Professional cycling has been dogged throughout its history by a range of banned substances and other illicit remedies. I can exclusively reveal for Buzz readers that there was indeed a substance consumed during the 2011 Tour De France that had a positive effect on all who ingested it. So new was this substance to the Tour that officials have yet to determine whether it should appear on the list of prohibited substances. So what is this shady concoction? Nandralone? EPO? THG? Well no. Apparntly, it’s Welsh cakes.
Just do the maths. Team Sky’s first ever stage win came in Lisieux on the 7th July on stage six of this year’s tour. In the torrential rain, the winner of the stage was a certain Edvald Boasson Hagen, roommate of a certain Welshman, Geraint Thomas, who had not only led out Boasson Hagen expertly to deliver him perfectly to the front of the race in time for the Norwegian to power to victory, but who had also been seen openly handing out these Celtic cakes of vigour to all and sundry on his team. In fact, quizzed recently on how Boasson Hagen is now coping with his post Tour life without these Welsh cakes, young Thomas admitted freely “Edvald is still having withdrawal symptoms actually”. What further proof do you need?
I jest of course, and please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m trivialising drugs in cycling with my reference to Geraint Thomas’s generosity with his Welsh cakes, because I’m not, and never would. And even if I was, I certainly wouldn’t do it in earshot of Thomas, an athlete who is currently, in my opinion, Wales’s finest.
Geraint, now only 25 years old, has been one of the most outspoken amongst current riders against those exposed as having transgressed with any banned substances. In fact, as a rider, Geraint is the absolute epitome of the modern hard working, talented, and above all clean cyclists who now inhabit the professional peloton; a rider who, along with many of his contemporaries, deserves much credit for having given back honesty and credibility to professional cycling.
I have long been a fan of Thomas – a product of Whitchurch High School and the Maindy Flyers cycling club – who first came to my attention in 2007, when as that year’s youngest Tour rider, represented the South African team, Barloworld. I had followed just about every Tour since the late 1980’s and when I heard a Welshman was taking part, I had to rack my brains until I accepted that I couldn’t recall whether a Welshman had ever competed in the Tour before. Appalled by this lack of knowledge, Wikipedia quickly unveiled Colin Lewis as being the last cyclist from Cymru to travel the many lengthy roads and tortuous alpine passes of France in 1967.
The on-going story about Geraint on that Tour of 2007 was speculating how long he’d manage to stay in it. In every Tour, every year, some of the top and most hardened cyclists in the world drop out due to simple fatigue, a crash, or a catalogue of intense stresses and strains that manifest themselves as injuries. In 2007, it was expected with every passing day that that man would be the 21-year-old Thomas. Day after day he was quizzed by the likes of Ned Boulting and asked if he was pulling out, and every day, inquisitors like Boulting were told by this impossibly young looking sportsman that he’d just get on his bike, see how he felt later on, and make a decision then. He finally got off his bike on the Champs-Elysees having crossed the line 140th out of 141 riders; very much I remember, with a look on his face that suggested he was wondering what all the fuss was about. Now for those of you not hugely knowledgeable about cycling, you can be forgiven for assuming that finishing last but one in a race is not the greatest of achievements. But if I tell you that by that particular Sunday in Paris, over 25% of the riders who had started the brutal contest in London three weeks before (48 in number) were now back at home in various levels of exhausted distress, and that each and every one of them were older and more experienced than Geraint, then armed with those facts, I’m sure you are now beginning to understand what an exceptional achievement this former Maindy Flyer had accomplished.
Many involved in cycling know this story about Geraint, but not as many recall the rider who finished just a place ahead of the Welshman by a little under five minutes, a future World Champion and Tour stage winner. His name? Thor Hushovd. It was not going to be the last time that Thomas would find himself if such good company.
That inaugural Tour was very much in the past when I caught up with Geraint recently to talk about his more recent challenges such as the 2011 Tour, his imminent challenges later this month in the Tour Of Britain and the all important World Championships in Copenhagen and possibly the biggest challenge of his career to date, next year’s 2012 London Olympics which he will enter as a defending Olympic Champion.
We chatted first about this year’s Tour, and when I asked him about the high and low points of the Tour, his response on the positives was eager: “There were a couple of high points really, obviously the first stage win that Edvald won for the Team and playing such an important role in that was amazing. Edvald’s such a nice guy and we are such good mates that it was really special to be a part of that.”
Another high point was clearly the day that Geraint won the prestigious Prix De La Combativite, the Tour’s daily combativity award, on the 211km ride from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden and over the top of one of the Tour’s most iconic Pyrenean peaks, the Col du Tourmalet. “Going over the Tourmalet in front was great because it’s something I hadn’t really done before and the crowds up there were just unbelievable and along with Edvald’s stage win they were by far the highlights,” confirmed Thomas.
On the low points, Geraint was less forthcoming. I’ve noticed this before when you talk to top sports-people and mention anything negative, it’s as if their brains don’t compute negativity easily in the way us mere mortals do, but eventually he offered a couple: “I guess the last two days were tough, I was really knackered by then and I was happy to just be finishing really. Also losing the white jersey was probably a low point as well, just the way it sort of happened.”
The way it sort of happened is one of the curiosities of professional cycling. In nearly every other sport I can think of, whether team or individual, ultimately there will be personal glory to be found and celebrated in there somewhere. But in cycling, as part of a professional team, any of your individual dreams or aspirations fall very much behind those of your team leader and it is commonplace to sacrifice yourself for him. Geraint explained. “I guess in cycling, a team leader is a team leader and quite simply you are there to do a job for him. Obviously there will be other races when I get my opportunities and things but during the Tour, Brad (Wiggins) was our leader and we heard that he had crashed and everyone just had to stop and wait. It wasn’t until a few minutes later after sitting up and waiting for him that we realized that he wasn’t going to keep going. But it’s just one of those things that happen in cycling really. It was a crash that just happened in the group and Brad was the unfortunate one that went down and broke something.”
And that was it. That was the moment that snatched “le maillot blanc”, the celebrated white jersey awarded to the leading rider under the age of 26, off Geraint’s shoulders for it never to return. It’s the pragmatic way that he simply dismissed it as just one of those twists of sporting fate, without a trace of anger or bitterness, which tells you all you really need to know about not only Geraint’s complete understanding and acceptance of his sport, but also the deep strength of character he possesses.
His strong performance in the Tour – his 31st place saw him finish as the highest Brit – didn’t go unnoticed. I asked him about his feelings regarding the belief of British cycling legend Chris Boardman, that potentially Geraint has all the attributes to challenge for the leader’s yellow jersey outright in future tours.
“Obviously, to hear somebody like Chris say something like that about you is really nice and it actually makes you feel really good. But I think we’ll have to see how it goes and see how I develop and keep doing what I’m doing the next few years and just see what happens. I think if I thought I had a chance to contend for overall yellow, then yes I’d love to go for it 100%.”
But will that happen next year? Unlikely. Next year is London Olympic year, and with cycling being one of the earliest Olympic events, it comes close to clashing with the end of the 2012 Tour. Many have suggested that Geraint will sacrifice the Tour, but that’s a choice yet to be made: “I don’t know, it’s a decision I’ll have to make at the end of the road season in October/November time this year, and see what happens.”
I asked him what if, hypothetically, there was no option, and he simply had to pick the possibility of an Olympic Gold medal against the chance of winning the Yellow Jersey next year. What would he do?
“I don’t really know, it’s a tough one,” he said, but after giving it some thought, he continued: “I know that next year the Olympics will be my priority. To compete in the Olympics in London and to attempt to win Gold at a home games is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. As great as the yellow jersey is, there are still plenty of opportunities to go for that in future years, but there’s only one chance at the London Olympics. So we’ll have to wait and see.”
Obviously it’s a decision Geraint will finally make with his Team at Sky and their Welsh manager Dave Brailsford, but their choice probably echoes in the words of Matt Busby when asked who he would leave out of a particular game if he ever had to pick just two out of George Best, Denis Law or Bobby Charlton. His reply apparently was “I have no idea, but it’s a nice problem to have.”
So how did a young lad from Cardiff get to a point in his career where the decisions he has to make are of such sporting magnitude? Where did it all begin? “I really just went along to the Maindy track initially and it just all went from there. I found out that they had a kids club starting up so I went along and just loved it. I was doing other sports at the time but just really got into the cycling. I was doing some swimming, but they wanted me to go in before school in the mornings to do that but I couldn’t hack that really, so I gave up the swimming and continued the cycling and it went from there. I think having the Maindy track just down the road from where I lived really helped and I’ve never really stopped since then.”
Around that time, Lance Armstrong was beginning his dominance of the sport, was he an inspiration for the young Thomas? “I was definitely aware of Lance but when I started watching the Tour in 1997 I remember watching Jan Ullrich win and he was the first guy I ever saw win and from that moment I always looked up to him. In the following years when he was getting beaten by Lance, I always wanted Jan to win – I think it was that sort of British love for the underdog coming through that meant I always wanted him to win.”
It must have been quite strange then to ultimately compete against the likes of Armstrong in the professional ranks: “It was crazy really,” Geraint enthused. “Obviously when Lance came back out of retirement and to race alongside him in the Tour and realizing what he’d achieved in the past was amazing. Having grown up watching him and then having him alongside and competing with him was really special.”
Geraint retains a fantastic innocent quality which is revealed when chatting to him, a quality that is sometimes lost when sports people clamber toward the top of the greasy pole of sporting success. He’s often seen supporting numerous charities and is even putting on his own track day on Mon 24th Oct at the Newport Velodrome. I asked him what it would entail.
“The Geraint Thomas Track Day is a day to get some kids down around the track to help them out and give them some tips and let them have a good time really. It’s taking place in half term so I hope lots will come down and hopefully it’ll give them something to do. I just loved doing stuff like that when I was a kid so I thought it would be a good thing to do to give a little back. There is also a session for adults in the morning and the kids’ sessions are in the afternoon. I am really looking forward to it!”
What sort of tips will he have for a 12-year-old budding Geraint Thomas?
“The most important thing of all is just to enjoy their cycling. Always try to ride with some mates or make some new friends and it can become quite a good social thing to be involved in. Just ride the bike as much as you can, have a look out for some local races and enter a few and see where it takes you. Whatever you do, don’t let it become a chore and feel like you have to go out in the cold and rain, because it becomes no good if it becomes a bit of a chore. So main advice is just really go out and enjoy it.”
Next up for Geraint is the Tour Of Britain, complete with a Welsh stage from Welshpool to Caerphilly on Wed 14 Sept. What are his thoughts on cycling back in his home country – a rare occurrence in a sport based almost entirely in mainland Europe? “It’s just really going to be great racing back at home. The support you get from the fans and especially knowing the home roads so well, especially those around Caerphilly will be great. With it being so close to my house means I can’t wait, as it’s really the first time that’s ever happened. It’s going to be special to be racing on my home roads and I’m really going to try to get a good result there.”
Then, just a few short weeks later, this busy sportsman will be off to Denmark for the World Championships in Copenhagen. When I asked him about his individual prospects of glory, the curious cycling loyalty came back to the surface. “I think Cav [Mark Cavendish] has got a really great chance of winning there so I think it’ll all be for him really. I’ll be looking to be as fit as I can be for that as I’ll be there at the end and whether I’ll be his last lead out man or second to last man, I’ll be looking to do a really great job for him there.”
So what of the longer term future for Geraint? It’s clear that Britain is in the middle of a golden age of road cycling, with the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish at its the fore; so I put it to him that despite their undoubted excellence, many sound judges predict that Geraint himself could become the best of the lot. Did that view put him under any pressure? “Well, I don’t really feel any added pressure when I hear things like that, and it’s obviously really nice to hear people say things like that about you. But to be honest, I try not to listen too much to the comments and I prefer just carrying on doing my own thing and keep working hard, keep doing the training that I’m doing and hopefully I’ll keep on improving and then we’ll just see how far we can go.”
Finally, I asked Geraint about the benchmark for every amateur cyclist: his time for the ten miles. I wasn’t embarrassed to tell him that mine was set this very summer, and I ignored his laughter when I doubted his was that much quicker than my 32 minutes and 36 seconds.
“Gosh, I don’t know actually” he replied with that mischievously competitive tone to his voice. “I haven’t done a 10 for years, since I was a kid. I think I did a 21 (minute), but that was when I was a junior or something, no I haven’t done one for years.”
But then, he gave the greatest clue during our conversation as to why people like Geraint Thomas get themselves in a position to make life decisions of the importance of whether to try to win the Tour De France, the London Olympics or both, when he finished our chat by saying “perhaps I’ll go out next weekend and do a 10 and find out.” If he does, my guess is it will be far lower than a 21.