By Gareth James
Geraint Thomas insists he can get his head down and pedal hard this weekend as he has the rest of his life “to chill and drink cocktails.”
Thomas lead Ineos Grenadiers into the Vuelta a España, knowing his career is in its late stages.
But Wales’ 37-year-old former Tour de France winner has already proved he can be a contender after he finished as runner-up at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year.
“It’s easy to commit now I know I’m at the end of my career,” said Thomas.
“I might as well commit to this and see what I can do. Then I’ve got the rest of my life to chill and drink cocktails.”
The race gets underway on Saturday in Barcelona, kicking off with a 14.8-kilometre team time trial before heading into the mountains, finishing on Sunday 17 September in Madrid.
Thomas, starts La Vuelta for only the second time, marking his 19th career Grand Tour.
— NBC Sports Cycling (@NBCSCycling) August 25, 2023
He will be supported by a strong and experienced group of racers, including former Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Egan Bernal.
Thomas added: “It has been strange building up to two peaks in the season, it’s not something I normally do.
“It’s usually just one big hit and then a la playa, but we will see. I’m looking forward to it. I’m feeling good, and the team here is good and motivated.”
Dramatically denied victory at the Giro d’Italia in May when Primoz Roglic wrested pink away on the penultimate day’s mountainous time trial, Thomas finished second to continue a run which has seen him on the podium in four of the last five Grand Tours he has completed, starting with victory in the 2018 Tour de France.
As the winners of cycling’s biggest races are getting younger and younger, the veteran Thomas is showing the greatest consistency of his career in his autumn years.
In Spain he will face a stacked field that includes Roglic, Tour winner Jonas Vingegaard, defending champion Remco Evenepoel and more, but Thomas is listed among the favourites despite barely racing since the Giro.
To overcome his disappointment in Italy Thomas, as he put it, let his hair down. “Just ate and drank whatever,” he said. “Drunk quite a bit to be fair.”
Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth, who has worked with Thomas since the Welshman joined Great Britain’s academy two decades ago, believes his ability to switch off is the key to his longevity, even if that means a post-race binge.
“Sometimes he drops off the side of the mountain,” Ellingworth said. “The year he won the Tour in 2018, a few weeks later he rocked up at the Tour of Britain, I was like ‘Oh my God, who’s this guy?’. He was about 30 kilos heavier!
“One of the reasons he can continue is he’s got a good balance of life and that’s why he’s able to perform at 37.”
It is something Ellingworth has always encouraged. When the likes of Thomas and Mark Cavendish turned up as teenagers to join British Cycling’s academy, Ellingworth wanted them to enjoy themselves.
“When I brought them into Manchester when they were 16 and 17, we deliberately put them in the university area so they could go out,” he said.
Ellingworth’s rules were simple. Turn up at the velodrome by 7.30am, or have a good reason for not doing so.
“If you’ve been out on the p*** all night and you’ve met somebody, ring me and tell me,” Ellingworth said. “I’m not bothered, that’s life. Then we’ll recalibrate. Have a day or two off because you’ll be nailed, go again. That’s life’.”
It is an attitude seemingly at odds with modern cycling, with a new generation of riders producing results at younger ages as professional training methods are adopted ever earlier.
But as burn-out and mental stress becomes an increasing issue, Ellingworth can point to the success Thomas and Cavendish have enjoyed deep into their careers.
“I encouraged the social side because it’s what you do it for,” he said. “I think a little bit of the problem with what’s happening at the moment is a lot of the young lads are coming through but they are way too focused.
“I think they will have issues because they are way too focused. They’re becoming pro bike riders maybe too early. They’re having a pro mentality too early.”
Thomas is ready to fight against an extremely talented startlist at La Vuelta 🇪🇸
🎙️ INEOS Grenadiers pic.twitter.com/vi8kz3l7cB
— Velon CC (@VelonCC) August 20, 2023
Thomas has said he is close to signing a new contract to continue with Ineos, but Ellingworth expects it to be his last.
“We’re in a good place,” Ellingworth said. “Geraint’s happy. Quite honestly I couldn’t think of anybody better to hopefully stay with the team. He’s like the team captain if you think about it. He does a great job.
“At the end of the day life catches up with you eventually. I would say he would do one more contract. I don’t know yet. But I don’t think he’ll carry on much longer.”
— Cycling Today (@CyclingTodayEn) August 22, 2023