GERAINT Thomas has seen it all on his bike. He has the medals and scars to prove it. He’s the double Olympic team pursuit champion who pedalled 2,000 miles with a fractured pelvis to help Team Sky’s talisman Chris Froome make Tour de France history last year. Yet even this selfless hero is surprised by the scale of this weekend’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire, the sheer number of cyclists on the region’s roads and the 1,000 bright yellow bicycles adorning roundabouts along the route. “It’s nuts here,” he observed.
Perhaps not the most eloquent words spoken by a top sportsman in the UK, their profoundness should not be under-estimated. Spoken from the heart, their rawness does, in fact, offer a unique perspective – from the saddle – on cycling’s journey into the public’s consciousness, the staggering enthusiasm for a sporting event without comparison in Yorkshire and how the whole country can benefit from an ethos that has seen Britain become the fastest nation on two wheels.
For, while the eyes of the world will inevitably be on Froome, and also star sprinter Mark Cavendish’s quest to win tomorrow’s opening stage in his mother’s home town of Harrogate, the eminently likable Thomas’s own story of success explains why cycling commands a higher profile than cricket and a host of other mainstream sports.
They’re important lessons about community initiatives, a winning mentality and having no regrets that should not go unnoticed ahead of a momentous weekend for sport in Yorkshire – and Britain.
Despite the pressures on the public finances, grassroots sport does matter – and don’t let any penny-pinching politician say otherwise. Even though this engaging Welshman went to the same state school as Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive footballer, and British and Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton, he is an accidental cyclist.
“I was going swimming at the local leisure centre and they had a kids’ club which had just started. I made friends and that was it,” recalled the 28-year-old. “When I was a kid, cycling was a niche sport. If your dad didn’t do it, or someone in your family, you didn’t get involved. It’s weird because everyone has a bike when they’re a kid.”
Sustained sporting success does also matter, another nod to those in charge of the nation’s purse-strings. Even though Thomas was already a junior world champion when the relatively unknown Jason Queally won an unexpected gold on day one of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he believes that victory at the velodrome – and the sheer simplicity of riders racing against the clock – began Britain’s cycling revolution and helped to power record levels of interest in the sport.
“It started with the track. Definitely. Focusing on the timed events, you knew where you were or what you had to do. It was against the clock, the public could understand that. In Sydney, we were successful. In Beijing, we couldn’t have done better – the sprinters won everything. Between Beijing and London, you had Cav winning 20-odd stages of the Tour and Wiggo (Sir Bradley Wiggins) doing his thing. Then Froomey. Crazy. The more it is on the TV, and in the papers, the more people become aware of cycling and say ‘I’ll watch it’ and then get their kids involved.”
As such, Thomas’s advice to children as millions of spectators prepare to line the route of the Tour’s first two stages could not be more simple – or to the point. “Do it with mates,” he says. “It’s a great way to get outside. It’s a bit of adventure when you’re young and you go even five miles away. If you want to race, look up your club on the internet. See what is out there. Meet people and away you go.”
In other words, parents need to be encouraged to embrace cycling and local councils should, in my opinion, make sure every future planning applications passes a cycle-friendliness test – just because there is more traffic on the road must not be a barrier to children being able to ride for fun.
Yet it is the team dynamic to cycling that so resonates with Thomas, who uses a footballing analogy to describe his sacrificial role as one of the cogs, albeit an important one, within Team Sky’s wheel of success. “Froomey is the striker – I’d say our Wayne Rooney, but I’d better not after the World Cup. More your Robin van Persie! The rest of the team are there to support him and set him up. It is all geared to keeping him out of trouble, protecting him from the cross winds, and conserving as much energy as possible for the big climbs.”
If only England’s footballers appreciated this – and recognised the sacrifices that cyclists make for their team in a sport that Thomas likens, at times, to “chess on wheels” because of the tactics. On the opening stage of last year’s Tour in Corsica, Thomas fractured his pelvis during a pile-up. Paris was still three weeks and 2,000 miles away. He refused to give up, an attitude that puts to shame those molly-coddled footballers who feign injury at every tackle.
“I saw it as a challenge to see what I could do,” he says. “All that commitment, all that training, and to crash on day one. The first five days were the worst. The boys got a lot from me just getting through. It was just excruciating. I could pedal, it was ok. It was the top part of my pelvis. My whole left side and hip was beaten up so I couldn’t get much power out of the left. I was pedalling with one leg. I couldn’t really get out of the saddle for the whole race. People told me to stop, my mum said it would be ok if I did, but I couldn’t because I knew I could help later in the race.”
He did. In an astonishing act of sporting defiance, the virtually one-legged Thomas surged to the front of the peloton to join Froome and team-mate Richie Porte. “Not dead yet?” remarked Froome rather sarcastically. “Go on, boys,” roared Thomas. Froome’s recently-published autobiography, The Climb, puts this contribution into even more painful perspective: “There was a crack in his pelvis; on the X-ray, it looked like a river. For normal people, this would mean ceasing all activity. For G it meant somebody had to give him a hand getting his leg over the saddle. After about five or six kilometres riding on the big open promenade, Geraint started moving up through the line. He came and did a turn; he sustained our high speed. What a lift. He filtered back through the line, roaring in his Welsh accent ‘Let’s have it! Gooo on! We’re gonna do this!’ There was a buzz... he’d left us with no excuses.”
Unsurprisingly, Thomas’s objective tomorrow is a modest one: “Just stay upright and not crash.” His mum, for one, will be relieved. His second wish is for Mark Cavendish to win the sprint finish – and Chris Froome to emerge unscathed from the Yorkshire Dales. And his third priority is perhaps the most profound.
“For people of all ages to realise the enjoyment and pleasure that cycling can provide. Just get on your bike and see where it takes you.”
It’s what Geraint Thomas did and his reward is a money-can’t-buy seat for the Grand Départ – on the back of his very own racing bicycle. And it could be one of this weekend’s young spectators if the Tour creates a lasting legacy.