If Geraint Thomas has been harbouring nascent ambitions of becoming a Grand Tour leader, he could be forgiven had his resolve weakened at the Tour de France, where he saw Sky teammate Chris Froome forced to deal with a cocktail of doping innuendo and urine on his way to overall victory.
Yet the Tour has had quite the opposite effect; the Welshman's determination to be up there in three-week races has only been strengthened by what happened in July.
Largely free from the speculation that surrounded Froome, Thomas was the revelation of the Tour, performing super-domestique duties for his leader and riding himself into the top five for an extended period in the process. He seemed to have the match of all Froome's rivals – the best riders in the peloton – but the race was a couple of days too long and he fell away on stage 19.
As a richly talented all-rounder, with a fruitful Classics campaign as well as stage race success under his belt this year, the 29-year-old received confirmation that the Grand Tours are a realistic future prospect.
"I know I can do that now. It gave me a huge amount of confidence, and the belief that I can do that. I did a hell of a lot of work from day one really, and to still be there on stage 19, where it all sort of fell away, it gave me that belief and confidence that I can actually perform in those races now," said Thomas, catching up with Cyclingnews ahead of the Vuelta a España.
"It was also a climber's race – there wasn't a time trial or anything really – so it was really encouraging. If I hadn't had to do that extra work, and concentrated on myself it might have been a different story coming into the final few days.
"It certainly opened my eyes – I'm looking forward to the next few years," he added, with a subtle hint as to the trajectory we can expect his career to take.
Beers, burgers, and now another Grand Tour
In this light, then, there was some excitement surrounding rumours that Thomas would take on the Vuelta a España, a decision that was confirmed on Monday. However, the Volta ao Algarve champion isn't going to Spain to further test himself as a GC rider, not least because his post-Tour preparation has been far from ideal for such purposes.
"I was pretty tired at the end of the Tour that's for sure," he said. "I had maybe five days off but three of those nights were on my stag so I wouldn't say they were ideal rest. That was a really good few days but it kind of took more out of me than the race! Then I went straight from there to a crit on the Friday, and then on the Sunday. By Monday, eight days after the Tour, I was a broken man!"
The stag celebrations may have made the decision to get back into the Grand Tour regime a hard one – "You have a few nights out on the beers, have a few burgers, you realise what you're missing and you just want more" – but there were plenty of reasons to make a debut appearance at the Vuelta.
Chief among them is variety - given that the groom-to-be has done the Canadian one-day races and Tour of Britain in the past - but it also serves as a building block for the World Championships, the winter, and - looking yet further ahead - next season.
"If I didn't ride the Vuelta now, it would be a gap from the end of the Tour to the Worlds for the odd race. It's a lot harder mentally to do that, whereas coming here and riding for the team, maybe getting a chance myself, is much easier mentally," he said.
"You're racing, you're in that groove, you've got a number on your back and you're going to go a lot deeper than in training. Obviously it will set me up well for next year and the winter. Hopefully I can finish it well and go to America and enjoy the last few races of the season."
A 'chilled' three weeks in Spain
Thomas has spent much of the time since the Tour at his base in Monaco training with Froome, with a recent trip back to Cardiff to sort out some of the plans for the wedding set to take place just a week after the Worlds.
However, it is unlikely that the Sky duo will be tearing up the Vuelta's nine summit finishes in the same manner as they took on many of the Tour's mountains in July. Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve are set to be the men up there with Froome at the sharp end of stages, with Thomas planning to ride a conservative race, before maybe looking for a stage win in the breakaway-friendly final week.
“For myself, it's pretty chilled. It's about riding my way into it and trying to come out of it good, not feeling completely empty, rather than trying to hang onto Tour form and then tailing off," Thomas told Cyclingnews.
“Towards the back end of the race I'll hopefully look for an opportunity for myself – it would be really good to try and do that. A lot depends on how the race is going and has gone to that point. Ideally I'd want to be stronger in the back end of it and look to try and go in a break or something.
“Then to go and have a decent Worlds, which for me would be finishing because I haven't finished many. So yeah, go there, whether its for myself or for [Ben] Swifty or whoever, just going there and having a good race."
As for when we might see Thomas up there fighting it out for his own interests in a Grand Tour, it is possible that we'll have to wait until 2017. With the Welshman keen to support Froome at the Tour once again next year, the Olympics throw a spanner in the works in terms of the feasibility of tailoring his season to the Giro d'Italia or the Vuelta.
“It's complicated because obviously I want to do the Tour again, then the Olympics are straight after, then the Vuelta would be a bit too much. Mentally it would be hard to do all that and then come to the Vuelta in top shape.
"If I rode the Giro then did the Tour, then the end of the Tour and the Olympics might not be the best. It's a difficult one, but I guess it's one I'll talk to the team about over the next few months."
Thomas commented that he's looking forward to the next few years and he has every reason to be optimistic, with the full extent of his considerable potential still waiting to be explored and unlocked.
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