If you were around British bike racing in the 70’s and 80’s then you’ll remember the name, Phil Thomas. One of those Liverpool ‘cheeky chappies’ who were so strong in British cycling back then and a prolific winner on the road and criterium scene.
Thomas could win anything from a seafront criterium to the Manx International via 10 mile track races to Milk Race stages.
He turned pro as a ‘one man band’ and just kept on winning, riding for some of the top teams of the era, Falcon, Raleigh and the famous – or should that be infamous? – ANC squad.
Kellogg’s city centre criteriums, stage races and the British Road race Championship are all on his roll of honour.
We caught up with him for a chat about his career:
We were looking at your early palmarès and it looks like you started off as a schoolboy cyclo-cross man?
“Not really, you just rode whatever was on the go when you were a schoolboy.
“On the road you could maybe expect to ride twice a month as a schoolboy in the Liverpool area but if you went down to Kirkby track you could race every Wednesday night, so I rode there a lot.”
You were originally a Kirkby CC man but ‘defected’ to Liverpool Mercury, their deadly rivals – I remember that was a big story at the time.
“I didn’t get on with the late Eddie Soens who was one of the central figures in the Kirkby, he coached a lot of the lads and was very influential.
“My big gripe was that he selected the teams for races and what he said went; I didn’t agree and thought if I was good enough to be in a race then that was up to me.”
Was there one particular ride which set you on your way, where you thought; ‘I can be really good at this?’
“No, not really, I just got a little better and a little stronger every year, through schoolboy, junior, senior then international.”
The 1981 season looks like your break through with Milk race stage wins and The Lincoln Grand Prix?
“Yeah, but I had good seasons before that; in ’77 and ’78 I was winning 30 plus races each year.
“And I can’t remember now if it was ’80 or ’81 but I had 55 wins – and that’s before you count anything on the track – with eight or nine of those wins in race where there was international opposition.”
You turned pro for Galli in 1982?
“I spoke to Jim Henry, the GB team manager at the end of 1981 and asked if I’d be getting a grant from the British Cycling Federation for season 1982, I hadn’t got one from them for season 1981 and he replied that he didn’t know.
“I said that if I didn’t get one then I would turn pro – and that’s what I did.
“It was a big decision for me because I made decent money as an amateur, I would always look at the prize money first before the start; perhaps a £60 first with four £10 primes – so I’d think, ‘I’ll win and I’ll have those primes too, that’ll be a hundred quid!’
“I wouldn’t look at who was riding because I was so confident I would win, I’d maybe walk into the dressing room and think; ‘oh, so and so is here…
“It was a one man band team, set up by Frank Clements who ran the Harry Quinn business at the time, he said that if I wanted to go pro then he would sponsor me; he was UK agent for the Galli equipment which was made in Italy by a company run by Gianni Savio [Sn. Galli’s nephew, ed], who’s still in the sport as manager of the Androni pro continental team.
“It was difficult because I was riding against teams but I was still winning races.”
Then ‘83-’84 you were with Falcon?
“That was a good team, I won the National Road Race Champs in their colours; I also won the Kellogg’s criterium series for them.
“We had some good lads; Sid Barras, Keith Lambert, Bill Nickson – and the team was really well organised.”
But in ’85 you moved to ANC.
“I think they made me a better offer, it was a bigger team and they promised me more racing abroad.”
You had some nice results abroad with them.
“Yes, but remember that I raced abroad as an amateur and I used to spend a lot of the winters racing on the tracks in Australia.
“But yes, I won a couple of stages in the Tour of the Algarve – but got declassed in one even though it was nothing to do with me.
“There was a crash and the guy who came down said; ‘it was that English fella!’ even though I was nowhere near him.
“I was placed in a number of events in Belgium, France and Italy.
“I did OK with ANC down on the Med. placing in races like Cannes and Laigueglia.
“I was on good teams, I made a good living and bear in mind that I was spending the winters racing in Australia.
“Looking back it would have been good to race more in Europe but they were different times, Europe wasn’t such a small place back then.”
Did not making the Tour team with ANC in ’87 hurt?
“Not really, I could see by the time the Tour came round that the team was falling apart.
“Whilst I got on with the team owner, Tony Capper, I had different views about the direction the team should take.
“I felt we should ride the Vuelta or Giro as an introduction to the Grand Tours.
“But; ‘no, no,’ it had to be the Tour de France.
“The team had riders capable of riding the Tour but not the infrastructure to back them up.
“When you go into a race like the Tour you have to have the staff in place to back them up and that wasn’t in place.”
You were the UK’s ‘Crit King’ but never won the championship…
“Ironic, I know! I was on the podium a few times but never managed to win it.”
After the collapse of ANC, you went to Raleigh Banana?
“Yes, and it was a decent team but Paul Sherwen’s idea that we should recruit the young kids just didn’t work out when we raced abroad – they were out of their depth.
“Often it would just be me and Tim Harris left at the death.”
Your last team was Ever Ready.
“Again, a good team albeit we only rode a domestic programme.
“That season, ’89 was my last. I’d been training to be an osteopath and decided to concentrate full time on that.
“I was 33 years-old, going on 34 and I wasn’t winning races like I used to.”
Tell us about your adventures behind the big motors.
“I just did because someone asked me; but I enjoyed the experience – it was fast and I enjoyed it.
“I rode the Worlds at Leicester in ’82.
“Ron Webb, the Australian chap who organised the Skol Six Day in London and who had been a motor paced rider himself thought I would be a good Six Day rider and organised rides in madisons in Berlin for me so I could show myself.
“But a guy crashed right in front of me and took me out – I dislocated my shoulder and that was that.
“I did ride Sixes in Australia though – and the big handicap ‘wheel races’ as well as madisons, like the famous one in Bendigo.
“It was tough racing, the big Euro names would come over for the Christmas carnival races and the Aussie track riders were among the best in the world.”
Which ride(s) give you most satisfaction?
“I think perhaps winning the Manx International when I was just 21 years-old, that was a big race.
“But that was a good year all round, I won the Merseyside Division Champs – that’s a hotly contested race – and the Tour of Armagh in Ireland, the Leyland Grand Prix and Lincoln Grand Prix.
“There weren’t the same opportunities to race abroad then as there are now – if you look at Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins’ careers they managed to spend much of their time between races at home in the UK.
“It’s so simple to travel back and forward to the continent nowadays.
“I did spend time as an amateur in The Netherlands and Belgium – those Dutch crits were hard; 100 kilometres on a small circuit with the last 20 minutes savage, only the best guys were left.”
“No, I enjoyed my career.
“I came back as a vet and won the British Vets Road Race, as well as the Vets Criterium Championship about six times.
“I still ride three or four times each week and together with my wife Vicky [who was on the podium of the British Ladies Road race Championship three times in the 80’s, ed.] we do a lot of touring – we’ve been through the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites in recent years, we still love the bike.”
With thanks to Phil for his time with this interview.