BELLEVILLE, France (VN) — Is Geraint Thomas the next breakout GC rider in Sky’s assembly line of stars? He’s certainly hoping so.
The British powerhouse has produced an unlikely collection of winners who have dominated stage racing over the past few seasons. Bradley Wiggins’ historic run through the 2012 Tour de France opened the gates, followed up last year by Chris Froome’s even more dramatic Tour win to defend team colors. And nipping at their heels is Richie Porte, who will ride to win the Giro d’Italia in May.
Thomas, now in his seventh year as a pro, admits that GC aspirations are on his radar.
“It’s something I want to do,” Thomas said. “It’s something I want to start working on after this season, to improve my climbing and my time trial. I’ve always been pretty good on the time trial because of the track, but I’ve actually never worked at it.”
The 27-year-old Welshman is at a turning point in his career. After winning two Olympic gold medals in team pursuit on the track, in 2008 and in 2012, Thomas is fully dedicated to the road, and has no plans to return to the pine for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Up to now, he’s been a jack-of-all-trades, riding well in classics, in leading out sprints, in team time trials, and as a support rider for GC captains Wiggins and Froome.
Before his career is out, he’d like to be the master of something.
“Up to now, I’ve been good at all of them, but I’d like to be great at one thing,” he continued. “Stage racing is something that I’ve always loved. That’s the road I want to go on, and try to improve in that area.”
Geraint Thomas: ‘I used to be really fat’
Thomas admits he’s taking his job as a professional bike racer more seriously than ever. After watching Wiggins and Froome win the Tour, he’d like to see just how far he could go.
“I used to be really fat. Back in the old days, when I was younger, I drank a lot of beer. I wasn’t 100-percent focused on racing. Being from Wales, we like a good night out,” Thomas joked. “On the track, it was all about power. Now I’ve been slimming down. In Beijing, I was 74-75 kilograms. Now I am 69-70 kilograms. That makes a big difference in climbing.”
He turned pro with Barloworld in 2007, but the focus was on the track, where he was part of the record-smashing team pursuit squad in Beijing. After switching to Sky in 2010, Thomas wore the Tour’s best young jersey in 2011, but the road remained on the backburner through the London 2012 Games, where Thomas was again key in a world record performance.
Last year, he was fully committed to the road, and bravely battled through a broken pelvis to ride all the way to Paris to help Froome defend yellow for Sky.
He’s come a long way from his track racing days.
“In my first two or three years as a pro, I was a track rider, and the road was used as a tool to get fit for the track,” he said. “Now I am full-time on the road.”
Unexpected chance at Paris-Nice
But is Thomas poised to step up with Sky, a team already juggling talented riders looking for space to perform?
First, he will have to prove to team brass that he’s up to the task. Just as Porte made the most of his opportunities last year, winning Paris-Nice and finishing second to Nairo Quintana at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), results that opened the door to lead at the Giro, Thomas will need to do the same. The 72nd Paris-Nice is unexpectedly providing him with a chance to show his stuff.
On Wednesday, he snuck into the leader’s jersey in a race where, until last Friday, he thought he’d be working for defending champion Porte. When reigning Tour champion Froome was a late non-starter for Tirreno-Adriatico with back pain, Porte switched over to race in Italy, a decision that drew the ire of race organizers, and opened the door for Thomas to lead Sky in France.
Looking to make the most of the opportunity, he followed the attacking Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) over the day’s final climb to finish second and grab the jersey.
“To take the jersey is just incredible. I never thought it would happen. It’s a privilege because Paris-Nice is one of the most prestigious stage races,” Thomas said. “I only learned Friday that I would be leader here after Richie stepped out for Tirreno, so it’s a special day for me personally.”
Slagter played it smart in the finale, riding on Thomas’ wheel in the closing kilometer to force him to work as the peloton closed in on them, before pouncing for the stage win.
“Today was like racing as a junior again. Once I was out there, I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ I knew it was 14 kilometers to go, and a lot of flats, but we also knew they’d be messing around behind us, and it worked out for us,” Thomas said. “TJ sat behind me, and forced me to keep riding, because the bunch was right behind us. I didn’t want to just take it easy, and get caught by the group and have it all be for nothing. Slagter’s in great position, too. It’s going to be an exciting race, that’s for sure.”
No walk in the sun to Nice
This year’s Paris-Nice course will make it difficult for Thomas to carry the jersey all the way to France’s Cote d’Azur.
Organizers have delivered an unpredictable, explosive route without summit finishes or time trials, meaning that the race could be won or lost on finish-line bonuses.
In fact, Thomas said he expects to lose the jersey in Thursday’s hilly stage to overnight leader John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), who fought over the four categorized climbs Wednesday to remain in second, at three seconds back.
Even more dangerous later in the week will be Slagter, third at four seconds back, and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), who attacked to finish third in stage 4, now sixth overall, at 15 seconds back.
Others, such as Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), at 17 seconds back, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), both lurking at 19 seconds back, are real threats for yellow.
“I’d love to be up there in the overall, whether that means winning, the podium, the top five. It’s nice to have those seconds in the pocket,” said Thomas. “We’re in a great position, and I have a strong team to protect me. It’s nice to have that margin against guys like Nibali, Betancur, and Costa. It would be a dream to keep the jersey as long as possible.”
Paris-Nice has served as a launching pad for Sky over the past two years, with Wiggins winning in 2012 to set up his near-perfect run to the Tour, and again last year with Porte taking the flowers to announce his intentions to the world.
Now that Thomas has the leader’s jersey on his back, he might quickly find it to his liking.