Geraint Thomas' Classics ambitions have been put to one side in recent years as he makes bids to transform himself into a Grand Tour contender, but when the 2018 Tour de France route was unveiled last October, the presence of the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix on stage 9 seemed as good a pretext as any to make a cameo appearance at the Hell of the North this Sunday.
"I sat down at the start of the year with Tim [Kerrison, his coach – ed.] and tried to figure out the best run-up to the Tour," Thomas said in Kortrijk on Friday evening. "The cobbles in the Tour were a nice excuse, and I could use that as a bargaining chip really with Tim."
Thomas has been cloistered away at Team Sky's preferred training site of Mount Teide in the weeks since his third-place finish at Tirreno-Adriatico last month, and, by all logic, his absence from the cut and thrust of the cobbled Classics to date ought to limit his possibilities on the rocky road to Roubaix. Michal Kwiatkowski was parachuted into Sky's Classics squad in similar circumstances a week ago for the Tour of Flanders but failed to make much of an impact in a race won by Niki Terpstra.
"Obviously it's not a typical build-up to Roubaix," Thomas admitted. "It's just about getting stuck into the race and taking what I can from it. But then if you look at the past winners, some of them weren't major favourites coming into the race, so a lot can happen.
"I've been in Tenerife and climbing 3,500 metres of altitude most days, which is totally different to this race, so I won't necessarily have the punch and stuff that you need for this race, but after 200-odd kilometres, not a lot of people to do anyway."
Although Thomas is currently committed to exploring his possibilities over three weeks, the Classics retain a particular hold on his affections. It remains to be seen where the 31-year-old's future lies – his contract with Team Sky expires at season's end – but he will, at some point, return to riding a full Classics programme.
"I just wanted to concentrate on doing one as best I can, so that's why I went down the stage racing route, but in a few years' time I'd definitely love to be back in the Classics again. It's what I grew up doing and deep down what I love the most," Thomas said.
"This is my 12th year as a professional but with all the track I've done, I haven't had the hard years I might have done. I haven't done 90 days of racing every year, so that will definitely help the longevity of my career. I don't know when I'll come back to the Classics, but I definitely will."
Over the years, Thomas' Sundays in Hell have been blighted by ill fortune. He was forced out by a crash on his last Paris-Roubaix appearance in 2015, and his lone clear run came when he placed 7th back in 2014. As on that occasion, he will be part of a multi-pronged Sky challenge, alongside Gianni Moscon, Dylan van Baarle and Luke Rowe, though he is mindful that no team boasts the same collective strength as Quick-Step Floors, who have so dominated on the cobbles this year.
"Their team is so strong, they've got strength in numbers in the final," Thomas said. "It's tough, but you don't want to base your whole race around them. We won't win if all we do is race against Quick-Step. We need to ride well as a team, be honest with each other, and hopefully one of us is good enough to finish the job."
Froome and the Tour de France
The centrepiece of Thomas' season – and his very rationale for riding Paris-Roubaix – is, of course, the Tour de France, even if his precise role in July is still something of a mystery. If Chris Froome's adverse analytical finding for salbutamol ultimately results in a ban ahead of the Tour, Thomas might be called upon to lead Sky in July, but the glacial speed at which the case has progressed means that there is precious little certainty about his status at this juncture.
"It's pretty straightforward in my head, really," Thomas said, downplaying the idea that the ongoing Froome case would have an impact on his preparation for the Tour. "I just want to get there in the best shape possible, and that's that. If Froomey's there, I'll ride for him and help him, and if not, I'll try to take my chance.
"But at the end of the day, you've got to be good, no matter out. I'll try to get the best out of myself in the races I do before [the Tour] when I'm riding for myself and then, whatever happens, it happens.
"People have asked me the question if he wasn't there, would I lead? And I've kind of said, yeah, well, I'd love to, but I'm not sitting here saying that if he doesn't ride, I'm going to be the leader. It's a question for the team. In my head, all I'm doing is preparing as best I can for that race and going there in the best shape possible. Whatever the team is, the team is. And you go from there then."
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