Geraint Thomas might still be pinching himself after having won the 2018 Tour de France, but that only serves to remind him how far he's come since starting to race with the Maindy Flyers Cycling Club in Cardiff, Wales, as a 10-year-old.
Speaking on Superbike racer Eugene Laverty's PrePro Podcast last week, Thomas recalled his early racing days, and reminisced over his journey through track racing with British Cycling – twice winning Olympic gold in the team pursuit, and becoming world champion in the team pursuit three times – and his first pro contract on the road with the Barloworld team, before moving on to Team Sky (now Team Ineos), and winning Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour.
While he started on the track and then progressed to the road, 33-year-old Thomas said that today's demands from each discipline are making it increasingly difficult to be a jack-of-all-trades, as he'd been at the start of his pro career.
"In the early days, I wanted to do everything, but you just can't: you can't go from winning Olympic gold medals on the track to the next week riding a Classic or the Tour," he said. "It's just so different, and so specific now. Even one-day racing compared to stage racing, there's a massive difference.
"But that leg speed from the track, and handling a bike and riding in a group – as it's so sort of congested on the track – and being able to read races… That's all really helped me on the road. I learned a lot in those early days, but the road was always my biggest love, more than the track – but obviously both are great when you're winning," Thomas laughed. "The road was always that dream of being in the Tour and doing the biggest Classics."
Before turning pro with Barloworld in 2007, Thomas recalled riding as a stagiaire with Spanish team Saunier Duval the year before.
"I ended up only doing one race with them, and I was a bit overweight, and that race didn’t go well. It was the day after the Clasica San Sebastian, I think, and I got a massive kicking and didn't finish," he explained. "I remember the manager at the time must have thought, 'He's crap – he's not going anywhere.'"
But in his first year with Barloworld the following season, Thomas was picked for the Tour, which started in London that year.
"And, every day, I made a point of going past the Saunier Duval car and giving them a wave, as if to say, 'I'm still here!'"
Meeting Chris Froome
It was at Barloworld that he met Chris Froome, who joined for the 2008 season.
"I remember the first time we met: I walked into his room and he was wearing, what, a serong? It was a Kenyan skirt thing, which was basically like a kilt, in that you've got nothing on underneath… And he was just there with his legs open, and I was, like, 'Mate, you're airing that out and not leaving anything to the imagination there.'
"I'd heard of him before, as amateurs, as he rode for the UCI World Cycling Centre team, and you could tell that he was a phenomenal athlete," said Thomas.
Froome's bike-handling skills, however, compared to those honed on the track by Thomas, apparently left a little to be desired.
"I wouldn't say that in those early days he crashed a lot, but you'd ride behind him thinking, 'Anything could happen at any moment…' It was like he'd been built in a lab, for endurance sport, but he had no preconceived ideas – no idea about the history of the sport – and just did it. You could tell straight away that he was going to be a good rider, though."
Thomas would go on to support Froome during each of his four Tour wins, in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and then, in 2018, it was Thomas's turn to stand on the top step of the podium in Paris.
"I just thought, at the time during the race, that it was all amazing," Thomas said of how he felt ahead of what would eventually be the biggest win of his career. "Crashing or bad luck was something you couldn't control, so I just worried about what I had to do for that one day.
"It's quite boring when I put it like that, but it's quite hard to do. Only once we were in the Pyrenees, with about four days to go, did I start to think, 'Shit, man – I might win the Tour here. But don't even think about that. Worry about this next climb, and eating that rice cake every 20 minutes, and having that fuel, and that drink,' and then the next thing I know, I've won.
"That's when you're crying on international TV. It's embarrassing, but that was the first time it really dawned on me that I'd won the biggest bike race you could ever win, and that I'd completed cycling, you know?" he laughed.
Thomas recently became a father for the first time, with his wife Sara giving birth to their son, Max, in early October.
"He turned five weeks old yesterday," the proud Welshman told the PrePro Podcast. "My last race was at the World Championships in Harrogate in Yorkshire. That was on the Sunday, and he came on Wednesday morning, so it was perfect timing, really. I couldn't complain about that."
Famously, Thomas celebrated his 2018 Tour victory long into the winter before knuckling down to regain his fitness and finish second at this year's race to Ineos teammate Egan Bernal. This off-season, however, has been completely different.
"It was a bit different to be in Cardiff just changing nappies at 3 in the morning, rather than just rolling in at 3 in the morning," he laughed. "It's good, but it's tough. It's about finding that balance now between training – now that I've gone back into training – and doing my bit, because I still want to help out with him.
"I'm not racing again until February, so if I pull my weight now, I've got time in the bank then when the season starts and I go away for four months," said Thomas.
It's made for a big life change, but, at the same time, host Laverty suggested, Thomas hasn't let cycling superstardom change him, and is unlikely to any time soon.
"When you get on the bike, it's completely different," Thomas agreed. "OK, you still don't ride like an idiot and chop people up, but you are a lot more determined and focused, and everything.
"But off the bike, you're off the bike, then, aren't you? You’re not racing and don't have to be aggressive, and you can just chill, and just be normal and polite.
"At the end of the day, it's just a sport, isn't it?" he added. "Just because you can ride a bike fast doesn't mean you can walk down the street and you're better than the next guy. I think some people turn into a bit of a diva when they win some big races, and think they deserve this and that, but there's just no need for it."