Geraint Thomas has left skin and Lycra behind on the tarmac in many exotic parts of the world, but the Welshman’s crash with 10 kilometres remaining in the Rio Olympic Games road race five years ago, when in a potentially medal-winning position, is one that left a particularly bitter taste in the mouth. On Saturday, when the cycling opens in Tokyo, the 2018 Tour de France winner has what will probably be his last chance to lay the ghost.
“I don’t lose sleep about it now, but it was there for the taking, it was a great opportunity,” Thomas recalled on Thursday. He ended up 11th, with Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet winning gold. “As [the former Team GB psychiatrist] Steve Peters kept telling me, life is unfair, you don’t get what you deserve. It was super frustrating and I’d like to put it right on Saturday.”
There is also unfinished business for the GB men’s road race team, which fielded a super-fit Mark Cavendish in 2012 only for the team’s gameplan to fall apart, and which has not taken a men’s road race medal since Max Sciandri’s bronze at Atlanta in 1996.
It is 13 years since Thomas was thrown into the Olympic fray in Beijing, winning gold in the team pursuit at the age of 22; on his return to London, his lift to South Wales failed to materialise and he had to cadge the rail fare from this reporter. He took a second team pursuit gold in London 2012, with the GB quartet setting the world record on both occasions. Those triumphs mean that actually getting a medal is not the main stimulus this year, “but getting the best out of myself”.
Tokyo is the latest, and at 35, possibly the final stage of an Olympic journey that Thomas can trace back to 1992, when he watched the Barcelona Games from the rug in the sitting room of his parents’ home in Cardiff. That was the summer when Chris Boardman won gold on the Lotus bike, but the six-year-old Thomas was more struck by the Games as a whole, the size and scale of the event as well as the drama of swimming and athletics.
Thomas believes he has recovered from the shoulder dislocation which almost put him out of this year’s Tour de France on day three. “The shoulder’s OK, the legs are the question. I feel I’ve come out of the Tour well, I was able to go easy on the last three days.” Once the Games are over, he will decide the rest of his season; he is pencilled in for the Tour of Poland from 9 to 15 August, and after that he may target the world road race championships in Flanders.
On Saturday, the four-man Great Britain team also includes Simon Yates, who like Thomas is getting over the consequences of a crash at the Tour de France which has left him “bruised and banged up”, Tao Geoghegan-Hart, who has just finished the Tour, and the other Yates twin, Adam, who won the Volta a Catalunya in March. All are potential medallists, but with small national teams the Olympic road race is notoriously difficult to predict. “We have a very good chance, it’s about putting those pieces together,” Simon Yates said this week.
Fresh from winning both stages on the Tour de France’s final weekend, the Belgian Wout van Aert will be the big favourite while the Tour winner, Tadej Pogacar, may well prove his biggest challenger; the 2020 Tour runner-up, Primoz Roglic, also rides, but it is unclear how he has recovered from his crash on the Tour’s opening weekend. The world champion, Julian Alaphilippe, has opted to stay at home with his partner and their new-born son, but the 2016 medallists Jakob Fuglsang and Rafal Majka are on the start list.
The route includes 4,865 metres of climbing, with the main action likely to start when the race climbs the foothills of Mount Fuji with just under 100 kilometres to go. “The last main climb is steep and challenging, it will definitely be a war of attrition,” said Thomas. “There will be people going out the back all day. The final climb will decide it; there’s 10 kilometres to go after the descent, but if a small group gets off the front over the climb, it could stay away. It won’t be a lottery, but we will need a bit of luck. There definitely won’t be any sprinters there, maybe Van Aert.”
Geoghegan-Hart believes there are “probably 20-25 guys could be nailed on for a medal”, saying: “When we hit the base of Fuji with three hours to go you will probably see the race on from there. If the heat and humidity are what’s expected, it’s going to be one of the most physically demanding races we will do this year, perhaps in our careers.”