Bigla-Katusha’s Leah Thomas: Caring for her community

After closing out the 2019 season with victory in the Chrono des Nations, Leah Bigla-Katusha’s Leah Thomas got off to the perfect start to 2020 as well by winning stage 4 of Setmana Ciclista Valenciana. The 30-year old rider was set up to perhaps have the season of her career so far. And then the coronavirus called a halt to everything. After racing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Thomas made a last minute call to fly back to California where she could be near her family.

Once there, not one to sit around waiting for the season to resume, Thomas has been busy, getting involved and giving back to her community. Rouleur recently caught up with her on the phone to hear about what she’s been up to.

Rouleur: Hi Leah. How are you doing?

Leah Thomas: I’m doing well. It’s strange being home but kind of nice to be home. I haven’t been home at this time of year, for almost five years now and spring in Northern California is by far the best season. Like everyone you’d rather be racing, but to make the best of a bad situation, you know, it’s not a bad place to be.

It’s a beautiful place to go bike riding I’d imagine.

Yeah, and where we live, we’ve been able to ride the whole time. So for me, it’s just been a lot of solo miles but the riding is spectacular. Every time I leave I think the riding in Italy is great, and England when I stayed with my teammate, that’s great. But every time I come home, I think okay, the riding here is actually the best.

The nice thing is the terrain and the plants and everything. It all changes, so suddenly. You can be in a rabid forest and then you’re in an oak tree forest and then you’re at the ocean. All within the same ride.

Leah Thomas

Where are you based when you’re over in Europe? Do you spend most of the racing season here?

I live in Girona. I share an apartment with Katie Hall on Boel Dolmans and Lauretta Hanson on Trek. Generally I go over, right before team camp, maybe a week or so before, so late January, early February. This year I was planning on staying through the end of worlds or Chrono de Nations. I would have come back to the US National but nationals was supposed to be on the East Coast so I wouldn’t have come home home, you know? So pretty much nine months I guess. I was excited about it actually. I was really, you know, looking forward to kind of transitioning and making Spain more of my home base.

When this all started, I was planning on staying in Spain. And kind of being like: “It’s gonna be hard, but you know but it’ll make Spain feel like home, and I’ll get through it, but it’ll just be like any of the other challenges. Ultimately, I’m really glad I came home there was just too much uncertainty at the time with how things were going to evolve. If travel was going to be possible at all and just that idea of not being able to get home to my family, if something were to happen. I don’t think I could have lived with that.

Your last race was Omloop?

My last race was Omloop. Basically I bought a ticket Saturday night; Spain shut down Sunday/Monday. I bought a ticket that Saturday, the day before, at around 4pm and was on a train to the airport at 7pm.

I wasn’t acutely aware of what was going on in Spain. I knew the cases were growing. I knew it was mostly in Madrid…. but then that Saturday morning when we went outside… I got my haircut on Thursday, Friday was normal. Saturday, it was like night and day. There were lines everywhere and storefronts were closed. That was the point where I was like, I really think I should go home. Everything was happening so fast.

Having seen the European side and now being in the US, what’s your take on how it’s been handled there?

I’m really proud of where I live. Santa Clara County was the first county in the country to declare that we’re shutting down, and got the other Bay Area counties involved. Then that led to California to shut down and that led New York to shut down, and then like it’s been one state after another, but it all started from here.

And we were one of the first places to have any cases because there’s so much with the tech industry in China. The fact that we took action early: we looked at what was going on. We listen to scientists, all the things, and we made a decision.

I think that it’s important to understand, for some people, there isn’t the government support and they really are grappling with this question of: “Okay, you say there’s this virus that can kill me potentially or harm people who are vulnerable. But I literally don’t have anything to feed myself. I don’t have a way of surviving.”

I think you should be saying to the government: you need to support me more, rather than we’re just reopening, personally. It’s a tough situation and I wish we had some stronger leadership.

I understand you’re getting out there and helping out in your community? Can you can you just talk me through what you’ve been doing?

Sure. I’d come home having had this really intense experience of getting back from Spain. I, at the time, felt pretty critical about what people were and were not doing. Just from what I had experienced in Europe, you didn’t have that same urgency here and it was just hard to adjust to.

And then this email came in my inbox saying: “We want to help people or communities who are elderly or vulnerable, poor, don’t have access to it right now, don’t feel safe going to the grocery store. We want to offer them two home cooked meals a week, and we’re looking for people who can help us out with that.” And I thought about it and I though, okay, if I’m gonna, have these complaints, I need to be active… not just standing there complaining. I feel like I have more of a right to take a stance if I’m actually doing something. And I’d be doing something for the people within my community where I’ve come back to.

So I emailed them, and they needed some drivers to help distribute food because a lot of people live up to these little kind of canyon gully things to the top of these isolated mountains. So you’ll drive 25 minutes up this really twisty, pretty worn out road and you end up at someone’s house at the top, and the only way out is to go back down that really twisty, beat up, worn down, one-lane road. So that’s kind of what they enlisted me to do. I currently only own a motorcycle, which works out really well because it’s easier to go up to those really twisty, narrow roads. And it’s pretty fun!

Twice a week, I go over and they’ve packaged all the food and they give me a list of people to deliver to that day. I just go around and knock on the door and give them a warm meal. Oftentimes we’ll chat for a little bit about how they’re doing, and what’s going on and then I go to the next house. It’s just a couple of hours, a couple times a week but it’s been pretty special in the sense that but it’s really allowed me to get to know other sides of the community that I wasn’t as aware of.

What kind of conversations do you have?

Yeah, they generally tend to be pretty mundane. I showed up at this woman’s house and she loves the fact that I ride a motorcycle. It’s nothing like a life-changing conversation, it’s just taking the time to share a little bit about the mundane parts of our lives and how we’re kind of just getting through, day in day out.

You’re a little more open with a stranger, who slowly, over time becomes an acquaintance, you know. And just getting that moment just to learn a little bit about their day to day is really refreshing for me, and I think it’s refreshing for them as well. Like I said, it’s nothing like life shattering but I always leave my heart feeling a little bit warmer, a little more fulfilled.

What are you doing when you’re not serving your community and training?

I started taking some online courses. I just feel like keeping my mind busy is nice, rather than falling into the trap of just watching mindless Netflix or something to pass the time. For some people that’s really what they need. For me it makes me kind of miserable.

What courses are you taking?

One of them is a computer programming class, though I’m never going to be a computer programmer.

Though in Silicon Valley you’re in the right place for it…

It’s just great to see into that world. I really enjoy that kind of thinking: breaking stuff down and figuring out how you’re going to solve a problem. I’m doing an anatomy class because I am a science teacher and have thought about, when I finished cycling, wanting to go back to get a master’s in teaching and teach more high school biology subjects. And then I have a Spanish class – that’s what I majored in, in college, and I want to keep those Spanish skills up.

You’re putting the rest of us to shame!

No, I don’t think so. I am just the kind of person where if I have a plan, I make a plan, I set little goals and I do a lot better than if I have free rein. If don’t get anything accomplished I end up pretty lost.

Sounds like you’re someone who probably quite likes a list.

I think if I could make a list and put “wake up” on my list I totally would, because I love putting things on a list.

Can you talk a bit about the situation with your team? [In April both of Bigla-Katusha’s title sponsors announced that they were withholding funding for the team.]

The riders wrote a letter than summed up pretty well my feelings on the whole thing. But it’s stressful and it’s hard to have that ambiguity with everything else that’s going on. But something that was so special about our team, the riders this year, was we all genuinely get along. We all understand and have bought into this idea that we’re stronger as a team.

You could see that in Setmana Valenciana [where Thomas won the opening stage], and you could see that in Het Nieuwsblad. If you were to take one positive out is that it’s reminded us that we’re all in this together, and that we’re stronger together. That’s kind of what I’m rolling with right now. It’s hard because it’s so out of my control. There’s nothing I can really do to change anything.

This whole thing must have come as a blow after you got your year off to such a good start. You are one of the few people who are definitely gonna have something to take from this season.

I know! I can put something on my resume. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to get a couple of races in this season. I know I’ve raised what, five days or something this year so far, but just to have those races, and to have had that success as a team, and personally, I think has been calming because I knew I was there and I know I’m on the right track. To have that affirmation makes it for me personally easier to keep going. Had I not yet raced this season there would still have been so many unknowns.

Desire: POC’s Ventral Helmet

Have you looked at the new calendar and picked out any races to target yet?

I haven’t sat down to really think about if I could have my ideal race selection. There’s races that I definitely want to do, like, Strade Bianche, but. that one’s easy, because it’s the first one on the calendar.

But then it really becomes how do you really manage so much racing and be able to support your team, support your sponsors, fulfill your obligations? You really can’t race ever weekend or do multiple stage races in three months. I haven’t quite worked it out yet but I have a bit of time.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity

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