At approximately 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, Geoff Thomas will assemble with 17 other cyclists across the Channel in Brittany, ready to take on one of the most daunting sporting challenges in existence.
To cycle the Tour de France a week before the professionals – all 21 stages, all 3, 384 kilometres.
It is often described as the opportunity of a lifetime.
For Thomas however, this will be his fifth Tour de France, all part of an extraordinary fundraising drive to support leukaemia patients which earned him an MBE in the Queen’s Honours List at the weekend.
Taking to the saddle alongside 17 other ‘amateur’ cyclists aiming to raise a total of £1million for the Cure Leukaemia charity, a huge range of emotions will flood through Thomas’s mind.
Relief, for starters. The event was understandably postponed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and this year’s rearranged date was thrown into jeopardy due to a change in French travel restrictions which thankfully then relaxed again just a fortnight before the start.
Nerves? Not really. Perhaps a slight concern as to whether he has done enough training, but that is always the case. And he is confident that he has.
Mainly, as the leader of the pack, the ‘captain’ to slip into footballing parlance, the focus will be on rousing the troops, ensuring they are in the right frame of mind, and then watching them savour their first Tour experience, creating their own stories.
And when the event is underway, and the unavoidable physical and mental rigours take their toll at various stages even for a cyclist as experienced as Thomas, another strong feeling of motivation will come into play.
The memory of fellow patients whom, one day, received the dreaded diagnosis that they were suffering from blood cancer. And those who will receive it in the future.
For Thomas, the challenge, the fundraising, it’s personal. The continuing of a lengthy and painstaking crusade working alongside the Professor who helped him back to health and the Cure Leukaemia charity now funding a national network of Trials Acceleration Programme (TAP) centres which, every week, are saving lives.
That will be his motivation. His drive. The push amid the pain. And, in particular, the memory of those who sadly didn’t make it.
“Yes I do think of those patients who we have lost along the way,” the 56-year-old says quietly.
“Those people are never too far away from my thoughts.
“I think back to all the patients I have met – far too many – who are no longer with us and they are a constant reminder if I am feeling low, or ratty with things, or struggling on the bike.
“It soon gets me back into shape and my mind back on the job, knowing the importance of what we are doing.
“This is what we want to put right, we don’t want to have any more ‘if only’ stories.
“We want things to happen now and put things in place so more and more blood cancer patients have hope and have it right now, not next year or the year after.”
It was back in 2005 that Thomas went into remission for leukaemia and last year’s Tour had been planned to mark that 15thanniversary.
It had been two years earlier that the former Wolves, Crystal Palace and England midfielder had been diagnosed with the disease.
That takes us back to July, 2003, little over a year after Thomas had brought the curtain down on his footballing career by scoring for Crewe – ending his career where it had effectively taken off – in a 4-2 win at Rotherham.
He had been suffering with night sweats, losing weight, fatigue and breathlessness although, as is the case with many, it still took him time to visit his GP.
After a series of blood tests he was called just hours later and asked to return immediately to the surgery.
Stuck in a traffic jam Thomas knew he wouldn’t have time before it closed and agreed to be told the news over the telephone.
And that was when he was informed that he had chronic myeloid leukaemia.
There were tears, understandably, as he somehow managed to break the news to wife Julie.
The couple’s two daughters, Madison and Georgia, were aged ten and seven at the time.
It was undoubtedly difficult to believe that someone who had barely been ill since suffering from tonsillitis at the age of seven – who had reached the heights for club and country in a football career which necessitated an extraordinary level of strength and fitness, was suddenly finding himself facing the biggest battle of all.
But cancer is indiscriminate. Backgrounds, fitness, even health status, sometimes mean little.
It was at this point that Thomas would meet the force of nature that is Birmingham-based top haematology consultant, Professor Charlie Craddock.
He told Thomas that with his blood count levels as they were, he only had three months to live.
With immediate treatment, his life expectancy would be extended to around three years, but what he really needed, for a more optimistic long-term outlook, was a bone marrow transplant.
Remarkably, given it was a one-in-five chance, Thomas’s older sister Kay proved a match, and that meant he had a chance.
There was still the small matter of a surgical procedure similar to dialysis to lower Thomas’s white cell count before a course of chemotherapy.
With the prognosis even for the transplant not entirely clear, the family enjoyed Christmas and New Year in Mauritius before the operation took place.
Thomas feared it could be his final holiday.
The first attempt to harvest Kay’s cells proved unsuccessful, but the next day the procedure worked.
Gradually, slowly but surely, Thomas’s white cell count increased, and even though it took many more months to return to anything like feeling normal, the news was good, and he went into remission.
“When you get a diagnosis like that you are just in darkness for a good few days,” he recalls.
“I was trying to grab as much information about what I was going through and what lay ahead, looking for positives, but at that time, with my particular illness, there weren’t an awful lot.
“I was reading various books, taking heart from people who had come through the other side in their battles.
“It is a tough time but when I look back that is when I was grateful for the brutal honesty that I received from Charlie and the nurses and doctors around me.
“I don’t know if it is like this with other illnesses, but with blood cancer you do seem to build a relationship with the medical professionals and friendships as well – it feels like it (treatment centre) almost becomes your second home.
“It is incredible that they can treat my illness with a daily tablet now, but back then my only real hope was the transplant.
“The fact that Kay was a match gave me a chance, and fortunately, even with a long and difficult process of recovery afterwards, eventually I went into remission.”
That fellowship and strength in togetherness between the medical community and cancer patients extended to Thomas and Craddock, who became firm friends, not to mention pioneers.
Craddock would tell Thomas of his frustrations and the restrictions that he felt were placed on him and other experts due to a lack of funding.
“Charlie felt like he had his hands tied behind his back, constantly being knocked back for funding which could have improved the outcomes for blood cancer patients,” says Thomas.
“I just felt that maybe, with the profile I still had from football, there might be an opportunity there to help him deliver his vision.”
It is worth pausing to remember that profile and that career, because it was certainly some career, even if the few years at Molineux were struck by misfortune when a fair wind could have propelled Wolves- and Thomas – into a completely different direction.
Thomas had begun his working life as an electrician before taking a gamble to become a professional footballer with Rochdale, then moving to Crewe where he excelled to secure a breakthrough move to Crystal Palace just prior to turning 23.
That went well. Exceptionally well.
First season, Player of the Year. Second season, promotion to the top flight. Third? Captaining Palace to an exhilarating FA Cup Final with Manchester United and tight defeat in the replay. Followed next time out by a third place finish which remains the highest in the Eagles’ history.
With team-mates such as Nigel Martyn in goal, Andy Gray alongside in midfield, Ian Wright and Mark Bright up front – Palace enjoyed a momentous rise.
“There was pressure when I joined Palace, especially as I had replaced a very popular player in Kevin ‘Tinker’ Taylor,” Thomas recalls.
“My first home game was against Middlesbrough, and I scored a goal, quite a good one even if I do say so myself, and it just settled myself and everyone down.
“It was a great start and from there it just kept on growing, it was such a good dressing room and such a good time.”
But having finished third, the return of Liverpool to European competition after their ban denied the Eagles the chance to spread their wings across the continent and, with it, the possibility of fresh investment, to push on.
Success had been helped by the explosion onto the scene of Wright, but he was snapped up by Arsenal, the squad started to disintegrate and, two seasons after finishing third, Palace were relegated.
“It all started to dwindle away and, as every football fan knows, success can sometimes be really fleeting,” says Thomas.
“It can then become a real graft to survive, so you have to enjoy the good times when they come.”
With Palace relegated, Thomas was looking for pastures new, and, as a senior figure and England international, he wasn’t short of admirers.
Manchester City – his boyhood favourites – were interested. So too Newcastle, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton.
But for Thomas, there were no doubts. On this very week back in 1993, he chose Wolves.
“I was at a period of my career when I really needed to make the right choice,” he explains.
“The year before Blackburn had come in and offered £3million for me, and they went on later to win the Premier League.
“I thought Wolves had that sort of potential, to get promoted and go on and challenge at the top half of the top division.
“Graham Turner was really keen and kept phoning me wanting me to join, and the Hayward family were an influence as well.
“The day I signed I met Billy Wright, an icon not just at Wolves but throughout football, which was amazing.
“The club had a sense of history around it, and it felt for me like the right package at the time, to go to an up-and-coming club where I could perhaps influence the team more than anywhere else.”
Thomas’s Wolves debut came on the opening day of the 1993/94 season. That time in Wolves’ recent history? To coin an ever-growing phrase: ‘If you know you know.’
After all, Molineux’s redevelopment was almost complete. Thomas was joined in the starting line-up by fellow new signings Kevin Keen and David Kelly, and Cyrille Regis came off the bench. Steve Bull scored twice, Wolves won 3-1. And how the sun shone. The optimism was palpable.
Thomas agrees: “A bright sunny day, a good win, and it just felt like something was getting started that day.
“It felt like the next step for Wolves was going to be massive, Graham had put a good squad together and the infrastructure was ready.”
Thomas made a fast start to life at Wolves, and was just the sort of dominant midfielder which the club had been crying out for.
He also chipped in with four goals in his first eight games, including a superb solo effort away at Sunderland, only for a misfortune completely not of his own making to swiftly follow.
The challenge from Lee Howey which so seriously affected Thomas’s career is still talked about by Wolves fans to this day, and while the man himself has experienced enough since not to spend too much time holding grudges, clearly it had an impact.
“Yes I would say I still think about it, because what happened at Wolves was one of my biggest regrets in football,” he says.
“Getting injured at Sunderland wasn’t in my control, it wasn’t me going in for a silly tackle, I was the victim of a blatant bad foul.
“We had gone 2-0 up, I had scored a goal I was really proud of which I celebrated with the fans.
“That’s football – it happens – but I was pretty much out for two seasons trying to get my knee right and I always have that regret that I couldn’t play a part in the next step for Wolves.”
Over four years Thomas made 56 appearances for Wolves, scoring eight goals.
Having missed out on the play-offs in the following season he did return for the next attempt when the semi-finals of 1996/97 paired Wolves, ironically, with Palace in the semi-finals.
Thomas had already scored a winner for Wolves at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, but this time there was more crushing disappointment as despite an incredible Molineux atmosphere in the second leg, a 2-1 victory wasn’t enough to overhaul the 3-1 deficit at the start of the night.
“We had been doing alright in that first leg but then Dougie Freedman popped up with two wonder goals,” says Thomas.
“We were still confident we could get it back and the atmosphere at Molineux that night was electric, one of the best I ever played in.
“It was against my old club, and I was desperate to get Wolves into that final and take them to Wembley.
“We just came up short, and it felt like a relegation walking off that pitch, particularly as I knew it was probably going to be my last game for the club.
“And it is one of my biggest regrets in football – not fulfilling everyone’s dream of getting Wolves into the top flight.
“I have mentioned the history, but then the staff around the place were brilliant as well.
“I remember good old Graham (Hughes), making us all cups of tea, it felt like a family and it felt like we were going places.
“It just didn’t happen but Wolves is a great club and I still look back on my time and say I really enjoyed it, despite the injuries.
“I think Wolves fans always respect seeing people putting a shift in, week in week out, giving their all.
“It is sad that we just couldn’t take that final step, but they have certainly got a team they can be proud of now.”
Thomas did move on and play for Nottingham Forest, Barnsley and Notts County before returning to Crewe, and whilst at Wolves, he had started investing in a string of fashion shops with a view to a post-playing career in the retail industry.
Then came the diagnosis and, after successful treatment, that new direction and desire to make an impact in a completely different environment.
In 2005, just a few months after being declared in remission, Thomas completed his first Tour de France, tackling each stage a day before the professionals.
Since then he has completed the Tour on a further three occasions, as well as a host of other cycling challenges, all designed to raise funds and awareness for those affected by blood cancer.
It isn’t easy, as you would expect, and previous Tours have included picking up a lung infection which led to him coughing up blood not to mention heatstroke and a serious crash.
“Of course it is tough, but I felt that I needed to do something extreme to make an impact, to be listened to and to get the charity’s message out there,” he insists.
“And, most importantly, to raise money.
“From the time in 2005 I started getting on a bike, it feels like I have become attached to it as much as I have a football.
“The world of cycling is very different now to how it was all those years ago – back then the Tour de France was a race that might be on in the background but now it has exploded and so many people want to do challenges like this.
“We have found a format that allows us to put on a great event, to give people the chance to do something they have always dreamed of, whilst creating a platform to raise awareness and get people on board with the messages of the charity.
“We have to try and deliver as much support as we can to Charlie and his counterparts up and down the UK.”
As a charity, Cure Leukaemia is small and lean in numbers, but big on influence, having gone national two years ago in funding those 12 TAP centres across the country which provide clinical trials for patients unable to be helped by standard treatments.
They also became the Tour de France’s first ever official charity partner, meaning that the forthcoming event will be repeated in 2022 and 2023 – and places are available to take part.
Leukaemia is a disease which has often sadly touched the world of football, and also Wolves, including via young Toby Craddock, the son of former defender Jody, now thankfully several years in remission, and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, also now happily in remission after being diagnosed in 2017.
On both occasions the Wolves fanbase responded incredibly, with a host of fundraising events including the 24-hour penalty shootout organised by supporter Steve Plant ahead of the first home game of the season following Ikeme’s diagnosis.
The world of football has also supported Thomas in his work with Cure Leukaemia, particularly through his fellow patron Ben Foster – obviously a Wolves fans’ favourite! – and others including England boss Gareth Southgate, a former team-mate at Palace, and former striker-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker, a former colleague with England.
Ex-players of a Wolves persuasion have also rolled back the years by taking part in the charity’s Copa Del CL tournaments at St George’s Park, including Craddock, Karl Henry, Kevin Foley, Stephen Hunt, Matt Murray and Lee Naylor.
Like many charities, Cure Leukaemia has suffered from a loss of fundraising during the pandemic thus increasing the importance of the next few weeks even further.
It will also, Thomas has vowed, be his last Tour de France.
“Yes, I want this to be the last one for me – I’m getting on a bit now,” he laughs.
“But that also means I want to try and enjoy it as much as is possible as well.
“I also find that watching others taking it on for the first time is just as fulfilling, seeing how their own stories evolve, and that crescendo when we come to the finish in Paris with all those different emotions.
“We have all sorts of different characters coming together in the team which feels a bit like a football dressing room.
“It can be explosive at times, it can be full of humour, even tearful, but it is all about supporting each other.
“It is three weeks of all sorts, but the emotional finish in Paris at the end is something that has always been amazing, every single time I have done it.”
If this does indeed prove to be Thomas’s fifth and final Tour de France, he too could be forgiven for feeling slightly emotional riding down the Champs Elysees.
He admits that his leukaemia diagnosis changed him, for the better, which is why his post-football career took such a different path to what it might otherwise have been.
“A fellow blood cancer patient summed it up perfectly for me,” explains Thomas, now enjoying life in the Worcestershire countryside not just with family but an assortment of pets!
“You would never ever wish on anyone what we have been through, but we are glad to have come through it.
“It teaches you about what is really important in life, and resets your targets and aims.
“Life becomes totally different to what it was before, and in a positive way.
“Health is important, and if you don’t have that then not a lot else matters.
“For me, like so many, family is number one, and I just wanted to be around for Julie – who was incredible during my treatment – and our girls.
“To have been able to watch them grow up and experience life to the full – I am eternally grateful that I have been given that opportunity and I don’t want to waste it.
“I would never have imagined at the end of my football career to be sat at home now with geese, chickens and ducks in the garden to deal with!
“So yes, life has got a lot more colourful than it might have been.”
Thomas sets off on the Tour as England get into the thick of their own challenge with Euro 2020, offering a little reminder as mentioned earlier that he too reached the pinnacle of the sport by being capped by his country.
His international debut came against Turkey 30 years ago last month and he remains proud of England remaining unbeaten during his nine appearances.
There is of course one particular Three Lions memory which has lingered to this day, which came on his final outing against France in February, 1992, the game when Alan Shearer made his debut.
Perfectly springing the offside trap, Thomas latched on to a pass from Lineker, steadied himself, and then tried to chip French keeper Gilles Rousset.
As the clip which has since been viewed millions of times and pops up every year on social media shows, it’s fair to say Thomas didn’t quite catch it right as the ball skewed away in the direction of the corner flag rather than the goal.
He doesn’t shy away from being asked about it!
“You are soon forgotten in football when the next generation comes through,” comes the reply.
“At least the chip is something I am remembered for – I think I have somehow managed, not intentionally, to do something that means my name crops up quite regularly!
“Well, usually when someone hoofs one over the bar or something similar.
“You have to turn it into a positive, and I’ve got thick skin, although it would probably have to have been a lot thicker if social media had been around then!”
As much he will perhaps be remembered for that chance against France – and is fully capable of seeing the funny side – it is not France but the Tour de France both previously and over the coming weeks via which Thomas continues to craft an enduring legacy.
He was the sort of captain all Wolves fans – all football fans – love to watch.
Proud, hard-working, fiercely determined, single-minded, a leader.
All characteristics he has taken on to this new calling to improve the life chances of those who find themselves on the brink of devastation, but whom, with funding and support, could still be given so much hope.
Geoff Thomas MBE. A fitting tribute. One for which he feels extremely humbled.
But as he takes his place once again on the start line this weekend, and battles through the trials and tribulations of the coming weeks, even when he pedals down the Champs Elysees for one final time on July 11th, you get the impression he still feels he has so much more work to be done.
- To help Geoff and The Tour 21 raise £1m by making a donation, visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Geoff-GT-15
- Are you a cyclist who fancies getting involved yourself then why not sign up for The Tour 21 ‘virtual’ challenge? visit https://www.strava.com/challenges/2484