Everyone at PEZ are sorry to hear of the passing of Grant Thomas. British amateur road race champion, winner of amateur six days and one of the best road men in Europe, in the early 70’s. Ed Hood interviewed Grant way back in 2010. Here is our tribute to a great champion.
The late Grant Thomas and Dan Fleeman
Dan Fleeman has set the interview up for us, we’re sitting in the “Hotel Anonymous” in Walsall. A dapper, trim figure in blazer and slacks bounds up the stairs; it takes a moment to register – it’s our man, Grant Thomas.
There were no budget airlines, no Internet, no mobile phones – just the will to go and race against the best in the world. As Vik put it; ‘he was the coolest – nobody looked better on a bike than Grant Thomas, he was everything I wanted to be in a cyclist.’
Good words for riders from Viktor? They’re thin on the ground, Niko Eeckhout, Guy Smet, Hamish Haynes, Jack Bauer and maybe Jens Keukeleire. But there has to be someone he idolised, surely? Indeed, it was Grant Thomas.
PEZ: What got you into cycling, Grant?
Grant: My dad saved cigarette cards and I remember looking through them and being fascinated by the racing cyclist ones. But my dad was also in the CTC, I would go out on runs with him, we’d go down to Weston-Super-Mare at 20 mph average. Walsall was a mining village and every lad had a bike, if you didn’t, you were cooped up, here.
I was also involved with the brass band, back then that was a big part of the mine culture. We used to see the racing guys – you could identify them by the ice cream flags they used to roll their tubs in, under their saddles.
PEZ: Tell us a little about your early UK racing.
I progressed up through the ranks and by 1968 I was short listed for the Mexico Olympics, on the track. I hadn’t trained for the road, I had to fit the bike in around studying for my HNC; we got holidays from college to study for the exams and I’d train in the mornings. I was on the team pursuit squad with Ian Hallam, Ron Keeble, Harry Jackson, Billy Whiteside, the top British track riders of the day. In the event, I didn’t travel to Mexico, we had a trial, the squad was divided in two and we did a full distance team pursuit – 4:36 was the target. I think my team did 4:42 to the other team’s 4:38.
PEZ: What about the move to Holland?
In 1969, my HNC was out of the way and we’d heard a clutch of Brummie guys had gone to Limburg in Holland to race. We arranged to meet one of the guys and he gave us an address. So Mick Bennett and I went off Holland, found the address and knocked on the door! It was the day of the Amstel Gold but Mick wondered if all the flags were out for us. The family were having their tea when we arrived and I think they gave us some chips. We fixed up to stay with them, that evening and we were organised.
It was a culture shock, it always is when you go up a level but I managed to scrape a top 20 in the Tour of Limburg; that caught the eye of the promoter, Charles Ruys and I got invited to ride some omniums.
He said; “what are you doing down here in Limburg? Up in Brabant they ride twice as fast!”
I got an invite to ride the Omloop Van Waasland and we decided to move up to North Holland and got fixed up in lodgings at a village called Philippine. It was so small that when we first drove through it, we missed it, we had to turn the car and go back! The family I lived with treated me like a son; eventually they bought me a car to go to races in, an Opel. Another English rider, Terry Carroll was in the area and when the season finished we both went to work in the sugar beet factory, there. It was hard graft, humping sacks of pulp seven-days-a-week – we used to call it the “Sugar campaign.” When the crop was processed, we’d start training. I’d buy a train ticket and go up and train on the Antwerp track.
PEZ: You started to get it together in ’70, didn’t you?
I was 16th in Het Volk, 3rd in the Ronde Mid Zeeland, 3rd in the amateur Henninger Turm and 10th in the ‘trial’ race on the Olympic circuit at Munich. I guested for the Trico Noble team and won a race for them in Luxembourg, that got me a ride for them in ’71. It was a strong team with precocious Dutch talent in it – guys like Cees Bal.
PEZ: You rode the Worlds that year, too?
I always had bad luck in the Worlds, in ’70 my chain broke at Leicester and in ’73 at Barcelona I got a plastic bag jammed in my gears.
I finished 1970 on a high – I got 8th, 3rd and 2nd in three late season Dutch classics. To be honest, it wasn’t as hard towards the end of the season – in the spring, they’re all keen and raring to go; but it got me a lot of praise from the Wielersport magazine.
PEZ: How did ’71 go with Trico Noble?
It went well, I got GB selection for the Tour of Holland, Milk Race and Scottish Milk Race. Trico didn’t like me being away but I won the big local classic for them so that made amends. In fact, the boss was so happy with me that he took me to Yugoslavia on holiday with him!
PEZ: No ’72 Olympics, though?
I picked up an injury in the winter of ’71 and by May my Olympic chances were gone. I rode a lot of crits; the primes were good – you could come away from a race with the equivalent of Ј100 Sterling – that was a lot of money, back then. I made the effort to defend the classic I’d won for Trico, the previous year but I crashed whilst in the echelon and couldn’t get back.
PEZ: British amateur road champion in ’73.
I had problems with my stomach over the winter of ’72 and my form wasn’t so good – it was up and down. But when you’re up against it you have to summon up more from the soul! I rode the Felix Melchor stage race in Luxembourg and felt I had some form there. But I had a cold before the title race – I went with everything that day, I wasn’t the strongest but I think I was the smartest. Dave Vose from the very strong Kirkby club came past me in the uphill sprint, but he died and I re passed him to take the title. But my leg started to play up around that time, too.
The following season wasn’t a good one, I ended up in hospital over the winter in ’73 – inflammation of the stomach.
I was in for seven weeks and lost a lot of weight.
I got the all clear late January or early December but my weight kept dropping. I came back to England on holiday but I was a waste of space, I had no strength.
I rode for Birmingham Roads in the UK in ’75, Coventry Olympic in ’76 then GS Strada in ’77 and ’78 but I was never the same again. It’s like Pijnen said he was never the same rider after he had problems with his tonsils and Merckx was never the same after he had that crash behind the motor bike on the track.
And racing in the UK isn’t like riding on the continent, it’s hard to get the motivation. I didn’t go back to Holland because I didn’t feel that I had the brute strength I used to have; although I did spend the winter of ’77 in Philippine, but the spark was gone.
PEZ: You rode pro in the UK but never Holland.
In ’79 I turned pro for Falcon but it’s hard to get motivated when there’s 18 or 20 of you lining up for a 90 mile road race. The 1980 season opener was at Aintree in Liverpool and I decided not to bother – I was working within two weeks. The UK pro scene was Mickey Mouse, mostly short criteriums on tiny circuits.
As for turning pro in Holland, I was 23 when I went, the likes of Bal, Raas and Priem were only 18-19-20; I could mix it with them but I was at my limit. If I hadn’t been ill when the Raleigh Euro Team started up, I might have considered that.
Grant Thomas and Mick Bennett
PEZ: You and Mick Bennett won the amateur Rotterdam Six.
Mick was a class act, we’d trained for the race, ridden Brussels and Gent. I had the staying power and Mick had the zip.
PEZ: What came after cycling?
I went to college and became qualified in work study; a system called PMTS – pre determined motion time systems. If anyone needs someone qualified in that then let me know!
PEZ: What do you think about Team Sky?
I’m well impressed, they’re doing it properly, not like the ANC and McCartney set ups. I think Brailsford is taking a lot on with the road and track – but I think he’s a world champion manager. Some of the pro teams are a farce, when I was with Falcon we were going to a race and one of the lads was to get picked up at a service station on the motorway, but they forgot to get him. At the start, the manager was saying; ‘where’s Keith?’
Riding the track in the winter, I was doing 75 races each season then riding the winter tracks. I should have rested – Kuiper wouldn’t ride the track in the winter, he knew his system needed to recover. The twisting that you do as you change in the madisons exacerbated the problems I had with my legs, I’m sure of that. But I just had such a passion for the madison – it kept driving me through the winter. And of course, I didn’t want to disappoint Mick and my sponsors.
# His voice tails off and it’s time for us to go – but it was a privilege to spend an afternoon in the company of a man who went out and did what the others just dreamed about. Rest in peace champion. #