Jay Thomson has returned into the fold of Doug Ryder's MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung team as a key rider who will help to bring the squad success in the Pro Continental ranks. He comes home after a rocky three years abroad that began with a stage win in the Tour de Langkawi with Fly V Australia in 2010. Eager to progress to the WorldTour and major races in Europe with the Pegasus project after a year with Fly V Australia in the US, his dream crumbled before it even began when the team went belly-up before the 2011 season. An anonymous year with Bissell and an up-and-down season with UnitedHealthcare followed, but this promising 26-year-old is confident that he can turn things around with his new team.
Incredibly lean, Thomson is clearly motivated for 2013. He and his teammates have undergone physiological testing where a core-strength exercise turned into a challenge, where Thomson set a new mark for the longest front elbow plank at 5:40. The feat is just one indication of the sort of mental toughness that got him a stage win in the Volta a Portugal this year, just a week after injuring his ankle so badly he should have taken time off the bike.
Thomson admits some trepidation in leaving a sure thing to return to a nascent project, but he chose to forge ahead and make the move in order to be a part of a growing squad and a major moment in South African cycling history.
"I could say it was an easy decision, but it was also a really hard decision," Thomson explained from the team's presentation in Maropeng, South Africa. "Being with UnitedHealthcare, I started becoming part of the team and all that, to come across to MTN-Qhubeka was an easy decision for me. An African team going Pro Continental, you want to be part of it, especially as a South African rider. You want to be part of a team that's got ambitions to do something great."
Telling his current team of the decision wasn't easy, but just as the US riders want to be on the big American teams, they knew Thomson couldn't say no to an opportunity to be a part of his home country's ambitions effort, and go back to the MTN organization that helped him build his pro career for three seasons. "They were disappointed in the sense that they are losing a rider that they invested a lot in, and I can't thank them enough for giving me the opportunity this last year. Obviously as things go along, we all learn where our heart wants to be, and I want to be with an African team."
After being burned by Chris White and Pegasus, Thomson admits he was a bit gun-shy to agree to the move, but team principal Doug Ryder assured him that everything would work out. "I got nervous because I thought of Pegasus and wondered, am I going to put myself in that situation again? It was a big risk to take. I believe in Doug, always have. I said if this falls on its face, I don't know how I'm ever going to get out of that hole again, but he made me believe and trust that it's going to go big.
"I think it will be nice, if this team goes WorldTour in a few years, to have been a part of that foundation."
The team has recruited experienced Europeans Gerald Ciolek, Ignatus Konolvalovas, Sergio Pardilla, Andreas Stauff and Martin Reimer to help guide the team through its first year in Europe, and although Thomson sees himself as one of the mentors for the younger riders, he acknowledges he has plenty to learn from his European teammates.
"My personal ambition is to grow as a bike rider. The last three years have been very difficult after losing Pegasus, 2011 was a bad year for me. It's been mentally difficult to fight that off," he said.
"I think this year we had a lot of bad luck, but I grew mentally and physically. In the next couple of years I really want to help mentor the young guys and mentor myself into being something great. To be a leader on the team, I think I've gotten to that age where I can lead from the front.
"I've also got a lot of growing to do as a bike rider, but I think I also have a lot to offer the team on and off the bike that can help the younger guys. There are a lot of young guys on this team who have a lot of potential to do something great, and I want to be a part of that."
Thomson is heading to Europe just as the sport tries to shake off the doping dramas of Lance Armstrong, his former US Postal Service teammates and, it appears, the majority of the peloton from the EPO era of a decade past. Although the team has the lofty goal of becoming the first team of Africans to race the Tour de France in 2014, Thomson is assured that the pressure to perform will not tempt the riders to take shortcuts in the way their predecessors did.
"We're from a different frame of mind, being from Africa, we weren't born thinking the bike is the end all be all. Some guys grew up thinking that you ride your bike to make money, but ride with a higher motivation - mobilizing kids with bikes through Qhubeka, and bringing that attention to the world of African cycling. We've got the confidence we'll come in with a team that's clean.
"You can't prove to the fans that we're a clean team, but we can show it by doing the right things - by having the nutritionists, coaching and living right. It's the new generation of all bike racers. The younger guys are all doing that now. It's different to what it used to be. The younger generation will show that, and I believe it is going to get better, it has to get better. I think with Qhubeka it's a breath of fresh air for cycling, and it's a great thing for the fans to follow. I think we'll be something special and unique."
South Africa hasn't been immune to doping controversy this year: just after the USADA dossier was made public, Armstrong's former teammate David George tested positive for EPO. But Thomson calls this an "isolated incident". "I don't think it's a culture we breed in South Africa. I pride myself on riding clean, and I think 100 percent of the guys on this team do too. We don't just think of ourselves when we get on our bikes, we think about the people and the sponsors and everyone else who's involved."