The coach who set Thomas on the path to greatness tells David Bradford how it all began with a chance encounter
If it hadn’t been for Debbie Wharton, Geraint Thomas might never have pinned on a race number, let alone become a Grand Tour winner. Wharton was the driving force behind resurrecting the cycling track at the Thomas family’s local leisure centre in Maindy, Cardiff. Just by chance, one day in the late-nineties, action taking place on the track caught young Geraint’s attention.
“He’d been to the leisure centre for a swimming lesson while we were running a session on the track for some little kids,” remembers Wharton. “When he came out from the pool with his dad, they had a look over the fence — and came back a few days later asking to have a go. It just went from there.”
Thomas was 10 at the time, and the Maindy track had only been back in use for a short while. Does she remember what Thomas was like in those early days?
“Yeah, he was a real little character,” Wharton laughs. “You know how he is now — dry, a really dry sense of humour? That’s exactly how he was as a child. He was very popular, quite a ringleader, but in a very quiet way. The other kids all looked up to him.” And was he exceptionally capable on a bike from the start? “No, I wouldn’t say so. He was just another member of the club — not particularly fantastic at the time. But he sat on the bike really nicely — not wobbly like some children — but he wasn’t unique in that.”
The young Thomas loved being on a bike and jumped at the chance to compete, but didn’t yet stand out as a natural born racer. “For quite a while he couldn’t ride in a bunch properly,” recalls Wharton. “He’d always hang off the back and then start the sprint from the back of the bunch.”
The turning point came when Thomas was 13. He had travelled with Maindy Flyers to Manchester velodrome for the national junior championships, and decided to race the 500m time trial in the under-16 boys class, just for the experience.
“He was wearing a baggy Maindy Flyers jersey tucked into his cycling shorts,” remembers Wharton, “and I think we borrowed an aero helmet off Scunthorpe Poly — we didn’t have any of that sort of equipment.”
Against all expectations, Thomas took the bronze medal.
“On the podium he looked tiny compared to the other two boys. He was 13, whereas they were 15 or 16 — far more muscular and developed.”
The stunning performance attracted attention, not only to Thomas but also to the little-known Welsh club that he represented.
“People sat up then and said, ‘Wow,
who is this? Who are these Maindy Flyers? They’re really quick.’”
Though producing head-turning performances, the club wasn’t getting ahead of itself; it remained a facility for having a go, building fitness through friendly enjoyment.
“Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought that in 20 years time we would have a Tour de France winner. It just wasn’t on the radar. It was just kids coming and having a bit of fun — being able to ride their bikes, enjoy the sport and progress naturally.”
Maindy Flyers has nonetheless carved out a reputation as something of a talent factory, having launched the careers of multiple champions, including the
Rowe brothers, Barker sisters and Owain Doull. Whereas 20 years ago, the club was struggling to recruit members, it now has a waiting list. Post-tour publicity provided a further boost, as did a visit from Team Sky prior to the Tour of Britain.
“The [Sky] riders all came to the track and met the kids, signed autographs and rode around the track with them. It was just amazing.”
This direct contact between pros and aspiring youngsters is a unique and precious feature of cycling, believes Wharton: “You wouldn’t see Premier League football players coming and doing that sort of thing, whereas in cycling you can get up close.”
Wharton remembers Thomas as a junior making the most of this open, comradely environment. “Chris Hoy and Craig Mclean were big on the Olympics scene back then, and at track events Geraint and the other kids would go and speak to them and borrow tools or whatever.”
How does it feel for Wharton having started something that, despite its modest aims, ended up having seismic effects on the nation’s cycling?
“It all just feels a bit surreal,” she says, casting her mind back to that time Thomas first set eyes on a cycling track — and raising a big ‘what if?’.
“He saw something happening and thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that.’ That’s just by chance. I don’t think he would have found cycling otherwise.”
Wharton is too modest to acknowledge it, but the truth is, her hard work played a pivotal role. “So, yeah,” she humbly concludes, “how lucky are we?”
“He saw something happening and thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that’”
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