Geraint Thomas was awarded Male Rider of the Year 2018 in association with Nederburg Wine at the Cycling Weekly Awards 2018
It’s nine o’clock at night, jet lag is setting in and Geraint Thomas looks like he’s beginning to flag. Ever the professional, he’s doing a good job of hiding it as he takes part in a bizarre televised Japanese game show with five other WorldTour pros. Whether or not the 200 or so strong audience are cycling fans is unclear, but they’re loving it all the same.
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It’s been a long day for the riders who were taken out to the Saitama criterium in Japan. The busy schedule of events started for some at 8.45am with a transfer to the Iwatsuki Falconry festival. Others, such as Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador, visited a hospital.
Thomas got an easier start to the day, perhaps by virtue of being the Tour champion. His first commitment wasn’t until 2pm when all riders were on the event’s main stage for the team presentation ahead of the next day’s criterium.
As soon as everyone arrives it’s clear who the rider in demand is. From that point on Thomas has to switch on the charm and throw himself into the Japanese cultural activities that come planned with this trip each year.
From racing kids on bikes to hitting baseballs, Thomas is always in a yellow top and always the first to have the microphone held up to him.
ASO has been running this trip since 2013 and the yellow jersey winner has always been there. No doubt payments are involved, but it’s not entirely clear how ASO — joint organiser of the event and whose main job is to bring the star riders — ensure the Tour champion is present.
It’s just one of those things that a Tour winner has to deal with. The invites and requests quickly mount up after the celebrations and post-Tour crits and it’s hard to say no. They might never win the race again, and even Team Sky, whose focus on performance is as tight as anyone’s, admits its riders have to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
Thomas’s hectic post-Tour schedule is why his maillot jaune is looking a little tight around the middle, and žis legs are the least tanned on display in Saitama.
“I just can’t wait to get back to being a bike rider and get back in that routine,” he tells us when we met in Japan. “I’ve not been in any one place for more than four or five days. It’s just been hectic — but good.”
Living it large
He had one or two more commitments lined up to promote his book, a flying visit to Shanghai (again with ASO) and then back to his base in Monaco and the day job. “It’s the most time I’ve had off the bike, so I won’t start next year all guns blazing, but I wanted to enjoy it because it doesn’t happen every day. I’ve certainly enjoyed it. Dave [Brailsford] has been on to me — ‘Don’t get too big, try to keep ticking over.’
“That’s the hardest thing: just maintaining fitness. I’m sure it will come back. I can feel myself growing — sideways. Now I’m just keen to get back in to it, I’ve had enough of all this.”
Thomas returned to the south of France in late November and then flew on to Team Sky’s first winter training camp in early December (with a pass to fly back for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award) which is where the hard work began.
If Thomas wants to win the Tour again, as he almost certainly does, he’ll not only have to be better than team leader and four-time winner Chris Froome (who likely won’t have put on an ounce of weight during the off-season), he’ll have to beat the odds too.
In the Tour’s 114-year history, only nine riders have successfully defended their first Tour title, the last being Miguel Indurain in 1992. This is something Thomas is well aware of: “I think I can get in that shape again but every Grand Tour is different. You never know, [Primož] Roglič or [Tom] Dumoulin might improve more than me next year and Froomey will be different again if he’s going for the one [Grand Tour], and not two. But I can definitely get to that level again. It just depends what everyone else is like.”
Thanks to his recent schedule Thomas will have a lot of catching up to do on his rivals, and the team around him will no doubt be at pains to protect him from all future distractions. Returning to the south of France is key.
“The training base is a huge part of their success,” says Rod Ellingworth. As his former coach at British Cycling’s Academy, now road performance manager at Team Sky, Ellingworth knows Thomas this better than anyone. “We really believe in face-to-face coaching, and try to make that happen. We’ve got full-time staff at the base [in Nice] and Wout [Poels], Froome, [Michał] Kwaitkowski, G and [Salvatore] Puccio and [Dylan] Van Baarle all out there, pushing themselves every day and supporting each other. That’s a massive factor in our success.”
It’s perhaps that closeness that meant Sky could start the 2018 Tour with two leaders and do so with far more success than Movistar did with three. What’s more, they’re happy to do it again in 2019. Despite a regular clamour to inspect the Thomas/Froome relationship further the Welshman remains pragmatic. “Maybe we’re just both really nice people! Not saying anything about anyone else. I don’t know. I think we were genuinely good friends before. We both had our chances, and we’re still mates now.”
One for the team
While pages from Thomas’s book, The Tour According to G, highlighted the Tour’s team time trial and a night in a hotel without air-conditioning as moments when Froome got preference over him, he was never spoiling for a fight when speaking out.
“I was just being honest and saying how it was. The team saw what I wrote, and they were happy. It’s not like I was exaggerating, I just said what happened during the race and how I felt. I thought that’s what people would want to know.
“With the TTT I was frustrated and wanted people to wait for me if I had a puncture or whatever, but that was the decision and you’ve just got to accept it. There’s no point throwing your toys out of the pram and being all emotional. The chances of it happening were slim, so you just get on with it.”
The fact is Thomas knows the support he gets from Sky would likely be unmatched anywhere else. Alongside that face-to-face coaching he has with Kerrison, and the group of riders around him, Sky go to great lengths to give their riders the best possible chance. Throughout the Tour, the team drive around with air-con units, blackout blinds, dehumidifiers, pillows and bed linen to ensure a perfect night’s sleep.
But for now, in Japan, Thomas is going to have to deal with the jet lag himself.