Produced in association with Ribble Cycles
There are some bikes that just mean more. It might be because they evoke a special memory, or because they represent a moment in time where something remarkable happened, or it might just be because they have the colour scheme or componentry you’ve always dreamt of. These are bikes that are far greater than just a sum of their parts; they have a real feeling, almost as if they are living and breathing, telling their own story but without words, just simply by being.
For Geoff Thomas, Ribble’s Tour 21 Alumni Limited Edition X Ultra SL R is one of those bikes. It has been designed to pay homage to the 58-year-old’s own story, and the people he has brought with him along the way.
There are countless tales of inspiring feats of endurance when it comes to the Tour de France, of riders battling through torrid conditions or breaking away to inspiring victories, and Thomas’s story is up there with them all. He may not be a professional rider and he may not hold any records on any famous climbs of La Grande Boucle, but his achievements spread far wider than trophies in a cabinet or framed jerseys.
Thomas’s story doesn’t start on the bike, however. Instead, it begins with football, the beautiful game. For 20 years, Thomas was a professional footballer. His most successful period came in the six years he played for Crystal Palace, when he captained them to the FA Cup final in 1990. He also won nine England caps.
Life changed dramatically for Thomas in 2003, a year after retiring from football. He was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia (a form of blood cancer) and given three months to live. After a stem cell transplant from his sister Kay and treatment from Professor Charlie Craddock CBE, Thomas entered remission from the disease in January 2005.
“When I was told I was in remission, it was a case of coming up with an idea of trying to say thank you to the professors and the nurses who got me in that position by raising money,” says Thomas. “I was struggling to find a really good challenge that was going to inspire people to support me. We had to come up with something epic.
“Someone said: why not do the Tour de France? Do it a day ahead or a day behind the peloton. It was just a chuck-away comment. I didn’t even know what it really meant. I’d watched it on TV with no knowledge of what team ethics go into cycling and that sort of thing. I just thought the guys were crazy. Back in 2005 there wasn’t any sort of awareness of what was going on in the cycling world apart from the Tour de France, really. That was the only thing people gravitated to. That’s why I took on the challenge. I was naive, too. If I knew how painful it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have!”
It’s fair to say that there are few braver things to do than taking on one of the most challenging sporting feats in the world so soon after going through treatment for a life-threatening disease.
“I only did my first 100-mile ride probably two weeks before the Tour de France,” says Thomas. “The radiotherapy and chemotherapy are just wasting the body down to bare bones, really. So my first bike ride was about six miles and I felt absolutely wasted after that. Then I just steadily built up. I was committed to doing it.”
During the three weeks that he was completing the Tour de France ahead of the professional peloton, Thomas says there were numerous moments when he thought he might have to pull out altogether. However, he was constantly motivated by the cause he was raising money for and a raw feeling of gratitude that he was able to have such an experience.
Thomas points to a moment on the Col de la Colombière from that year as one he will never forget. “Something happened to me on that mountain where I thought of my experiences of meeting far younger and fitter people than me who had lost their battle, and a wave of remembering them just hit me. I thought how they’d love to be in this position going through the pain I’m going through, but I’ve got this opportunity. That spurred me on, even when it started raining and snowing and it was only two degrees on the top of the mountain.”
Looking back at the day when he finally reached Paris for the first time, Thomas says that he didn’t feel like he had any emotion left to celebrate his achievement. “I’d done all my crying and left everything on those mountains in those 21 days,” he says.
He points to his cancer diagnosis leading to a shift in mindset which gave him a new appreciation of life and the “second chance” he had been offered.
“You really understand what’s important in life,” he says. “Your health. In my life, I was chasing something like success as a footballer, I wanted to be better. When I came out of football, I had a retail business, but I wanted it to be the one of the best retailers in the Midlands and then different areas of the UK. That’s the track I was on, without really thinking about what’s important. Being diagnosed with an illness was really like a slap around the face. It made me realise: you’re not enjoying life, you’ve got to find a better way. It has really allowed me to re-evaluate and do everything better a second time round.”
Thomas was awarded the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show in 2005 for his achievement in the Tour de France, and he raised more than £150,000 for the Leukaemia Research charity. But this was only the start of his journey with cycling’s Grand Tours.
Since 2005, Thomas has ridden the Tour de France five times, raising money that has been transformative to Cure Leukaemia. In 2017 he took on the biggest of all his challenges, riding all three Grand Tours - the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España - in one season, one day ahead of the professionals. He and the group he rode with covered 10,403 kilometres and contributed to the £3.4million expansion to double the capacity of the Centre for Clinical Haematology.
In the summer of 2022, Thomas took part in what he vows was his last attempt at riding the Tour de France. He did so alongside 18 amateur riders, all of whom were raising money for Cure Leukaemia, which is now a charity partner of the Tour de France in the UK.
Now with Thomas’s challenge officially coined, ‘The Tour 21’, his legacy will continue even after he stops completing the Tour himself. The event will take place every year with different riders taking on the endurance challenge, all raising money for Cure Leukaemia in the process.
It was also in 2022 that British bike brand Ribble became an official event partner for The Tour 21. Ride captains in the event had access to Ribble bikes last year and Thomas rode a customised Ribble to carry him over the mountains of France.
“It’s a British brand and I’ve followed its journey. Both Cure Leukaemia and Ribble are made up of small teams and we mirror each other’s ethos,” says Thomas. “When I’m doing these challenges I’m looking for a quality build that I enjoy riding, Ribble has that.”
Paying homage to Thomas’s efforts and his inspiring relationship with the Tour de France, Ribble has created the Tour 21 Alumni Limited Edition X Ultra SL R, designed by ex-professional rider and Head of Product at Ribble, Jamie Burrows, who is well aware of the demands that three-week Grand Tours have on a rider’s equipment.
Each bike is individually signed by Thomas and numbered, with proceeds from sales going towards Cure Leukaemia. With the eye-catching, aerodynamic frame geometry of Ribble’s Ultra SL R, its wide kammtail tubes, dropped seat stays and integrated cabling, as well as a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset and Zipp 454 NSW Carbon wheels, this is a bike fit for Grand Tour riders, made for conquering the undulating and fast roads of France.
But technical details aside, this bike is special for what it represents: bravery, determination and feats of human resilience. It has been made to express thanks to Thomas for what he’s done for research and development in leukaemia, as well as serve as a memento for all the riders who have completed The Tour 21. With blue colourways on the frame as an ode to Thomas’s time at Crystal Palace, 24-carat gold leaf lettering and the Cure Leukaemia logo on the top tube, the Ribble 21 Alumni Limited Edition X Ultra SL R sits firmly in the category of bikes that represent far more than just carbon and components.
For Thomas and the people who have shared his journey, the Tour de France will always hold a special place in their hearts and this bike serves as a reminder of that.
“Life is funny sometimes. Life can be brutal sometimes and it can be epic,” says Thomas. “That’s what the Tour de France means to me every time somebody mentions it. Experiencing the Tour, I can’t think of anything bigger.”