Geraint Thomas usurped Chris Froome to win the 2018 Tour de France last week, but back when he was a teenager Jason Price was the only man he wanted to beat
Nowadays, he’s having to fight for supremacy among the leading lights of cycling – Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish and Tom Dumoulin.
Price was the Froome of emerging cycling stars back home in Wales around the turn of the century, and a teenage Thomas just could not beat his nemesis. Even when he did for the first time, it was when Price had the flu.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years though. Price, now 33, fell out of love with competitive cycling due to the intense pressure he felt as a teenager – he didn’t even get on a bike for a seven-year period at one stage and sold the eight he owned.
The 32-year-old Thomas, meanwhile, stayed in the saddle and continued to put in the hours, and it ultimately paid off after he won the sport’s grandest race in Paris last Sunday.
Price, from the tiny town of Llanwrtyd Wells in Mid Wales, would travel down to Cardiff as a 14-year-old to compete against the renowned CC Cardiff, Ajax CC and Maindy Flyers teams. And it was there, at the Welsh capital’s iconic Maindy Stadium, that Price first encountered a future Tour de France champion – not that you would instantly recognise the now famous Team Sky man.
“I knew him briefly. He was very quiet,” said Price, who now lives in Thomas’ home town of Cardiff where he works as a unit leader at a mental health facility.
“Quite a few of the boys were jokers and would try and put you off. But Geraint was always very quiet, concentrating on his racing.
“You could see he got it from his father. There were a lot of pushy parents encouraging their kids and his father was very calm and quiet on the side, so I think he got that from him.
“Probably every other weekend I used to race against him down in Cardiff for a good four years or so.
“He only ever beat me once and I was unlucky that time. Halfway through the meeting they postponed it because it started to rain.
“We had to come back the weekend after and I wasn’t very well at all, so I went from first to second in the rankings and he was the one who beat me.”
Back when Thomas and Price first crossed paths, in 1998, in the Under-13 boys category at the Welsh Schools Cycling Association Hill Climb Championships, Price topped the charts, finishing seven seconds ahead of nearest challenger Craig Cooke, with Thomas a gargantuan 36 seconds down in sixth place.
Mountain biking is the more popular form of cycling in the hills of Price’s native Mid Wales, but no-one else was keen on road or track cycling, so he would often travel down to Cardiff, as well as further afield to Plymouth and Manchester, in order to compete.
And he remembers that the locals in Cardiff didn’t take too kindly to this unknown outsider coming down and beating them all, convincingly.
“There was a divide with me being from Mid Wales and those boys all being from Cardiff,” Price recalls.
“I was the outsider and came from nowhere and started beating them. Some guy from the sticks beating them, they didn’t like that.
“They’d put in complaints because when I first started track racing I didn’t have a track bike. We had to rent one from Maindy Stadium and my dad took the pedals off my road bike and put them on the track bike.
“They whinged that I was doing that, then they’d whinge I was wearing a watch, stupid things. It was more the parents, I never heard anything from Geraint, he was as quiet as a mouse.”
A year later, however, Price remembers Thomas had cut the gap down dramatically. Perhaps sick of being beaten by this teenage titan from the middle of nowhere.
Price said: “It was ‘98 so I’d have been around 13 or 14 and he was a year younger so would have been 12 or 13.
“The first year I would beat him easily and then the following year he’d closed the gap dramatically to only about three seconds. That was about a 30-second decrease in time.
“I moved up an age category then and he started winning the U15s when I was in the Over 15s and he went from strength to strength.
“I’d say I beat him at least half a dozen times that first year. But by 2000 he’d massively progressed.”
Progress he certainly did. By 2004, aged 18, Thomas achieved his first major win, taking the scratch race title at the UCI Junior Track World Championships in Los Angeles.
From there the honours kept rolling in. A year later he joined British Cycling’s Olympic Academy. He won team pursuit gold for Great Britain at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and World Championships in the same year too.
After that he moved onto the road to try and find success, serving as a domestique to first Sir Bradley Wiggins and then Froome at Team Sky – playing a huge part in the Kenya-born behemoth’s four Tour de France wins and three in a row up until Thomas’ own victory.
Even before this year, signs began to show that Thomas was deserving of more spotlight.
He won the famous Paris-Nice race in 2016. He was triumphant at the Tour of the Alps in 2017 – the race’s first British champion – and became the first Welshman to win a stage at the Tour de France when he claimed victory on last year’s opening stage time trial.
He held the yellow jersey from Stage 1-4 before relinquishing it to Sky leader Froome, while his race was ended following a crash on Stage 9.
The Criterium du Dauphine title was hoisted in June – won by both Wiggins and Froome in previous Tour-winning years.
Price always believed Thomas had the talent, perhaps not on the road, but certainly on the track, but is surprised he’s been able to win cycling’s highest honour with Froome in the same team.
“He’s been the ultimate domestique. He’s done everything. He’s sacrificed the last four years for Wiggins and Froome. I always thought to win the Tour he’d have to leave Team Sky and do it somewhere else. It shocked me he’s done it,” said Price.
So what’s next? For Froome, 33, Price feels it would be wise to walk away from Sky, especially with all the controversy surrounding his salbutamol case in the wake of last year’s Vuelta a Espana victory. He believes it’s Thomas’ time to shine.
“I’d like to see him (Thomas) become team leader now,” he said.
“I think it’s his time and he should become the main man. He’s proved himself, this wasn’t a fluke. He looked totally calm throughout and didn’t crack.
“I think it’d be wise for him (Froome) to move on. Get clear of the controversy and a clean break from Sky.”