There’ve been many questions raised about Welshman Geraint Thomas and his metamorphosis from double Olympic Team Pursuit Champion into the Yellow Jersey and Tour contender. To provide some answers, a look into the history of British cycling is in order.
The British have always had a love for the purity of the time trial, which began as a sport with the banning of bicycle racing on English roads around 1890. Time trials were a means to have competitions without attracting police attention: riders had no numbers – but bells – and wore fully black outfits to help disguise their activities. The original Alley Cats if you will. The bans on UK road racing were only really lifted around the 1960’s (my history’s a bit vague on this timing) ensuring that the time trial was permanently ingrained into British cycling culture. Paralleling that same period, interestingly, Britain developed a brilliant track racing tradition with riders such as the five-time World and double Olympic Champion sprinter Sir Reginald Harris (the prototype of superstar Sir Chris Hoy). Pursuit racing became the perfect meeting ground between the two traditions of time trial and track racing and the UK built a powerful legacy around the events beginning with amateur World Pursuit Champ Norman Sheil, the regretted Tommy Simpson who began as a pursuit rider before turning to the road, multi-time Pro World Pursuit Champion Hugh Porter – and excellent BBC commentator – not to mention Six-Day Star Tony Doyle and Chris Boardman, all whose collective efforts in the discipline melded to create the foundation upon which the current and fantastic success of the British Cycling Federation and Team Sky are based.
Still to this day, Wiggins, Alex Dorsett, and other top riders routinely show up at their local club 10-mile TT’s to have a go and in the process, help maintain the cohesion of their cycling communities, something I frankly find beautiful and in the true British spirit.
Thomas, as part of that famed Team Pursuit quartet, along with eventual Tour and Hour Record (the most important TT of all) Champion Sir Bradley Wiggins, blasted to an astounding 3’ 53” world record at the Beijing considered one of the greatest performances of any sport at those Games. The power figures they developed are impressive to say the least: Ed Clancy, the teams’ sprinter, would start them off for the first 400m hitting 1400 watts in the process (!!!), with the rest of the team fluctuating between 900w when pulling, dropping to 700w on the wheels. The gears were on the level of a 53 x 13, but pedaled at an astounding 130 rpm+. What’s more, extremely fast recuperation was crucial as the track meets were run on very tight schedules with the teams expected to perform world record performances within an hour of their previous races.
In order to achieve these previously unheard of performances, mountain training camps became the norm for the team, interspersed with three-time a day track sessions requiring 6000 calories a day of refueling. Thus, a rider like Thomas developed an enormous capacity for power output and trained his body to fully recover from wildly intense efforts in less than 60 minutes, condensed physical qualities that expanded out and deepened once into his road career.
Damien Gaudin, the big Direct Energie rider with his knees out you always saw blasting away in the breakaways this Tour, was a Team Pursuiter in Beijing as well. In a l’Equipe interview he credited Thomas’s dedication: “He lost so much weight to be able to climb, I don’t know if I’m mentally capable to make the daily sacrifices that he does, to eat so little. He’s one of those riders who gets an idea in their head and does everything possible to achieve it.”
Stefan Küng, the 2015 World Pursuit Champ riding for BMC also in l’Equipe stated: “ A pursuit rider puts out four-minutes of maximum effort which requires the rider to have a big “motor”. Many of the specific qualities that the pursuit demands transfer directly to the road. They put out enormous power in aerodynamic positions, and are able to finely tune their efforts to be exactly on the limit, neither slightly below nor above.”
Note: Thomas’s position on his Pinarello is still basically a track position: very high and forward saddle, low bars, long extension.
Gaudin followed with: “Thomas is able to create great 10, 15 and 20 minute efforts at time trial pace. It’s for that reason that, with his now light weight, that he’s able to ride the mountains well. He doesn’t really have a pure climber style as he uses, in general, bigger gears on the climbs, but that works well for him.”
Küng in turn, credited all of the Team Pursuit training for Thomas’s win on l’Alp d’Huez saying that: “In the Team Pursuit, after 3’30’’ of effort during the final pull, when you are completely empty and still need to put out 800 watts for the final 20” of the race, well, that’s a physical quality that a pure climber will never have and a rider like Thomas will never lose.”
No one, least of all Geraint Thomas, knows what will happen in this final week of the Tour. He may fly, he may collapse, he may be caught in a box between a flying Froome and defending Dumoulin. But the Welshman has earned his current position in the Tour through years of sacrifice, intelligent and innovative training matched with his intense focus. And remember, in 2013 Thomas was a major force in Froome’s first Tour win, powering him along in the TTT despite a broken pelvis that he endured all the way to Paris. He’s a tough-as-nails Welshman who’s paid his dues and won’t fold easily.
Final note: Incompetent team management may hurt Geraint Thomas’s and Team Sky’s chances in the final week of this Tour and I believe that is it time for David Brailsford to go or at least be removed from any further public presence. His statement at the beginning of the Tour, comparing UCI President David Lapartient to a “Small town French Mayor,” as though that were some sort of insult, is the most tone-deaf statement I’ve ever heard from the sport: what do you think the Tour is? It’s a collection of small town mayors working together, getting the roads paved and permits filed to allow the bike riders to play. And now this punk Gianni Moscon, who management knew was unstable, has punched out a French, yes French rider, one from the crappiest team in the Tour, a team so bad that their bicycle sponsor, Look, yanked all of their equipment with two weeks to the start of this race. The optics could not be worse and all that on top of their clumsy PR efforts around Froome’s case. The French public is now completely and irreversibly turned against the team and the atmosphere out on the road may grow even uglier.
John Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.