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Victorious in the recent E3 Harekbeke race and third in Gent-Wevelgem, Geraint Thomas is regarded by some as perhaps the biggest favourite for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
The 28 year old Welshman is aware of that status, but appeared quite relaxed at the Team Sky pre-race press meeting held at the team hotel in Kortrijk, Belgium, on Friday.
Indeed, rather than coming across as a rider with a lot of weight on his shoulders, Thomas gave the impression that he found things slightly surreal.
“It is strange, actually,” he stated. “It is a race I grew up watching as a kid, just dreaming to be a part of it, let alone going into it on the team as the strongest guy and one of the favourites.
“But I am kind of used to that sort of pressure with the track. You know, the London Olympics was massive and in the team pursuit the margin of error is so small. That is good practice for dealing with that pressure when everyone is talking about you and there is stuff in the press and whatever.
“I am just taking a similar approach; I am just thinking about myself and the team and how we want to race and try not to get too drawn into what everybody else is doing.”
Thus far, 2015 has been a step up for Thomas. He grabbed a stage and the overall classification in the Volta ao Algarve in February and then went on to take second on a stage and fifth overall in Paris-Nice. His performance in the latter was hampered by a crash, but he still finished prominently and then showed aggressive form in Milan-San Remo.
While he didn’t have the chance to stay clear in that event, he was one of the biggest animators in the closing stages of the race and showed the peloton, the world and himself that he was in very good condition.
E3 Harelbeke saw everything pay off with a dominant solo win. Gent-Wevelgem followed two days later and while his legs were likely still drained due to the hard race he had put in while landing his victory, he still had enough in the tank to take third.
Thomas is tipped for success Sunday, but says he feels opportunity, not undue expectation. He agrees that the riders who have been seen as potential winners of the race for the past couple of seasons – such as Peter Sagan, for example – are under a lot more stress than he is.
Because he has just joined that category of potential victors, he hasn’t had that burden for a long time. In fact, he sees any success on Sunday as a bonus, not as a requirement.
“I think we have had our best Classics campaign so far,” he said, referring to his own performances and Ian Stannard’s Omploop Het Nieuwsblad victory. “I think we just have to treat it like the other races, get stuck in and enjoy it.
“As regards the whole pressure thing…I guess with the Belgian riders and the guys who have been favourites before, for sure there is definitely going to be more pressure on them now that Fabian and Boonen are out.
“Like I say, we will just get stuck in, do our best and hopefully that will be enough.”
Sky’s position is different to that of a team like Etixx-QuickStep. The British squad wants to win; the Belgium team needs to. The northern Classics are arguably the most important goal of the year for the setup, not least because of the massive media coverage in Belgium plus the near-fanatical fan support.
Sky is known as a team that can win other races, and so it is not a disaster if it doesn’t occupy the top step of the podium in Flanders or Roubaix.
“It is the best year we have had so far,” said Thomas. “Hopefully we can continue that for the next two weeks. But if it doesn’t happen, then I think it still has been pretty successful and we can still be happy looking back. So there is no real added pressure there.”
“The atmosphere there, the climbs….just everything about the race…I love it”
One change from recent years is that both Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara will be missing due to injury. Between them, the two riders have taken a total of seven Roubaix wins and six editions of Flanders in the past decade.
Thomas said that their absence will certainly change the race; it will give the other riders more belief that they can win, thus prompting more aggressive riding and also a greater importance on tactics.
“I think it will definitely change the dynamic of the race a bit,” he states.
On a personal level, he is clear on what he needs to do. He believes the most important thing is to stay out of trouble and try to get to the finale of the race as fresh as possible.
Once that is done, he believes it’s all down to the legs and what they are still able to do at that point.
Asked what the ideal scenario is for him, Thomas jokes that it is to be ten minutes clear with one kilometre to go. That obviously won’t happen, but having a big gap and being able to savour a solo victory is the way he would like to win the race.
For now, being considered one of the top favourites is enough. “It is massive and flattering as well,” he stated.
“I think it is a big complement to be mentioning my name as a potential winner.
“It is strange, really. It is Flanders, it is one of the biggest races in the world. For me it is probably the one I would most like to win as well. The atmosphere there, the climbs….just everything about the race…I love it.
“It is great to be able to race it. To go into it with a chance of winning is really special.”
But what about the presence of Wiggins on the team; could that trample on his chances? Is there any way that he will have to sacrifice his chances for his team-mate?
“Brad has already said that he is happy to get stuck in and do his job,” he said. “I think having someone like him to keep me at the front near the end of the race…there is no better guy to physically do that. Especially when he is really up for it and commits, it is great to have him around. It’s the same with Stannard.
“I think they are both happy to play that role on Sunday and then we will talk about Roubaix afterwards. I guess it’s one race at a time.”
He makes clear that for him, Flanders is the big opportunity rather than Roubaix. “I think for myself this weekend is the one I prefer to do well in,” he explained.
“I think it suits me a bit better and it is the one I have been thinking about all winter.”
But what about Roubaix – does that not appeal to him too? Does he not harbour thoughts of attacking on the podium and winning in the famous velodrome? “Brad is the guy for Roubaix, at the moment,” he answered. “We haven’t really sat down and thought about it but he is targeting that.
“Usually when he targets a race he has pretty good legs.”
Listen above for the full interview. In it Thomas speaks about a range of topics, including his performances this season, his feelings about the Tour of Flanders, rivals for Sunday’s race, his sharing of leadership with others such as Wiggins plus his assessment of that rider’s character and influence.