Tuesday, July 6, 2010, Ramada Hotel, Liège
“It’s just a space to open a suitcase.” Geraint Thomas
Cycling teams pay surprisingly little heed to the standard of hotels allotted to them for the Tour de France, but accommodation for the opening stages in Belgium seemed a step up from the usual fare across the border. For the riders, a free and reliable Wi-Fi connection scores higher than plush bathroom fittings. Team Sky brings its own bedding packs, so no concerns over lumpy mattresses. The luck of the draw makes the British team sole occupants of the Ramada, giving chef Sören Kristiansen the run of the kitchen.
Geraint Thomas and room-mate Juan Antonio Flecha are up before eight o’clock and headed for the breakfast table soon after. Flecha is a reasonable man to room with: good company, tidy, not on the phone at midnight. He may produce an impressive array of flatulent noises with alarming regularity, but it takes more than a little wind to get Thomas riled.
Conversation at breakfast picks up as the first coffee of the morning hits the spot. The previous day’s crash-strewn stage is the main topic for discussion. Simon Gerrans, Michael Barry and Bradley Wiggins were among the Team Sky fallers before Fabian Cancellara called a truce due to the treacherous oil slick of the Stockeu. Sixty riders sliding down a hill on their backsides was an embarrassing new record for the Tour’s statisticians to consider.
Wiggins and Steve Cummings are cracking the jokes and doing impressions as the mountainous daily intake of calories begins: muesli, porridge with fruit and raisins plus a hint of cinnamon (chef’s favourite) and freshly baked bread. Thomas is working on the kitchen staff to produce Welsh cakes – a small taste of home on the road – with little success. But the man who captured the British champion’s jersey just ten days earlier is not the pushy type, certainly in culinary matters.
His relaxed demeanour masks a fierce determination to convert Olympic gold and world championship track success to the Grand Tours and Classics. The previous day in Spa, team boss Dave Brailsford referred to a “step change” progression from his protégé. Fifth place in the Rotterdam prologue, tucked in one second behind Lance Armstrong, alerted the race watchers. The Welshman is en forme.
As the peloton heads for the French border, the seven stretches of cobbles featured in today’s 213km stage strike no fear in the 2004 winner of the junior version of Paris-Roubaix. He is relaxed, looking forward to it, ready to do his job: looking after Brad. All aboard the Sky bus for the short drive to the start…
Stage three start, Wanze
“They call it the battle plan.” Geraint Thomas
The team’s much-publicised luxury coach parks in the back streets of the municipality of Wanze, a conglomeration of six villages and one hamlet with the honour of hosting today’s départ. Down comes the white projector screen, seats are swivelled and coach Rod Ellingworth goes through the stage section-by-section, detailing each rider’s role. Cummings is the man designated to join the early break, with Barry, Gerrans and Serge Pauwels assigned to assist, requiring total attention and good positioning from the moment the flag drops.
“If the break came back, which was likely in the last 20 or 30km, then Steve would be there to help Brad or Flecha or whoever was there…”
Feed zones are noted. Cobbled sectors, recced the week before the Tour, are covered in detail: length, severity, positioning of soigneurs with bottles and wheels. Every eventuality is covered. Each of the nine riders knows his job. For Thomas and Flecha, it’s a matter of staying out of the wind in the early kilometres, conserving energy for later in the day.
Team talk over, it’s time to change and prepare for a day in the saddle. Music is pumping, a mixture of hip hop and dance tunes, to take minds off the upcoming physical torture. Chris “CJ” Sutton usually holds sway over the choice of tunes and volume control, much to Thomas Löfkvist’s dismay, but he is not in Sky’s Tour line-up. It’s a short ride to the sign in, then back to the bus for final preparations.
12km covered, game on
“Well done guys, first job for the day done." Sean Yates
Cummings is among a group of seven to escape and quickly forge a gap of four minutes. The voice of directeur sportif Sean Yates crackles information over the radio. Now Thomas can “relax for an hour or so, chatting with the guys about the day before. I sat mid-bunch, not getting too stressed.”
Barry, meanwhile, is playing wingman to Wiggins’ red leader, in close attendance at all times. “Michael has to think for Brad, while Brad can stay calm and not get stressed,” Thomas explains. “And Michael will move him up if he is too far back. Concentrating for every minute of a three-week tour is tiring as well as stressful.”
The inevitable chase begins, the Quick Step squad of yellow jersey Sylvain Chavanel beginning the lengthy process of reeling in the escapees. Thomas is feeling the lift in pace, even sat in the wheels, but is safe in the knowledge he will not be required to contribute to the workload.
128km covered, Omeignies
“I was having one of those days when everything felt right, just flowing and nimble.” Geraint Thomas
A frenzied 190-strong peloton approaches the opening sector of cobbles on narrow roads, each rider determined to avoid the inevitable chaos and crashes towards the rear, all for a mere 350 metres. Quick Step and Rabobank lead the way with Sky in close attendance. “There was a big old fight for position for such a short stretch of cobbles, but it was over within 30 seconds. What was all that about?”
But it is the third sector at Sars-et-Rosières that claims the highest-profile casualty of the day: Fränk Schleck goes down hard. Race over for Fränk. “I managed to bounce about and get round him. I didn’t even bother looking, I just went.”
Thomas realises that reaching that all-important top-20 position on the pavé is relatively easier – if easier can be used in this context – in the Tour than at Paris-Roubaix with its field of hard-man Classics specialists. A quick glance astern once the tarmac is reached confirms there are no riders immediately behind, yet a small group lies tantalisingly close ahead. Thomas bridges the gap, then takes a look around him.
“Bloody hell! Cancellara, Thor, Schleck, Cadel: pretty handy group…” This qualifies as a serious understatement. A 24-year-old Welshman from Cardiff has just gatecrashed the after-show party of the Fab Four. Also poking their heads round the metaphorical dressing room door are Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal and Cummings from the early break: a very promising combo indeed.
But Thomas is not totally sure he should be here. What about Brad? The team leader’s wellbeing comes before any thoughts of personal glory. Yates issues instructions over the radio: Cummings is to drop back and assist Wiggins while Thomas is to press on.
With all the preparation in the world – battle plans, marginal gains – things go wrong in bike races. Shit happens. So the chap handing up bottles at the end of this stretch of pavé cannot be blamed for not recognising the British Champion’s jersey. He is not a soigneur, and the predominantly white top has been on Thomas’ shoulders for just a few days. Or perhaps the presence of the Sky man in this select group did not compute…
“I was shouting to him, but he stepped away,” says Thomas. Such tiny errors can spell disaster at this stage of the race, mentally as well as physically. With 50km of hot, dusty terrain yet to be covered, and team cars nowhere to be seen, the prospect of dehydration – either real or perceived – is very real. Cummings, still in attendance before slipping back in search of Wiggins, grabs the bottle from the roadside helper and passes it across to Thomas. The unsung hero saves the day.
190km covered, Warlaing
“Go on, G. You’re going for the win." Sean Yates
Crowds on the cobbled sectors are a match for Paris-Roubaix, a tunnel of bellowing humanity giving their all for what is now a group of six riders, also giving their all. And the roadside supporters play their part in proceedings, whether they know it or not.
“You can hear the Brits shouting out by the side of the road. I could take in all the flags – British, Welsh – and the helicopter, and the cameras. It was so weird being the other side of that lens. To be in that group with guys I had seen on the TV was so weird.”
There is a stage of the Tour up for grabs. The star-struck Welshman needs to think straight. Yates transmits the relevant information: sharp left-hander with 700 metres to go, then long straight into a headwind. Thomas weighs up his options. Beating Hushovd is a tall order. Taking an early flier may be his best bet, but Cancellara is still pounding away on the front, gaining precious seconds for Saxo Bank team-mate Andy Schleck whilst reclaiming the maillot jaune from Sylvain Chavanel.
Thomas is sitting pretty on the Norwegian’s wheel when Hesjedal launches himself, lurching across to the right, in a bid to catch the opposition napping. Thomas latches straight on. He could win this…
“If Ryder had fully hit out when he went, I might have got it,” Thomas says afterwards, “but he stalled. I have the speed from the track, but the kick and acceleration of the sprinters I don’t have. I needed a fast pace to go from; that was my only chance to run Thor close. He gapped me and it was over.”
213km covered, the finish, Arenberg
“It was amazing to be part of that stage. I did nothing wrong, no mistakes, it was as good as I could do.” Geraint Thomas
Thomas wends his way through the press and bystanders milling around past the finish line, only to be turned round by Brailsford on reaching the Sky bus. The young rider’s white jersey will now sit on the shoulders of the 24-year-old for the next four days of racing, an unexpected bonus. He heads back in the direction of the podium, protein shake in hand, against the tide of arriving riders – many bandaged from the previous day’s mass chute. He mounts the podium and shakes hands with dignitaries, chaperoned by Bernard Hinault. He is now starring in the TV show he has watched since the age of 11. All eyes are on Thomas.
“I’m a bit shy. I don’t really see the faces in the crowd: all that noise and commotion. I got a little Yeti [from jersey sponsors Skoda]. And the podium girls were all right. Can’t complain.”
There are press interviews to be done backstage, then Thomas retrieves his bike and heads, once more, towards the Sky bus. He seeks out a child to give his bottle to, looking for the reticent one, hiding behind dad’s legs, not the pushy, grabbing kid. Thomas feels an affinity with the shy ones. He finds a suitable boy wheeling his bike through the crowd, who hesitates before gratefully accepting the bidon.
“Hey, Dad! Dad! A rider just gave me his bottle!”
“Wow, son! That’s fantastic. Who was it?”
“I don’t know...”
Seeing the race fans struggling to identify the man in question as he disappears in the throng, I inform Dad that the bottle came from the British National Champion. He looks suitably thrilled with the news.
“Gee! Did you hear that, son?” dad says. “Mark Cavendish!"
Hotel du Pasino Saint-Amand-les-Eaux
“They were made up for me. Brad came up and gave me a hug.” Geraint Thomas
Thomas loads up with carbohydrates on the short drive to Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, hugs and congratulations all round from his team-mates. Cummings knows his hard work has been rewarded; Wiggins does a decent ride himself and sees his mate take the white jersey; Brailsford and Yates are quietly purring after a good day at the office.
Having settled in his room with Flecha and showered, Thomas receives his daily massage from soigneur Hanlie Perry before heading down to dinner. Chef Kristiansen presents a vegetable smoothie containing copious quantities of asparagus for starters, an amuse-bouche on a grand scale. Calories are consumed, jokes cracked. Incoming text messages of congratulations are answered, family members phoned. “That’s another scalp ticked off,” says proud father Howell, a phrase he has repeated at regular intervals since the young Geraint first took to the Maindy track in Cardiff. Geraint modestly plays down the day’s performance to girlfriend Sara, holidaying in sunny climes with family, but her father has spent the day resolutely glued to the television while others lounge by the pool. Thomas may be promising son-in-law material after all…
Today is the culmination of a series of recent events indicating a “step change”, Brailsford’s apt description of Thomas’s development: riding well in support of Flecha at Flanders, a strong performance at Dauphiné Libéré, the national championships, and now the white jersey. The 11-year-old boy from Cardiff has evolved into a Classics contender. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered, but people may actually start to remember his name when Geraint Thomas hands out a water bottle.
He goes to bed. He always sleeps well. Tomorrow is just another day on the biggest bike race in the world.
Saturday July 10, Tournus
“You get to start each day at the front with Fabian and chat to the big guys. And they become aware of who you are.” Geraint Thomas
Thomas starts the day just 20 seconds adrift of Cancellara on general classification. The yellow jersey is tantalisingly within reach. The peloton leaves town, bound for the Haut-Jura and the ski resort of Station de Rousses. Lance Armstrong pulls alongside Thomas for a chat: “Hey dude, you can take that jersey today.”
“Um. Do you think?” he replies.
Armstrong was wrong, it transpires, but “that jersey” was within sight. His time will come.