All things being good, fair and having gone to plan, Ryan Gibbons was supposed to have started his first Tour de France on June 27, becoming the eighth South African to start la Grande Boucle.
But these are not good and fair times, and nothing has gone to plan this year in these frightening and uncertain times. There is a chance Gibbons could still ride in the rescheduled Tour, if it goes ahead on August 29. He can only hope. He can only dream of winning a stage and the yellow jersey at the Tour, something he has already done this year. Kinda.
The Team NTT rider and won the first stage of the first-ever Virtual Tour de France on July 4 and earned the yellow leader’s jersey for his team, which they never lost. On Sunday, NTT were crowned winners of the first Virtual Tour de France with Gibbons taking third place on the final stage on a virtual Champs Elysees. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream, and Gibbons looked spent after a breakneck session on his indoor trainer the team’s base in Lucca, Italy. The Tour was the next big thing for him.
“In 2020, it is going to be 100 percent Tour de France. I am going to build my season around that,” said Gibbons when we spoke last year. “It was on the cards for 2019, but I had a good start to the season and was in good form, so we decided to keep that going for the first part of the year.
“I’ve been quite fortunate in that I started well and have been able to go Grand Tours every year since turning pro. I’ve seen results get better over time. In my first Giro I got eighths and sixths. In 2018 I got sevenths and fifths, in 2019 in World Tour races I got a few thirds. I’ve been getting more and more World Tour points every year. So with this trend, in about 100 years I’ll be the best in the world,” he laughed. “Hopefully we can speed that up a bit.”
At the age of 25, Gibbons’ career has taken off since he decided racing a bike was what he wanted to do when he was 18. Five years ago he was riding the 947 Cycle Challenge in Joburg. By June last year he had done four grand Tours, with. His journey, as did that of many, began on a mountain bike.
“My folks did the first few Cape Epics and I used to tag along and did the short races. I did quite a bit of cross country mountain biking. When I got to about 17, Cav (Manx star Mark Cavendish) was at the height of his career. He was my hero. I was pretty inspired. I thought this was pretty cool. Let me give road racing a try.
“I did a few road races in South Africa, then went to Belgium for a few months, more as a holiday and took my bike with. I did some races there and the bug bit. That’s when I realised that was what I wanted to do with my life.”
He became a product of the feeder system for the team formerly known as MTN-Qhubeka/Dimension Data and now NTT since 2013. In 2016, Dimension Data as a stagaire, a trainee. Fellow South Africans Stefan de Bod and Nic Dlamini would follow. He was the first one to go from the development programme to the World Tour. He was the pioneer for the path. Then he exploded on the scene in his first year as a full professional.
“There was always the question of whether you were good enough at Continental level, but are you good enough to race on the World Tour. I was fortunate enough to thrive in my first season, and then the following season, Dlamini followed and De Bod,” said Gibbons.
“In my first year (2017), I went to the Tour of Langkawi. I’d just turned professional. There was a lot of hype around the race. South Africans had done well in the past there. I was fortunate enough to win the race. I’d been a pro for just two months and I’d won a professional bike race overall. Not just a stage. Overall. General classification. That’s when I told myself I’m not going to just do this for another two years and fight for another contract. I’m actually going to try to be successful and do what it takes to be a success.”
His results have improved steadily as has have his skills. He was selected for the Giro in 2017, began the first two stages with an eighth and a seventh, following that up with another four top 10 places – seventh, sixth, sixth and a fifth. In 2018 he again rode the Giro, with another seventh and a fifth. The Vuelta a Espana followed later that year with a ninth on the third stage. Last year began with a bang with five top 10 places in the Tour Down Under and Tour of Oman. Three top 10 places in the 2019 Giro followed, with fifth again being his best result.
Things began a little slower this year, but he won the South African championships and was hoping to wear it at the Tour. He’d been waiting a year for this, but the year had other ideas. Should he crack the team, then his job will be to work for others and look for stage wins. He believes he is, like Cavendish, a sprinter, but he has the ability to get up those short, sharp bumps at pace.
“In my mind I always consider myself a sprinter, but the way professional cycling is today is that it is so competitive that all the sprinters have such a strong leadout that you can’t float by yourself in the sprint. There was a time when you could. Someone like Robbie McEwen, the Australian, who could float and find wheels of other teams. Not that McEwen wouldn’t be successful now, but things have changed.
“Without that support I’ve almost had to change my riding style and be more of a ‘puncheur’. Someone who can get over the little climbs. I proved that in Oman and Tour Down Under (in 2019). I was lying in fourth going into the last stage of the Tour Under, which a sprinter would not normally do. So, I suppose, I am a bit of a puncheur, but if people ask I always say sprinter.”
He has grown his skills in the maelstrom of the bunch sprint, where madness can take its toll if you are not careful.
“The final sprint it just madness. The first thing is that you have got crowds, spectators for the last three kilometres, so there are barriers on each side. You are in the bunch. Your heart rate is pounding. You don’t know what is going on. It’s just tunnel vision. If you brake or go the wrong way, your chance is gone. Split seconds can define results. I take my hat off to those guys who win those races time after time. It’s not only just about power and strength and experience. It’s a lot of guts.
“It’s so manic because even GC riders are nervous about losing a second here or there that they want to be as far forward in case there is a split. So, not only do you have your sprinters. You have your leadout guys, you have guys who might not be good enough to win, but if there is a crash they could get a good result, plus the GC riders. Where you would have 30 riders going for a sprint, you now have 150.”
Crashes? He’s had a few. “I’ve broken lots. I broke my sternum in china one year. Had a lot of concussions, and with those, it’s not like a break were you can say its healed now. It took a long time. I had three concussions in 2017. The whole of 2018 I was on the back foot because of that.”
Luckily, you can’t crash in cyberspace, but you can win. Gibbons will be hoping he gets the chance to do just that in Nice late in August. Things being good and fair and to plan, there is a chance he will live the Tour de France dream.