Great Britain's Geraint Thomas celebrates on the podium after the 19th stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, on July 27, 2018 between Lourdes and Laruns, southwestern France. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: As the 2018 Tour de France enters its final stage, the cyclist’s friends and teammates recall a ‘pretty straightforward guy’

Almost everyone who has played a formative role in the life of Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas describes him as a quiet, modest man with a mischievous sense of humour. But this weekend he stands on the brink of the kind of sporting immortality that only a few extremely talented athletes reach.

Thomas heads into Saturday’s final competitive stage of the Tour de France, the world’s hardest and most prestigious bicycle race, in the leader’s yellow jersey. If he holds off competition from the Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in the hilly time trial in the Basque country, he will be able to enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne on the ceremonial ride to the finish line in Paris.

Not only will he be riding into cycling history, he will be starting a new life as a sporting superstar. He will become the first Welshman and only the third British cyclist to win the Tour since the gruelling near-three-week-long race began at the dawn of the 20th century.

It may not be an easy transition. Sir Bradley Wiggins’s Tour victory in 2012 may have brought him untold wealth and acclaim — far exceeding that of all his then seven Olympic medals — but he loathed the attention and longed for things to go back to normal.

Yet many of the people who knew Thomas in his early days, as first a budding track and then talented club cyclist in Cardiff, are convinced that he will remain the same unassuming boy with a wry smile who beat riders twice his age.

His former childhood coach, Debbie Wharton, who trained him at the Maindy Flyers velodrome in Cardiff in the early 1990s, says he won’t let fame go to his head. “I don’t think it will change him at all. He’s already coped tremendously well with his Olympic success,” Wharton says.

It seems he never forgets those who have helped him reach this defining moment. Despite the intense exertion of cycling 2,082 miles over 21 stages, he has taken time out to send a video message to Wharton’s 14-year-old daughter, who is ill. “He told her to keep fighting and said well done to her little brother for being such a good brother. It had the whole family in tears,” she says.

Andy Hoskins, who cycled with the teenage Thomas at Cardiff’s Just in Front cycling club, says he will cope well with the inevitable media storm if he wins. “I think Geraint will thrive on it. He’s just a pretty straightforward guy,” he says.

Hoskins remembers Thomas winning races when he was under 16, but also putting aside his own ambitions to help his teammates. “Geraint was in a winning position, but he let one of his older clubmates take the win. He realised this guy wouldn’t get many more chances. As well as being talented, he is selfless.”

Thomas’s modest character was already apparent at Wales’s largest comprehensive, Whitchurch high school, which has a remarkable record of producing great athletes, including Real Madrid footballer Gareth Bale and former Welsh international rugby player Sam Warburton. Headmaster Huw Jones-Williams says Thomas did not have the same profile as Bale and Warburton at the school: “The quiet, silent ones can end up being the superstars of tomorrow. He was not a shouter or a gloater.”

But Jones-Williams says that Thomas now stands on the verge of becoming arguably Wales’ greatest ever sportsman: “If he wins, then he will further secure his place among the world sporting elite of any era.”