Deb­bie Whar­ton

The coach who set Thomas on the path to great­ness tells David Brad­ford how it all be­gan with a chance en­counter

Cycling Weekly - - THOMAS -

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’”

“A quiet ring­leader” Early lau­rels for G

Thomas is just one Maindy Flyer who has hit the big time

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