Paris — A few weeks ago, Mike and Irene Thomson walked up a mountain for three hours, battling through the heat of a hard summer’s day in France. They ascended the Alpe d’Huez to watch their son Jay Thomson as he realised his dream of riding in the Tour de France.
"That was a hard walk," Mike Thomson said in Lourdes before the 19th stage on Friday morning. "There were a couple of times when the wife wanted to stop and stand under a tree, but I wanted to get to Dutch Corner, because it is so famous on the Tour, for when Jay came past. So, we kept on going."
Jay Thomson has kept on going through a career that has had its unfair share of hardship and fair share of reward. He has won races, national and continental titles, ridden for his country, but he has also known tough times, when there was little money and the Tour de France seemed an impossible distance away. On Sunday, on the Champs Elysees, Thomson and his Team Dimension Data colleagues finished a Tour de France that has been the hardest of the four they had competed in since their first in 2015.
Thomson’s selection to the Tour team was just reward for his dedication and refusal to quit. He had learnt he would be in the Dimension Data Tour squad 10 days before. He called his father and they both ended up in tears.
"I knew I was on the list for the Tour, in the final 10 to 12 guys, but you never know," said Thomson. "You keep on hoping.
"Will team tactics change? Am I good enough? Was my form good enough? You think of all these things.… It’s a fine line to be ready for the Tour," he said.
His job has been as a domestique, to work for the team’s star sprinter, Mark Cavendish. He was prominent on the front of the peloton in the first week, driving the chase to set up the team for the bunch sprint.
"It’s quite hard to describe what you go through at the Tour, emotionally and physically. It’s been a journey for me that has been longer than just 19 days just to get here," Thomson said.
"Being at the Tour has definitely changed me. I never used to be so confident in the bunch sprints. I always used to try to get out of the way.
"That’s why I used to ride on the front, so I didn’t have to be in the madness. But, I’ve been given the opportunity to be part of it and I am loving it.
"It is as crazy as you can imagine. A bunch sprint at the Tour de France is not the same as bunch sprints anywhere else. They are crazier, they are more intense, more left-right movement, every guy is trying to protect his own interests.
"The GC [general classification] guys are trying to protect their spot. There’s some guy who is thinking that today is going to be his day when he is going to be [retired Italian sprinting legend] Mario Cipollini and sprint to victory. It’s on a different level to anywhere else, and to be part of it – I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."
Thomson’s path to the Tour de France has been a hard one. He left SA to ride for teams in the US, seeking that as a step to Europe. He returned home to be a part of Doug Ryder’s project to get an African team to the Tour.
"I kept on dreaming that this was possible, to be here, to be a Tour de France rider. This was what I always wanted. There were a couple of times on this journey, when you are lying on the side of the road, when you have no money for rent or food, when you want to give up, but you keep on dreaming. You want to be on the biggest stage. You want to stand here and experience this, to see how happy your family is for you to be here. That has kept me motivated. It has been incredible. I have loved every minute of it.
"At the end of my career, this is what I will look back on: these days; the Tour de France."