. With no major arrivals in the transfer market, it’s likely that Thomas will be given the opportunity to lead the team in one of cycling’s three Grand Tours. Over the last few weeks, Thomas has been cautious to not rule out any possible avenue, advocating for both another shot at the Giro d’Italia as well as raising hope for a return to the Tour de France.

Read more: Geraint Thomas: It would be nice to go back to the Giro d'Italia in 2024

From a purely pragmatic sense, a Giro challenge makes the most sense. Vingegaard and Pogačar are so far ahead of the competition at the Tour that it would take a miracle for their four-year grip on the race to end. Primož Roglič (Bora-Hansgrohe), who beat Thomas in a nail-biting Giro this year - and possibly Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) - have stronger Tour bids than Thomas at this stage, while the Giro has a Thomas-friendly route and a weaker start list. Winning a Giro is never easy but the opposition in May will be weaker than what’s heading to the Tour in July.

One option, not yet discussed with the team, could see Thomas race the Giro as Ineos’ leader before a quick turnaround to focus on the Tour de France as a domestique and chaperone for the team’s younger riders.

“Looking at the Giro, I’d like to go back there because it looks like a nice route for me. And after what happened this year, it would be good to go back. But I did miss doing the Tour this year,” Thomas tells GCN.

“Maybe I could do both, and go for the Giro and then be at the Tour to help the younger lads on and off the bike. It’s something I need to have a good chat about with the team, with Rod [Ellingworth], and Steve [Cummings], and then continue talking to my coach Connor [Taylor] about it. I guess in December at the training camp we’ll nail it all down.”

The question, central to all of this, is what motivates Thomas; what drives him to shed the necessary weight and isolate himself from his young family during the season?

“It’s true, there could be fewer superstars at the Giro but, at the end of the day, I just need to sit down and see what actually motivates me more, and what’s going to keep that drive, and that hunger in order to make those sacrifices and do what I have to do to be at my best,” he says.

“Back-to-back Grand Tours isn’t something I’ve done before – well, I did it once and crashed out of both – but it’s also something different and new, and I also feel that it could also help to motivate me.”

Ineos rebuild and underdog status

While Thomas has remained competitive, and even enjoyed a stronger period of Grand Tour racing following his Tour de France success than before it, the Ineos team as a whole have been usurped by rival squads.

Read more: Geraint Thomas: Ineos Grenadiers has been in transition for a couple of years

Once the dominant force of men’s cycling, the British squad have not won a Grand Tour since 2021, or a Tour de France since 2019, and this year they failed to podium at the Tour for just the second time in 10 years.

While their stage racing record has certainly not fallen off a cliff, there’s no denying that Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates have overtaken them to become the top two squads in the world - although Thomas may say otherwise.

Ineos and Thomas have, by their own accounts, been shepherded into the roles of underdogs, while talk of rebuilds and transitions have been bandied about by the team and media alike. There’s certainly been an ongoing management restructure, with several high-profile changes in the last six months, but Thomas has remained a constant presence on the road. He has embraced the underdog tag, relishing in the fact that there’s still a point to prove in some quarters, and that, although the team have dramatically changed since their heyday, there’s still a desire to return to the top of cycling’s pecking order.

“I never really realised the underdog thing until I kept on mentioning in my books about ‘proving someone wrong’ and then I thought about it a bit more,” Thomas says.“It’s not just me, but the team as well, but when someone talks down about you, it does give you some extra motivation and impetus to show them what we can do. It’s not like I go out training every day and I’ve got critics in the back of my mind but it’s more general when it comes to people saying you can’t do something.

“I think that is similar for a lot of the guys on the team really, whether they were on the team in the earlier years or they just want to see the team back at the top because they want that for themselves. Everyone is pushing to get back up there but it’s hard and it’s not going to happen overnight. Jumbo are just incredible at the moment and Pogačar and UAE, too. It’s a massive challenge but one that you have to relish really. That’s what it’s all about.”

The reality for Thomas, Ineos and anyone else involved in professional sport is that nothing lasts forever. Just ask Manchester United – the football club heavily linked with a takeover bid from Ineos owner, Jim Ratcliffe. Once the superpower of the English Premier League, they aren’t even the biggest team in their own city, and haven’t won a league title since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. To coin the Scottish manager’s favourite term, Ineos have been knocked off their perch.

The irony is that Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe is said to be buying a stake in United, which would see Dave Brailsford – who heads up Ineos’ wider sporting projects but remains active in the cycling team – charged with rebuilding two superpowers in the coming years.

“Mercedes were dominating in F1, and then suddenly they weren’t there but are coming back now. Same with the All Blacks. That’s just sport and if it was just the same people winning all the time it would be super boring,” Thomas argues.

“There’s always that fluctuation at the top and I don’t think that we’ve fallen that far away. I still think that we’re within touching distance. It’s hard as well when you’ve got two incredible guys like Vingegaard and Pogačar. You can’t just click your fingers and train a bit harder or eat a bit less. It takes the whole team, with everything that goes into it. At that level it’s also the mentality; in the race is where you finish it off, but it’s also about the whole season.”

A big question that remains surrounds the influence Brailsford has over the cycling team. There was a time in which the team principal was never far from the team bus, and constantly travelling with the squad. His presence was felt throughout the team and rippled throughout the peloton and into the media. Along the way, that power waned – publicly at least – for a multitude of reasons deserving of another piece.

While Brailsford still holds power, his time is split between several Ineos sporting ventures and that is partly why the team’s position has slipped in recent times.

“For sure, his experience and with everything he’s done, it would be invaluable,” Thomas says when asked if he would welcome Brailsford taking more control.

“If he did come more with the team it would be awesome but if Ineos are buying United then he might be a bit preoccupied with getting the right people in for that. If he did have more input, it definitely wouldn’t be detrimental to us.

Whatever the outcome of the management structure, Brailsford’s influence or Ineos’ recruitment strategy, Thomas’ constant presence and leadership will remain for the next two years, and Ineos are lucky to have him.

Not only is the rider a leader on the road but he is also a pillar and example for what Ineos were once capable of. Such an individual could have a major impact on where the team goes next and how the young signings develop.

And who knows, perhaps he still has one more Grand Tour win left in him. The oldest Giro winner in history is Fiorenzo Magni who was 34 when he took the title in 1955, whilst Thomas will be gone 38 by the time the Giro finishes next May. But given his motivation, anyone writing him off at this stage is probably doing him a favour.

“I just want to make the most of my time left,” Thomas says. “Personally, it’s still nice to be in the mix and honestly, I didn’t think I still would be. Two or three years after my win, until I was 35, I thought that would be it because that was the norm."

“Once you’ve stopped that’s it, it’s over, and you move into another life. I’m also looking forward to that but I’m not hurrying it along. I want to enjoy these last couple of years."

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