Written for Legends of the Pedal
“I had a love-hate relationship with cycling,” says multiple South African track and road champion Mike Thomson frankly.
“I think it’s because I never got to really apply myself fully and always considered myself a possible Rapport Tour winner – but not on 300 kilometres a week of night training.”
Forced to work in the family business, a young Mike did most of his training at 4am and in the evenings.
“My father was adamant. There was no time off for training – I even had to work in time for tours.”
A naturally talented track rider, he flourished with minimal effort and won the 1 500m national title as a junior and senior, as well as the corresponding provincial honours in every age group.
“I was not given the freedom of choice to train for the road.”
Despite this, Mike was awarded Springbok colours in 1978 for the road tour to Belgium. His team-mates included the legendary Ertjies Bezuidenhout, Mark Beneke, Gerhard Klopper, Alan Dipple and Roy Brennan.
“We had raced in Belgium in ’77 and ’78 and were totally out of kilter for the first few events, as we were coming out of winter here into their summer.
“Once I found the big gears could turn, I loved it and would have loved to do it professionally. But of course we couldn’t get licences and rode under the WAOD banner for three weeks each time.”
On one occasion, he recalls team manager Gotty Hansen threatening to throw a brick at him from the side of the road because he felt he wasn’t trying.
“I was the only South African in the break that day and even finished second, but he wanted more!”
An opportunistic rider, Mike specialised in strategic breakaways, which saw him take stage wins in three Rapport Tours (1977, 1980 and 1985).
He also donned the 1985 national road champion’s jersey after a two-year hiatus from the sport.
“I wanted to be one of the few riders to win the 1 500m track title alongside the road championship. I think Chris Willemse and Malcolm Lange are the only other two to have done this.”
Ironically, cycling has become something of a family business in itself with two of Mike’s three sons – Jay (27) and Michael junior (30) – going on to achieve similar success.
The younger Michael is a former national omnium track champion and was pilot rider for Gavin Kilpatrick at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they took bronze in the men’s visually impaired tandem sprint.
This year, MTN-Qhubeka pro Jay followed in his proud father’s footsteps by bagging the SA road title.
“I was there and, yes, I was over the moon because I know how much it means to a rider to be road champ for the year,” says Mike.
The Krugersdorp native counts his very first SA track title way back in 1972 as the most special of his own career. The worst period came shortly thereafter when he developed jaundice and was forced to abandon serious racing for three years.
Knowing personally how tough and demanding cycling is, Mike says he neither forced nor encouraged his sons to take up the sport.
“I never thought they would ride as they were both good rugby players. But we went to the Tour de France one year – I think 2003 – and on our return I saw my bikes had been moved.
“Mike had started and he encouraged Jay to begin. I was pleasantly surprised.
“I didn’t get them started, but when they did start riding, I actively encouraged them.”
Like many of the Legends of the Pedal, he believes the modern era is just so much harder than in his heyday.
“It was fun, but I suppose we were still fiercely competitive – we just didn’t notice as we were young and arrogant.
“We all wanted to be Eddy Merckx but attract girls like Sylvester Stallone. Shame, we were stick thin but we thought we were special because there were many girls who found us interesting.”
Today, the 57-year-old is a corporate IT consultant, specialising in SAP processes. However, he still owns the family electrical business, which has been in existence for over 60 years and which Michael junior now runs.
His other son, Roger, has chosen a non-sporting path and is now an accountant in the United States.
Mike is a grandfather of two and has been married to Irene for 35 years. “She has been and is my travelling companion to so many bike races around the world.”
A dyed-in-the-wool road racing fan, he has now taken up mountain biking instead because “the danger levels are above the acceptable levels for me”.
“I love mountain biking because of the open spaces and no traffic but I long for the long open roads with no cars like we used to have.”
Always one for a challenge, Mike became a member of the exclusive Amabubesi club after completing his third Absa Cape Epic this year. He did so alongside Jannie van den Berg, whom he helped win the 1980 Rapport Tour.
“I trained so hard for Epic this year as there was a grand masters category and we were hoping for a top five. But, perhaps overtraining, I fell badly ill just before the event.
“So we just rode to finish and placed 11th. I owe Epic one!”
The two are currently preparing for the nine-day Old Mutual joBerg2c – South Africa’s longest paired stage race.
“We’ll give it a bash but we don’t race often – just two old horses running in the wild because they enjoy it and because they can!”
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