Tour de France 2007, the Grand Départ in London. Back then, Bradley Wiggins was “just” a chunky tester with Olympic precious metal and temperamental hair, David Millar was only a year back from his doping ban, and Mark Cavendish’s dreams crashed and burned on the way to Canterbury. Chris Froome wasn’t there, wasn’t even British then. A British presence at the race was still an oddity, success even more abnormal.
As for Geraint Thomas? You could easily have mistaken the fresh-faced Welshman standing nervously on the start line in London for an eager fan. He was the youngest man in the race, getting the call up after going on a few benders for his 21st birthday.
He wasn’t expected to last the whole way, but Thomas took it in his stride and simply refused to be beaten by the Tour. “[The then-GB Academy manager] Max Sciandri always used to tell me ‘you can finish tomorrow, just keep going, just don’t give up,’” Thomas recalls.
“I remember thinking when he was telling me this, just after dinner, ‘I’m knackered, mate. Keep going? It’s not going to happen.’
“Then you go to bed, wake up, get on the bike, you keep going, pedalling, fighting… it’s more mental than people actually realise.” (For more on the 2007 Tour start in London, read our Le Tour in Britain feature in Rouleur 47, out next week.)
When he talks about it, you realise how deceptively long Thomas has been in the game. Though only just turned 28, he’s an eighth-year professional now, doling out advice to guys like Peter Kennaugh.
“It’s crazy how quickly it’s gone. I still feel like a neo-pro really – well, a third-year, maybe,” he reflects.
He has gone from being that blooded Barloworld backmarker to a double Olympic gold medallist and key Tour helper to two British champions. But Thomas, just as physiologically precocious as Wiggins and Froome, hasn’t fulfilled his promise on the road yet. It’s his turn to become a world-beater.
He faces some crucial forks in the road. Firstly, with his contract up this season, he’ll have to decide between staying at Team Sky or moving to pastures new – and he won’t be short of suitors.
Then there’s arguably the most important decision of his career, a quandary that his versatility permits: whether to focus on cobbled races or climbs. Now it’s no longer a case of ‘keep going’, but a question of where Geraint goes.
This year’s edition of Paris-Nice was the clearest sign of his stage racing potential so far, even though he crashed out on the penultimate stage while lying in second place overall, tired and placed too far back in the group.
“That was frustrating, but when you look back and see how I was riding that week, it gives me confidence to try to go down that stage race route – the one-week races, anyway, at the moment – and see where they go.”
Is it an exaggeration – or British conceit – to believe Thomas could follow Froome and Wiggins in becoming a serious Tour de France contender? Shane Sutton, at least, reckons that’s the case.
Stage race contention is an untapped possibility for the Welshman. As the recent Bayern Rundfahrt win underlines, his time-trial engine is already purring nicely; it’s managing the mountains that matters.
“I’ve never trained specifically in the climbs, I think there’s a lot of head room there. It’s only the last year or two that I’ve focused on my weight too: suddenly you start climbing that much faster. One or two kilos makes a massive difference.”
Spread himself too broadly and Thomas risks falling down the cracks between them, achieving decent, unspectacular finishes. The decision was made even tougher by his strong Classics season.
He made the running in the GP E3 Harelbeke on the way to third and finished eighth at Flanders. Paris-Roubaix was the apogee, taking his highest ever Classics finish with seventh.
“I was there to help the guys; I was happy to ride for the team,” he says. After following the moves, Thomas was “pretty spent and hoping Brad [Wiggins] would have a late attack, but he never went, I think he was a bit more spent than he thought… it was still good just to be in front racing for a podium in a Classic.”
“It’s just that finishing touch [missing],” he adds. Thomas points to his relative lack of experience: he only started doing them properly in 2010; 2008 and 2012 were road racing write-offs, given over to track focus before the Olympics.
At heart, he is still the Cardiff kid enchanted by the muck and madness of Roubaix and Flanders. Thomas says he’ll ride the Classics, even as he pursues one-week stage races.
Cobbles are only just getting off Thomas’s mind. A few weeks after the spring’s last cobbled Classic, he was back in the famous velodrome racing Dunkerque-Roubaix, a new sportive event which takes in nine pavé sectors.
“We did the Carrefour de l’Arbre and the two sections before that, it’s when the race is really lighting up. It brought back the feelings I had in the race straight away, I remembered places where Boonen was shouting at the other guys to work and where he attacked.”
It wasn’t quite as competitive as race day, though he had a good elbow-to-elbow with Magnus Backstedt before entering an eerily empty velodrome and using the Roubaix showers for the first time.
“That was pretty special, seeing all the plaques on the cubicles. Merckx all the way to Fabian, there’s a lot of history in there,” he says. “I think I used one without a plaque though. Maybe subconsciously I wanted to put my own name on there.”