After several years of riding the Tour de France in the service of others, Geraint Thomas is ready to embark on the next phase of his career, with the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana both viable options in 2017. As the 30-year-old tells Cyclingnews from his home in Monaco, next year is all about specialising in one single area of his broad skill-set and, most importantly, taking a risk with a new race programme and new set of challenges.
"With race schedules, that's something that I've been chatting about with the coach, Tim Kerrison, and it's something that we'll go through properly when I'm at training camp," Thomas says ahead of Team Sky's Mallorca get-together next week.
"After that we'll come up with a plan because at the moment it's all up in the air and there are so many options. I just need to figure out what I want to do and it obviously needs to fit in with the team."
Part of Thomas's dilemma lies in the fact that he is so adaptable – a characteristic that can be seen as both a blessing and a curse in a modern-day peloton so dialled in on specialisation. From the Tour Down Under to the Tour of Flanders and the cobbles of Roubaix, to the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Welshman's ability and broad skill-set allows him to ride with the best over a range of terrain.
Next season, he admits, one goal must sit above the myriad objectives that have cluttered seasons in the past. With Chris Froome dominant at the Tour and ensuring that all his teammates ride for a single purpose each July, Thomas is understandably considering his next move.
"I love riding the Tour and I love being in the team, especially when Froome wins, but I've done that three times now," he says, before presenting the rest of his case.
"I could go there again as the back-up GC rider and if was going 100 per cent I could get a top 10 but I'd still be having to do a job for Froome. If I went to the Giro at 100 per cent it's a whole different ball game. I could start by riding for GC and if that didn't work then I could work for someone like Mikel Landa, but still ride for stages. It's a bit risky because it's an entirely different programme."
Whether Team Sky are willing to allow one of their prized assets to take such a risk is an unknown but, after two top 15 places in the Tour and wins in Paris-Nice and the Volta ao Algarve this year, Thomas has certainly staked a strong claim for the additional freedom he seeks. With his contract up for renewal – though there is an option of an additional year – and his 31st birthday next May, the time is right to roll the dice.
"The idea of doing the Giro and the Vuelta would give me two good opportunities," he said. "Riding for GC would be nice but even if that fell away, going for stages and just racing for opportunities would be great. At the same time to miss the Tour de France would be massive and I'd hate to sit at home and watch the boys there. It's certainly a tough one.
"There's also the Classics, and I still love them. I'd hate to miss them but at the same time I think I just need to pick one thing and go for that over the next two or three years."
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This season saw Thomas reduce his Classics load and focus more on stage races. The plan worked during the first few months of the season but he ran out of steam in June with a disappointing Tour de Suisse. He rallied during the Tour and, although his ride went under the radar compared to 2015 when he sat inside the top ten for most of the race, he still came away with the same result in Paris.
Lessons were certainly learned, especially over areas concerning training and weight-loss, but Thomas is clear that in order to progress he must reduce the broad approach in aims that his talent naturally draws him towards.
"I think I need to carry on with that. I learnt a lot from that this year and hopefully that will stand me in good stead. But with the Classics, if I'm going full-on for say the Giro or even the Tour, when I go to Flanders I'm not going to have that real punch. I'm not a massively punchy rider anyway. If I've not got 100 per cent of my punch, I've hardly got anything when racing against the likes of Peter Sagan or Van Avermaet. So is there a real point in doing those races if I'm not going to be 100 per cent?
"It's a tough one because I'd love to race Gent Wevelgem and E3 and then go and do Flanders and Roubaix but I just feel like I want to have that one goal, and that one target and then go for it 100 per cent."
A race to lead at the Giro d'Italia
Thomas isn't the only Team Sky rider who has mentioned the Giro d'Italia as a possible aim next season. Landa and Woet Poels have also put their hands up as potential candidates to lead the team.
The Italian Grand Tour, however, is a graveyard for Sky rider's ambitions with Landa, Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins all falling apart at the race despite their pre-race billing as major contenders. Thomas is well aware of the team's recent history in Italy but, with Froome overshadowing the Tour and also considering a tilt at the Vuelta, options are limited in cycling's richest team.
"The Giro is definitely different," he says. "At the Tour it's a lot more structured and you know what you're going to get. I've ridden it seven times and you learn how it's going to be raced and what to expect.
"With the Giro the route can be different, the weather can be bad and there are a lot more variables. Also there's the whole lead up of races and training camps. It's totally different."
'I want to believe in Wiggins'
While Thomas has enjoyed a lengthy off-season with a schedule of weddings and charity dinners marked in his diary, his team and his former leader, Bradley Wiggins, have been dogged by negative headlines surrounding the former Tour winner's controversial TUE use on the eve of three major races between 2011 and 2013.
While Chris Froome has spoken several times of Wiggins' need to address the matter in a more transparent manner, the majority of Team Sky riders have kept quiet on the subject. Thomas rode with Wiggins at the 2008 Olympics and the pair joined Team Sky together in 2010.
"It's tough," he says of the situation that has embroiled the team over the last few months.
"Obviously Brad didn't break any rules at the end of the day but the ethical stance is a lot more of a grey area. It's up to people to make up their own minds about what he said and if they want to back him. It has been strange because it feels like Team Sky is my team too and to see it come under so much fire… it got to the stage where it felt like anything and everything was being turned against the team.
"It wasn't very nice but at the same time I didn't read too much into it. I've not read any cycling stuff in the last couple of months anyway but I think Dave's [Brailsford] admitted anyway that he didn't handle it very well initially, that's for sure, and that certainly didn't help.
"The main issue is with the TUEs in the first place. If someone has asthma and it affects their performance by five per cent and then they take a drug that helps them 10 per cent, how do you measure that? That's a tricky one. I've known Brad since 2008 and he's always been straight and done things the right way. He's always looked for advantage in things you eat and that whole marginal gains stuff but it's a tough one.
"I want to believe him. He's someone I've always grown up and admired really. He's always been ahead of me, so he won junior worlds, which I wanted to do when I was a kid. He turned pro, went to the Olympics, won medals, rode the Giro and the Tour, so he's always been the guy who did it four or five years before me. It's not a good place for him to be in at the minute."??
While the story over TUEs rumbles on – there is a UK Anti Doping investigation and Brailsford will appear in front of members of the British Parliament later this month – Thomas is focused on the only thing he can affect: his racing and his career. And while the majority of next year's schedule has yet to be confirmed, he at least knows where he will open his season.
"I'll start in [Tour] Down Under and head there on January 2. I'll get in a good month block and set myself up for the year. I feel like that really works for me."
Whatever Thomas has done in the past has clearly worked and moved him to the brink of breaking through as a three-week race contender. However, if he is to embark on the next stage and move into the unknown, he is right, he needs a new challenge.