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Grant Thomas

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It was with much sadness that VeloVeritas heard of the passing of 70’s legend and former British Amateur Road Race Champion, Grant Thomas.

As our tribute to one of the coolest men ever to throw a leg over a racing bike we’d like to re-run our interview with the man. RIP, Grant.

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First published on May 31st, 2010

Team Raleigh’s Dan Fleeman has set the interview up for us, and 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.

Good words for riders from Viktor? They’re thin on the ground… Niko Eeckhout, Guy Smet, Hamish Haynes, Jack Bauer and maybe Jens Keukeleire get grudging acknowledgement. But there has to be someone he idolised, surely?

British amateur road race champion, winner of amateur Six Days and one of the best road men in Europe in the early 70’s. There were no budget airlines, no internet, no mobile phones – just the will to go and race against the best in the world.

As Viktor 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.

* * *

Early Days

Grant was involved in the local brass band as a lad, it was part of the culture that each mine would have it’s own band, but music wasn’t what inspired the youngster. “My dad saved cigarette cards and I remember looking through them and being fascinated by the racing cyclist ones“, but that’s only a part of why Grant wanted to become a racing cyclist himself. 

His dad was in the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the CTC, and Grant would often accompany him on weekend runs. “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. Thing is, we used to see the racing guys when we were out, you could identify them by the ice cream flags they used to roll their tubs in, under their saddles.

* * *

Early UK Racing

Grant’s racing went well, and he steadily progressed up through the ranks, so by 1968 he was short listed for the Mexico Olympics, on the track. “I hadn’t trained for the road, and 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 use the time to go training in the mornings.

In the late ’60’s, the top track riders of the day were Ian Hallam, Ron Keeble, Harry Jackson and Billy Whiteside, and Grant found himself in the team pursuit squad with them.

Grant Thomas
Grant Thomas, winning a Belgian kermis. 

However, in the event, Grant didn’t travel to Mexico for the Games. “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, and that was that.

* * *

Moving to Holland

In 1969, Grant had completed his HNC, and started to wonder what to do next, when fate took a turn; “When college was out of the way we’d heard that a clutch of Brummie guys had gone to Limburg in Holland to race.

Grant arranged to meet one of the guys, and he gave Grant a valuable first step – an address. “So Mick Bennett and I went off Holland, found the address and knocked on the door!

The day the two of them arrived in Holland, the fourth edition of the Amstel Gold Race was being run, with Guido Reybrouck leading a Belgian clean sweep of the first seven places. All the villages on the race route were “in feest”, in festival mood, “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.

Grant and Mick Bennet fixed up to stay with the family that evening, and that was it, they were organised. It was a culture shock as could be expected – not only living in a foreign country, but stepping up a level in the quality of the racing too. 

Nevertheless, Grant got himself noticed. “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 after that.

Ruys asked Grant; “what are you doing down here in Limburg? up in Brabant they ride twice as fast!

Grant Thomas
A very youthful looking Grant Thomas and Mick Bennet with their Six Day soigneur.

Grant got an invite to ride the Omloop Van Het Waasland, a race based around the Flemish region bordering the Netherlands to the north, who’s capital is Sint-Niklaas. “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 Grant lived with looked after him and treated him really well, “like a son. Eventually they even bought me a car to go to races in, an Opel.

Grant Thomas
On the track Grant Thomas was a stayer, but he had an effective sprint on the road.

Towards the end of the racing season, Grant decided to remain in Holland, rather than come back to England. 

Together with another English rider, Terry Carroll, they both went to work in the sugar beet factory in the area. “It was hard graft, humping sacks of pulp seven days a week – we used to call it the ‘Sugar campaign’.” 

Once the crop was processed for the day, the two of them would go out training. Sometimes, Grant would buy a train ticket and travel up to the Antwerp track for a session on the boards.

Grant Thomas
It wasn’t just the Belgian journalists that loved Grant Thomas.

* * *

Getting it Together

In 1970, Grant started to get it together, with a string of good results in major races; 16th in Het Volk, won by Frans Verbeeck, 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, so that got me a ride for them in ’71. It was strong team with precocious Dutch talent in it – guys like Cees Bal.

Grant Thomas
The local paper does a piece on the English lads, following Grant Thomas’ win in the Omloop van der Braakman.

For some reason Grant always had bad luck in the World Championships, and this year, with the Road Championships held in his own country, in Leicester, was no exception – Grant’s chain broke, ending his chances.

Three years later in Barcelona, a plastic bag jammed in his gears ensured the same end result. “I finished 1970 on a high though – 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.

Grant Thomas
Sport Expres run a background piece on Grant in 1971.

In 1971, Grant went well from the start of the season, gaining selection for the Great Britain team for the Tour of Holland, the Milk Race and the Scottish Milk Race. “Trico didn’t like me being away from my race programme with them, 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!

Grant Thomas
Track success for Grant Thomas and Mick Bennett. 

* * *

No Olympics

Sadly though, Grant picked up an injury over the winter, and by May ’72 he realised that any chance of an Olympic berth was gone, so instead he rode a lot of criteriums. “The primes were good – you could come away from a race with the equivalent of £100 Sterling – that was a lot of money, back then.

Grant tried to defend his title in the classic that he’d won for Trico the previous year but crashed whilst in the echelon and couldn’t get back on.

Grant Thomas
Another win, another interview in the paper – this time at Sheveningen.

* * *

British Champion in ’73

Grant’s form coming into the 1973 season was up and down, and his inconsistency could be put down to the problems he had experienced over the winter with his stomach, but as he told us, “but when you’re up against it you have to summon up more from the soul!

Riding the Felix Melchor stage race in Luxembourg seemed to be the turning point, and Grant felt he had some form following that, which he hoped to take into the British Championships. “I was in better shape, but I had a cold before the title race.

Grant followed every move in the Champs, determined not to miss the winning move. “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 before the line and I re-passed him to take the title.

Grant Thomas
Grant Thomas – 1973 British Champion.

It was around that time that Grant’s leg started to play up, and the following winter saw more problems for Grant, with him ending up in hospital with inflammation of the stomach, being kept in for for seven weeks and losing a lot of weight. “I got the all-clear late January but my weight kept dropping. I came back to England on holiday but I was a waste of space, I had no strength.

* * *

Back to Blighty

Riding for the Birmingham Roads team in the UK in ’75, Coventry Olympic in ’76, then the all-conquering GS Strada in ’77 and ’78, Grant did well but 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 c