Three weeks after crashing out of the Giro d'Italia, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) returns to racing at the Route du Sud this week as he gears up for the Tour de France, where he could be Team Sky's second card to play on GC. In an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, Thomas reveals how team principal Dave Brailsford had to make the call to pull the Welshman from the Giro, how Richie Porte will push Team Sky to the limit in July, and how he's keeping his options open for 2019 - and that if he leaves Team Sky it won't be for the money.
Thomas headed into May's Giro d'Italia as a legitimate podium candidate after an impressive spring but, on stage 9, he and teammate Mikel Landa were taken down by a poorly parked police motorbike. Although Thomas finished the stage and bounced back with a strong ride in the individual time trial on stage 10, he was forced to pull out on medical advice at the end of stage 12.
It was a bitterly disappointing moment for the former track specialist, who, after several years of riding in the services of others, had earned the right to lead a team at a Grand Tour.
"It was Dave [Brailsford] who made the final call, and it was the night before I eventually pulled out," Thomas told Cyclingnews. “My knee was sore, and the pain was only getting worse and coming earlier in the stages. If it was my shoulder that was worse, then it would have been fine but the fact you're pedalling, it's not going to help the knee get better. Dave was chatting to me in the evening of stage 11, and he was going to leave it up to me, but you never want to leave a race, even when in the back of your mind it's the right thing to do.
“I just told the guys to make the call for me, and that was pretty much it. We had a chat before dinner and then after we ate Dave came and told me that I was going back to Manchester to get checked out and make sure that everything was okay before the Tour.”
Even though the pain was holding Thomas back there was still hope that he could continue, recover and perhaps even rally in the final week. However, hearing the words 'we're sending you home' hit Thomas like a tonne of bricks. After months of sacrifice, all hope had evaporated and the dream – for this year at least – was over.
"It wasn't nice," he says trying to play down the decision but with his emotions clearly still raw.
"When you say 'you're leaving' out loud it hits home more than if it was just in your head. When you say it out loud, it's hard to take, especially as that was my chance in a Grand Tour. I never really got going and it was hard to take."
Thomas packed his bags that evening and said his farewells to his remaining teammates. The following morning Team Sky issued their press release on the subject and Thomas flew directly to Manchester for a medical check-up. Luckily, there was no serious damage to the shoulder or knee but the following weeks were an emotional battle. Thomas didn't touch the bike for a week and tuned out of anything to do with the Giro - a difficult task considering just how entertaining the race became, and also because Thomas could have been a telling factor in the final outcome. He is similar to Tom Dumoulin in method and style, matched Thibaut Pinot in warm-up races, and, with Nairo Quintana far from is best, the race was wide open.
"I avoided all the results and didn't watch any of it on the telly. The only time I saw any of it was when I went to my mum and dad's and my dad turned it on and that was my cue to leave," he says with a laugh.
"There were just so many what ifs. You can go crazy if you think about that too much. Once it was over it got a bit easier. I just had to focus on the next thing. It was still tough and even now you feel yourself drifting back in your mind as to what happened but you can't let yourself do that."
Back on the bike
Although Team Sky were quick to announce that Thomas would recalibrate and aim for the Tour de France – it was part of the release issued on his Giro withdrawal – it was a sentiment that needed more than just words. Physically, Thomas was still in decent shape but mentally he needed a break and, once back on the bike, he had to ease his way back into training.
"It was quite hard as the Giro was meant to be the big hit of the year and I was reaching peak form for that. To come down from there and then try and carry that form into the Tour has been quite hard but hopefully I can still go there in decent shape and still do a good job," he said.
"All the injuries from the crash are okay now. I've still got to do some physio on the shoulder but it doesn't affect me on the bike now. It's all about trying to feel good again and that's taken a bit of time but I started to feel a bit better last weekend.
"Initially it was harder mentally than physically, but once I got back on my bike the Tour gave me that focus. If I hadn't had the Tour as the focus I think that I would have struggled a lot more. If it was the Vuelta, or something, I think that I would have been three kilos heavier now and half riding my bike and half plodding along. It's been good in that sense but at the same time it had been going well since the start of March and it's hard mentally to try and get back up to that level but we'll see.
"Then it was just a few steady rides and then last week I started doing more steady efforts. At the start I felt terrible. It felt like I was back in January but I think it was a mental thing because I expected to start off where I left off. I felt a lot better last weekend and I'm now I'm just looking forward to four days of good racing. Then it's only two weeks until the Tour."
After a few steady rides Thomas began to ramp up his workload and last week he headed to the mountains with Wout Poels for a training camp. The pair linked up with Chris Froome and several other riders, with Team Sky's Tour de France squad starting to take shape three weeks from the Grand Départ.
Backing Froome and fending off Porte
Thomas' Tour de France role has not yet been entirely clarified but, assuming he comes through the Route du Sud, then he should line up as Team Sky's and Chris Froome's last man in the mountains come July. It's a role that Thomas has occupied in the past and one that he has revelled in, with two top-15 rides in the last two editions of the race. Given his Giro disappointment there is the hint that Thomas will be given greater freedom at the Tour and, although the phrase 'Plan B' has not yet been used by the team's management, it's a genuine possibility for the Welshman.
"We'll see when we get there. I think, tactically, that having two guys close will help in the first week. It gives you cards to play and a lot of teams have two cards to play now with Orica, Astana, and Movistar. If it's like the Dauphiné, just chaos, then it could help having someone up the road, but I'll have to see how I am once we get into the race. I'm confident. I don't know if I'll be pinging like I was going into the Giro but it will be nice if I am. I just want three weeks without having any bad luck. The Giro form was the best I ever had."
That said, Froome heads to the Tour as Sky's numero uno having won the race three times in the last four years. Although his form at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné – and throughout 2017 – has not reached its previous heights, he will start the race as the man to beat.
Former teammate, Richie Porte, is arguably Froome's greatest pre-race threat having dropped Froome several times at the Dauphiné and taken second overall.
"I've always said from the start of the year that Richie is the main threat. I don't know about favourite tags. That's for you guys to label but I'm confident that Froome is going to be at his best for sure. Porte will be up there, Astana look strong, and Contador is going to improve. Then you've got Movistar and it's going to be an exciting race. Even if Chris is as good as he's been in the past I think a few more people will have grown in confidence after the Dauphiné but I'm sure he's going to be up there and as good as ever.”
And while the Tour de France remains the main focus, Thomas has long-term decisions to make, too. He is out of contract at the end of the season but has the option of another year on Team Sky. He confirmed that he is likely to re-sign along with Chris Froome and Ian Stannard. Although 2019 is a long way off, the Welshman has started thinking that far ahead.
"I've a contract option for one more year. I've not signed anything yet but I'm sure I'll stay for that year. I'm getting good chances and it's working. Post that, I'll be up for seeing what's around. I won't go to any old team and it's not about the money. It has to be a good fit and a team that can support me. I'll take that on next year. A lot can change in sport so we'll see.”
2019 is a long way off and, for now, all Thomas wants is three weeks of racing without any bad luck. After what happened at the Giro that's probably the least he deserves.