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The Welsh Cycling production line

When Geraint Thomas sets off from the start line in Brussels on this year's Tour de France, he will be extending a Welsh history line in cycling that goes back well beyond his victory of 2018.

Wales has always had a rich heritage in the sport - stretching back to the very early days of the 1890s with the Linton brothers - Arthur, Tom and Samuel - and Jimmy Michael, all hailing from the small mining village of Aberaman in the Cynon Valley, who all won major races in Britain and Europe

Then in the last century there were the likes of Reg Braddick, the first cyclist to represent Wales at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Sydney in 1938, and Don Skene, who both went on to open cycling shops in Cardiff, and Colin Lewis who rode the Tour de France in the 1960s.

Sally Hodge and Clare Greenwood had successful careers on the world stage as did Louise Jones ,who won the first gold medal for women in cycling at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland 1990. This century, though, has seen Welsh cyclists reach incredible heights.

Wales have had at least one gold medallist at the last three Olympic Games, starting in Beijing in 2008 when Thomas was part of the victorious team pursuit quartet and Nicole Cooke powered through a Chinese rainstorm to win the road race title.

Four years later Thomas helped Britain retain the TP title in the London Velodrome. Then, in 2016, Owain Doulll won team pursuit gold as did Elinor Barker in the women's event. Not forgetting Becky James' two silver medals on the track.

And to cap it all, last year Thomas became only the third Brit and first Welshman to win the world's greatest cycle race, the Tour de France. He begins the defence of his Yellow Jersey in Brussels on Saturday, July 6th.

"It does seem to almost have become the norm," said Welsh Cycling's head coach Darren Tudor of the run of gold medal success at the Games. "The Olympics are special and to win at the last three Games is a great achievement.

"But we have also done really well at world and European Championships and at the Commonwealth Games. Welsh Cycling was on a high anyway, but Geraint's Tour de France success did take it to a new level. His old club, Maindy Flyers in Cardiff, saw an increase in membership in the months after his Tour success.

"Geraint's win also increased that general all-round awareness and interest in the sport. I would have people asking me about tactics within a tour team.

"Since I started at Welsh Cycling we have always had talented riders like Geraint and Nicole Cooke. Over the last 20 years we, along with British Cycling, have been able to put in place programmes to identify and develop that talent.

"And we have riders coming through that hopefully can maintain that success in future years. Scott Davies made his Grand Tour debut this year at the Giro d'Italia and that experience will only help take him to the next level.

"Then we have Jess Roberts who has been sprinting so well on the roads. Elynor Backstedt is another talented rider coming through and after her is her younger sister Zoe."

Roberts and Megan Barker, younger sister of Elinor, claimed medals as part of a young Team GB team pursuit squad at the European Games in Minsk in June.

While several Welsh athletes will be looking to maintain that run of Olympic success in Tokyo next year, for Welsh Cycling the focus is already on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.

Wales could then field a powerful road team with five riders currently with World Tour teams: Thomas, Doull and Luke Rowe are all with Team INEOS, while Davies is a team-mate of Mark Cavendish (who regularly trains at the National Velodrome in Newport named after Thomas) at Team Dimension Data while Stevie Williams is at Bahrain-Merida.

"If they were all available for Birmingham that would be a very strong team," added Tudor. "We have had a lot of success at the Commonwealth and that is something we want to continue."

The strength of interest in Welsh Cycling was shown when Thomas had that victorious homecoming to Cardiff following his epic ride to claim the coveted Yellow Jersey.

And all eyes will be on Belgium on July 6th when he takes to the start line to defend that title - with fellow Cardiff-born rider Rowe again acting as his chief lieutenant on the roads as he did last year - with fans hoping the crash he suffered in his final race, the Tour de Suisse, will not have hampered his preparations.

Thomas escaped with cuts and bruises from the crash just days after his team-mate and likely chief rival, four-time winner Chris Froome, suffered a serious injury in a crash in France that ended his own chances of competing.

But, in a potential signal that his build-up could have gone better, Thomas will still be going into the 2,000+mile slog around Belgium and France as joint team leader with rising Colombian star Egan Bernal, who went on to win the Tour de Suisse after the Welshman's crash.

"Discussing with the team, we believe it makes sense to go into the race with joint leaders as it gives us more options. Egan and I will work hard for each other and the team over the three weeks of the race," said the 33-year-old.

 "Winning the Tour de France last year was the highlight of my professional cycling career and racing with the number one on my back is going to be special this year. The memories of 2018 will remain with me forever, but now I'm ready to create more with the team this year.

 "It's no secret my build-up has been affected by the crash at Tour de Suisse, but I've had a good block of training since and I feel ready.

"We've got a really exciting blend of youth and experience in the team - and it's a group of riders who I know will be with me every step of the way and know what it takes to win Grand Tours."