Paris-Nice could prove to be the making of Geraint Thomas, the world class stage racer
One-day Classics, stage races, track medals, even grand tours; he could have his pick from any. Thomas’ only problem was that he was in danger of settling on none of them.
However on stage four of Paris-Nice, with its eight categorized climbs and summit finish on the Croix de Chaubouret, we might have just been handed conclusive proof that Thomas, now 28, has cast aside his indecision.
Sitting in the high-tempo lead group on the final climb, Thomas was first to launch an attack, dragging a handful of riders clear. When his teammate Richie Porte caught them and countered, it was only Thomas who could follow. The pair took a memorable one-two.
Of course we must take this result with a pinch of salt. Porte may be in good form but the world’s very best climbers and stage racers – bar an ill Chris Froome – are in Italy racing Tirreno-Adriatico. At around 1,200m the Croix de Chaubouret is a tough finishing climb but it’s not the high Alps.
We’ve also been here before; Thomas was leading Paris-Nice in 2014 after some impressive climbing performances before he crashed out on stage seven.
It will be fascinating to see what the remaining three stages of this year’s Paris-Nice have in store.
The race’s final day time trial up the Col d’Eze suits Thomas’ characteristics and it sits in his backyard, just down the road from his Monaco residence. However Porte, a fellow Monégasque, has won here before in 2013 and his form means Thomas still faces a tough test if he is to progress up the steps of the podium by the end of Sunday.
Meanwhile, at the moment Thomas and Porte were storming up the road on stage four, Sir Bradley Wiggins was dropping out of the back of the bunch as soon as the road started heading uphill.
Three years ago it was Wiggins leading from the front in this race at the start of what would become his annus mirabilis.
Is this a changing of the guard? Well, let’s not get carried away and suggest Thomas is going to win this year’s Tour de France. However it does appear that at the very least the Welshman has slotted comfortably into Sky’s stage race mould made famous during that summer of 2012.
With Wiggins on his way out and Porte, who has in the past been linked with a move to Orica-GreenEdge, out of contract at the end of the season, this year is a golden opportunity for Thomas to assert his stage race and grand tour credentials.
Sky could certainly do with another world class stage racer, as demonstrated at last year’s Tour when the British team’s Plan A (Chris Froome) crashed and Plan B (Porte) flopped.
Near the end of his journée sans, I watched Porte crawl up to the summit of Chamrousse in the baking heat. By his side was Thomas, comfortably chaperoning his teammate.
The following day Thomas fought his way into the breakaway over the gargantuan Col du Lautaret and Col d’Izoard. Remember too that in 2011 it was Thomas who carved up the Col du Tourmalet in the break to win the combativity prize on stage 12.
There can be no doubt that Thomas can climb. This season, less than three years after winning gold in the team pursuit, he’s climbing better than ever.
Yet he’s not just a robo-rider who pedals by SRM; Thomas has the guile and when he matches his racing brains to his brawn it can be a potent combination.
“All signs during the winter were that he [Thomas] was ahead of where he was last year,” Team Sky coach and Thomas’ long-time mentor Rod Ellingworth said after Thomas won February’s Tour of Algarve thanks to a sharp solo stage win.
“He knows being a GC rider is all about piecing it all together and he’s doing a good job at the moment. Like quite a lot of GC guys, sometimes you just have to keep chipping away at it, it doesn’t always come so easy, so quick, to some.”
Last summer, before stage 18 of the Tour, Sky’s performance coach Tim Kerrison told me that Thomas had the potential to finish in the top ten of a grand tour. Any losses in the mountains, he added, could be offset by Thomas’ consistency and speed against the clock. A knackered-looking Thomas, who rolled off the Sky bus at the stage start in Pau for a final day in the mountains, seemed to agree.
“I just want to look at the week long stage races next year and the classics and things, and we’ll see where we can go from there,” he said.
He will still head to this year’s Tour of Flanders and is likely to start Paris-Roubaix. But from what we’ve seen in France so far, Geraint Thomas has taken one big step towards becoming the stage racer he knows he can be.