It’s every Commonwealth Games athlete’s worst nightmare – all that training, planning and dreaming only for calamity to strike in your last event before the big one. Claire Thomas was on a lonely country road in Lancashire three weeks ago, knowing that very soon she would be cycling in Glasgow with the city-centre pavements crammed with an excitable home crowd, when suddenly she skidded.
“It was pouring down, there was diesel on the road, tractors all around, we were on really thin tyres, I was the first one round this corner and – pow,” recalled Thomas. “So I was lying there with a fractured hip thinking: ‘This isn’t going to happen, the Games aren’t going to happen – they’re over.’
“We all saw Cav [Mark Cavendish] crashing in the Tour de France, reminding us how cruel this sport can be. It’s just something we have to live with. I think some road cyclists can be affected by crashes mentally and give up. I’ve had a few over the years and because of the timing this was the worst. But mentally I was strong enough.” She wasn’t going to miss Glasgow for anything.
Interesting character, Thomas. With her straggly blonde hair and loom bands, she looks the type who would be attracted to a club called Hunters Bog Trotters who on their website pride themselves on their unconventionality. But the Edinburgh-based Bog Trotters are runners, which is what Thomas used to do, before injury seven years ago – same part of the body – forced her to switch.
“It was really silly,” she explained. “I’m quite clumsy – left-handed, you know – and one night I was out running, training for the London Marathon, when I brushed against a skip. It was the pelvis again and because I was going so fast I fractured it.
“That was it, the marathon, everything – my running was over. The consultant said I’d just have to get on my bike. ‘But I haven’t got a bike’, I said. I’d never done any cycling. So I got a bike. I’m 41 so I started quite late but I found out I was quite good. In 2008 I was just getting used to riding but in 2009 I won the British Road Race Series. I was the British Masters champion and I won Scottish Road Race Series.”
Thomas now lives in Belgium, having moved there three years ago in search of better cycling and as a bonus she found love. “My partner Ronny Couliez was European cyclocross champion. We live in Oudenaarde which is a bit of a Mecca for cycling as it’s at the end of the Tour of Flanders. The training there is good with lots of races but it’s love that’s keeping me there because Ronny now teaches at a cycling school.”
Maybe the peak – in every sense – of her running career was finishing third in the 2005 Everest Marathon. That’s not a marathon sponsored by a well-known double-glazing firm but 26 and a bit miles on the rather large hillock of that name. “Well, not many people can go to Everest so I’m not sure how much of an achievement it was,” she said. “But the accommodation was really basic. We lived in huts, lit fires and didn’t have hot water. An amazing experience.”
In 2010, on her bike, Thomas was a member of the women’s road race team at the Delhi Commonwealth Games. “I’d been to India as a runner, I knew what it would be like so for me there was no culture shock. My job was to get the sprinter, Katie Cullen, to the end but it was a very flat course, very boring and there was no atmosphere because security didn’t allow people on the roadside. Usually in a road race there are lots of spectators, people coming to you afterwards to give you a drink – it’s almost like you’re famous. But in Delhi there was just these guys with machine-guns.”
No need for automatic weapons in Glasgow. Thomas has raced there and loved it. “I did the British Championships and going up the climbs I could hear shouts of ‘Claire, Claire!’ which was amazing. That kind of support really gives you a boost and I think it’s going to be even better come the Games.
“Look at the crowds for the Tour [de France] in England. I think Britain is embracing road cycling. After the London Olympics it really took off.” Now for Glasgow. “I hope we can get a medal but we’ll have to be clever. There are going to be marked riders like Katie Archibald who’s in the GB pursuit squad so we might have to play other cards. We’ve got sprinters but we don’t know if they’ll get their chance because it’s a very hard circuit. We have to make sure every eventually is covered.”
At least for Thomas there should be no tractors this time.