Geraint Thomas: The races that changed my life

The 2018 Tour de France winner exclusively talks to VeloNews about the races that left a lasting impression on his life and career.

Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

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Geraint Thomas has had a glittering career, with wins and titles across the road and track over the past two decades.

His highlights will always be tied to his victory in the 2018 Tour de France but his palmarès speaks of a rider who dived headfirst into almost every facet of racing.

Also read: Geraint Thomas signs two-year extension with Ineos Grenadiers

In this exclusive piece for VeloNews the Ineos Grenadiers leader talks about five of the biggest races that changed his life and career, starting with a junior race against the likes of Nicole Cooke in the early 2000s and finished with his crowning moment on the Champs Elysees in 2018.

Closed-circuit race in Wales – 2000 (ish)

If I look back at my time in the sport and think about the races that made the greatest impression on my life, then I have to start with racing as an under 14 rider in Wales. There was a regular event in Llanwern, just outside Newport on a closed circuit, and it used to bring out a host of local riders and some incredible talent.

On this particular occasion, I started with the women and third and fourth category racers. I remember that I borrowed Luke Rowe’s dad’s Ksyrium wheels and as he handed them over he told me that they’d never lost a race before. I was only 14 but I was already under pressure. Needless to say, I crashed.

Thankfully I managed to get back up, the fall was pretty minor and early on, and I made it back to the bunch and won. I beat Nicole Cooke, who might have even been the junior world champion at the time but that was the first time that I wasn’t just beating people in my age group. All of a sudden I was beating men and riders like Nicole, who was super talented.

Geraint Thomas with Nicole Cooke and rower Tom James after the 2008 Olympics
Geraint Thomas with Nicole Cooke and rower Tom James after the 2008 Olympics (Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Images via Getty Images)

I remember how great it was using these really fancy wheels. I paired them with the Giant bike I was racing at the time, and I remember thinking how great it looked. It had gear shifters on the down tube, was proper old school, and I think I was still on clipless pedals.

I was wearing the now-famous Maindy Flyers luminous yellow kit. I think they made it that color on purpose because they wanted to keep an eye on us when there were 15 kids tearing around the place. In the race, I remember waiting and waiting and then, a bit like my win on Alpe d’Heuz, I just hit them at the end with about 1km to go and took off.

Also read: Geraint Thomas on Roglič and Pogačar: ‘They can definitely be beaten’

It was all a bit surreal. I was racing grown men and riders like Nicole, who was someone that I massively looked up to as I was coming through the sport. She was local, I knew her, and she was out there winning world titles. At the time, I was able to look at her and her amazing achievements and realize what was possible for a young rider coming out of Wales.

That was the first time that my confidence really started to grow as a rider, and I became a bit more self-assured about what I could accomplish. From there it was a case of thinking ‘how far can I take this?’

From that moment I started going out on club runs with the older lads and ramping up the mileage, and it felt like a whole new world. I’d hardly been outside of Cardiff but, from then on, I was out training in the snow through the Brecon Beacons and starting to really think about life as a promising young athlete. It didn’t get any easier, mind you. On the long rides with the older riders, all I remember thinking was I better not get dropped this far from home because I’d be totally lost getting back.

Junior worlds scratch race winner 2004

This was massive for me. I think it was a turning point because from that moment it felt like I could really make a career out of cycling. I’d actually applied for university – mainly to please my mum – but I felt after that win that I could make it as a pro. I’d just turned 18, so technically couldn’t drink because the Worlds were in LA, but I managed a cheeky beer back in the hotel. But on a serious note, that win reinforced my path in cycling. I was never really going to go to university to study sports science because I only wanted to be a pro racer, and the scratch race was like a greenlight moment.

Looking back at the race itself, I knew that I had to get stuck in from the beginning. I took a lap with three other guys, and it was a bit chaotic because I lost track of the others, but I managed to get to the front and take second or third in the sprint at the end. I wasn’t sure if I’d won so just assumed I hadn’t but, after I finished, I was mobbed by the team.

When it came to the podium ceremony a few minutes later the guy in second actually thought that he won. He was stood in the middle of the three of us like he’d taken gold. But I had my family there and I remember calling my coach at the time Darren Tudor and I just felt on top of the world.

E3 Harelbeke 2013

Geraint Thomas winning the 2015 E3 Harelbeke
Geraint Thomas winning the 2015 E3 Harelbeke (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

The next race had to be E3. It was the biggest race I’d won up to that point and for me, it’s the biggest cobbled race outside of the monuments. What pleased me most was just the way I raced and the company I had.

I was the one who attacked on the Kwaremont and Zdeněk Stybar and Peter Sagan were the guys who came with me. It was just one of those days where I just felt so strong, and so good. I could do whatever I wanted, and it felt like I was a junior again.

Coming into the finish with those two, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that I was going to hit them with about 3-4km to go. I thought Sagan was the strongest, so I tried to make sure that he was sat behind me.

Also read: Richie Porte: Don’t write-off Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France

After he took a turn, I attacked with everything that I had, and it was an amazing feeling to be in that last kilometer I could soak it all up.

If you win a sprint — and to be fair that doesn’t happen a lot for me — then you don’t have the chance to soak it all up, but in E3 I could really enjoy the atmosphere with the fans and all the flags dangling into the road.

It’s the biggest one-day race I’ve won and the caliber of the break was great. Sagan was at his peak and Stybar was one of the best classics riders out there.

The classics were the races that I fell in love with as a kid. They were the first races that I did as a junior and they were some of my best days growing up. We’d head over on these short trips, and even now I can remember all the emotions – all the sights and smells.

The embrocation everyone would have on their legs; that awful spaghetti bolognese that the riders would eat, with the cheese on top that tasted like straw; and when you’re 17 it’s all so new. That’s where I fell in love with the sport, even before the Tour de France.

Of course, my career could have been totally different if I’d stuck to those races. I could have changed teams as well, but I’m certainly not holding any regrets. That said, I’ve had a chance to sample every type of racing, and every role, whether it’s working for someone on the climbs, helping with leadouts, or going for my own chances.

I’ve been really fortunate and without sounding like a grumpy old man the juniors now are so much more dialed in. Back when I was that age, we were going out in Cardiff for nights out each week, so I feel fortunate to have been able to experience a bit of everything.

Bayern Rundfarhrt 2011

Geraint Thomas winning the 2014 Bayern Rundfahrt
Geraint Thomas winning the 2014 Bayern Rundfahrt (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

I won this race twice, first in 2011 and then again in 2014, but the first edition was easily the most important because it was my first major stage race success, and it gave me a glimpse of what I could achieve over a week-long format.

It set the ball rolling for victories in Paris-Nice, Tour de Suisse, Critérium du Dauphiné, and then of course, ultimately the Tour de France.

Edvald Boasson Hagen was the Sagan of his day, and I had him and Bradley Wiggins working for me throughout that 2011 race. I remember it was pissing down with rain a few days, and it was super tough.

I didn’t win a stage, and Michael Albasini beat me in a sprint on stage 3 from a small group, which I’m still annoyed about, but overall that race gave me incredible belief in what I was doing.

At the time I was targeting the smaller one-week races and I gained the confidence to move up and think of bigger dreams.

Tour de France 2018

A sip of champagne for Geraint Thomas as he celebrates his 2018 Tour de France win
A sip of champagne for Geraint Thomas as he celebrates his 2018 Tour de France win (Photo: Marco Bertorello/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

I couldn’t complete this list without including the Tour de France and my win in 2018. It brought everything full circle in my career, and while it perhaps didn’t change me as a person, it definitely changed everything around me.

Looking back, I started racing on the track, built up through the Classics, won a few smaller stage races, graduated to the Dauphiné and Paris-Nice, and then made it to the Tour. I basically completed cycling by winning the biggest race in the world.

Growing up, winning the Tour de France seemed bigger than a dream though. It felt so far out of reach. As a kid, I’d run home from school and my mum and dad would have the 30-minute show recorded for me. I’d rewind it, again and again, just to watch it back because I wanted to learn everything about the tactics and what was happening. I wanted to know everything about the sport.

It was like watching a different world, seeing the riders race up the Alps in the sun, and with their jerseys undone. I don’t think anyone can ride about Cardiff with their jersey zip undone. The Tour seemed like the ultimate adventure for a young kid growing up.

I obviously got my first Tour under my belt at Barloworld in 2007 and finished 140th out of 141 riders, and at the time it felt I was never going to win the race but then the years went by, I got fitter, stronger, and just focussed more and more.

At the Tour in 2018, it felt like everything came together, and not just from the previous November, but from all the years rolled into one. My time on the track taught me how to deal with the phycological pressure that you get from racing on the velodrome. I got used to talking to the media, I wore yellow and won smaller races, and as I matured, I learned how to deal with social media too.

If I look back now, I don’t think there was one day when I could have done better in 2018, other than maybe the time trial, but it always felt like I had the upper hand and that I was able to pick off seconds at almost every opportunity. I was on a roll and had this incredible momentum.

Going back a bit, I think it was 2015 when I realized that I could compete at the top. I was fourth going into stage 19 and cracked horribly in the mountains but there were times when I was the last guy working for Froomey, so I knew that I could target the overall.

In 2016 pushed it too far with the diet and I was totally off in [Tour de] Suisse and ended up being a domestique again at the Tour. So, I felt I could be in the mix for the podium, but I never really looked at the outcome and decided to just keep my mind focussed on the process.

In 2018 it was the one race where I probably felt the most relaxed and could enjoy it, which sounds weird when you’re on the cusp of winning the biggest race. As I said, I don’t think it changed me, but it did change the environment around me.

Suddenly I was getting this and that and offered the chance to do other things, but then three years down the line you reach the point where no one gives a shit and it’s all about the next guy. That’s fine, that’s how it works but the change at the time was more about how other people perceived me.

There were a few people around me who felt that I could do something special but there were a lot of doubters, so it was nice to prove a point to them. Most importantly though, the win meant everything in the world to me and my family.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.