It has been a dream start to the season for newly crowned South African road champion Jay Thomson.
Aside from sporting the distinctive green and gold striped jersey 28 years after his father Mike did, he is also a member of the giant-slaying MTN-Qhubeka team that grabbed headlines and their first WorldTour win at Milan-San Remo last month.
“Wow is all I can say,” smiles the clearly elated 26-year-old. “It really means more than any words or emotions can describe.”
According to Jay, he always had the goal of riding his first WorldTour event as national champion in the back of his mind.
“To be able to take the jersey to races like Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan- San Remo is any rider’s dream, especially mine.”
After helping Robert Hunter to victory on the same course in Nelspruit last year, it was perhaps fitting that the mantle should be passed to him.
“Last year’s race helped a lot in terms of knowing when and where the race would be hard. So it played a big role in deciding where I needed to spend the right energy and efforts.”
Although he admits disappointment in narrowly missing a double in the individual time-trial, Jay says he can only feel proud losing to a rider of Daryl Impey’s calibre.
Team boss Doug Ryder has previously described Jay as “a great all-round rider that can time-trial, sprint from a small group and ride all day in breakaways”.
His silver medal performance in the time-trial and his breakaway with 40km to go in the road race certainly seem to support this assessment.
“Yes, I think he hits the nail on the head,” says Jay. “I believe the older I get the more balanced a rider I become and I take pride in that.
“It’s funny because I’m a jack-of-all-trades, not special in any one way. But I like it like that.”
After racing in the United States for the past three years, the former MTN rider says he jumped at the chance to once again be part of Africa’s first Pro Continental team.
“How could I not want to be part of it? We’re going to be making history so you can never let a chance like this go.
“There is no team out there that does what we do. We don’t just ride our bikes for us, we are riding for Africa and that is huge compared to racing merely to get a result.”
Jay believes his time in the US for the Fly V, Bissel Cycling and United Healthcare teams provided the ideal stepping-stone for competing full-time in Europe.
“The racing in the US is a lot harder then back in SA but it’s not as gruelling as it is in Europe.”
Last year, he achieved his best result to date by winning the opening stage of the Tour of Portugal and managed to hold onto the yellow leader’s jersey for four days. He also took a stage win in the Tour de Langkawi in 2010.
The Krugersdorp native, who currently resides in Lucca, Italy, says he comes from a family of talented cyclists who were never fortunate enough to get the opportunities he has had.
“My father was incredible considering he was never a full-time rider.
“If I’m not mistaken, besides winning the elite road title, he won the 1 500m SA track champs title in every age group since he started as a kid.”
Jay’s brother Michael is also a former national track champion.
“My brother is extremely talented but just never got the break I got. I guess it’s really hard to make a living on the track and be successful but he has won a lot of races and a few SA titles.”
It was through him that Jay first got into cycling.
“He always asked me to join him at races or even to go training but back then I was a big, bulky rugby player who didn’t want to shave his legs and wear tights for fun.
“But one day I finally caved in and decided to go do a mountain bike race with him on a bike we had at home with no shocks. It was the worst experience of my life.
“Then somehow a couple months later he tricked me into going to a road race with him. So we dusted off one of our dad’s old steel-frame road bikes and off I went. This time I loved every second of it . . .”
But the love affair with cycling has not been without its share of heartaches. After battling and overcoming depression and being twice hit by a car, Jay is more determined than ever to succeed.
“I’ve had to pick up the pieces a lot in my short career but I keep on going because I love riding. I’ve got a drive in me that I can’t explain.
“I actually get frustrated on days when I can’t ride my bike, so even on rest days I have to do a roller session or short ride. To be honest, I don’t even know what I did before because all I want to do is be on it.”
Jay says his goal is to ride one of the Grand Tours but having been at some of the biggest races in the Americas and on the WorldTour, he is happy with the direction he is headed.
“I have been to almost every continent in the world to race. I’ve had a great experience so far and hopefully it will keep on going for another 10 years.”
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