Tough training leads to classic road race

Published date: 23 April 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


BY now Gareth Thomas – or Alfie as he is affectionately known – will be well into his training regime for Etape Cymru.

I was invited on a preliminary ride around some of the steeper parts of the 88-mile circuit, which runs through Wrexham and Denbighshire, alongside the dual code Wales rugby international and former North Wales Crusaders player.

It did not begin well.

Due to a misunderstanding on my part, I packed my cycling shorts, helmet and gloves, but no bicycle.

Fortunately Margaret Hollings, fundraising and events manager for Nightingale House Hospice in Wrexham, saved the day.

She was there to support Paul Cook, 31, of Wrexham, who is racing in memory of his fiancée Gemma Manthorpe, who died last month of breast cancer.

Margaret said: “We might have a road bike in one of our second-hand shops,” and after a flurry of phone calls she’d secured a blue Falcon Super Tourist, which might have had older component parts than me.

We recovered it from a nearby outlet, where it was stowed, with the price tag still on the handlebars, next to the sleek, carbon-framed vehicles owned by the other race participants.

It was a bit like shoving a squeaky old house cat into a shed full of panthers.

“That’s gonna hurt,” quipped one, when he saw the antiquated seat and gears.

Gareth was in good humour on the bus.

He said: “Nick (Rusling, chief executive officer at Human Race, the Etape organisers) started ringing me a couple of months ago. I refused to ring back at first. I thought it was a wind-up.

“What a joker, trying to get me to cycle 88 miles in a day!

“But he kept calling back and because I’m linked with MacMillan Cancer Support, the official Etape charity, it became something I wanted to do.”

Now Gareth has a little under five months to transform his rugby physique into a supreme saddle-man.

The race has seen some controversy in past years and concerns prompted route adjustments this year.

Nick Rusling said: “It is a big undertaking, ensuring 88 miles of road closures. It is bound to annoy some people.

“But we are working with locals and part of the reason the race is here is to promote the area. It’s beautiful and Wrexham itself is a centre of excellence for riding.

“The race itself is something people can get involved in. If a 15-stone former rugby player...”

“Probably 16 stone,” said Gareth.

Nick agreed: “Probably 16 stone former rugby player like Gareth can do it, then anyone can.

“It isn’t just for the nine stone professional cyclists.”

I looked at Gareth who, even after retiring from rugby two-and-a-half years ago, still has muscles in the right places and sinews visible in his legs. Then I looked at my soft, lily-white calves. Some of us have a bit of an advantage, I thought, even if they aren’t making do with a borrowed Falcon Super Tourist.

I sat next to Paul Cook, who really is an ordinary man, even if he has gone to extraordinary lengths to support his cause.

Paul, a long-time fundraiser for Nightingale House Hospice, has attended each Etape Cymru event since the route was set up in 2011.

This year he will be racing in memory of his fiancée.

He said: “Nightingale Hospice looked after Gemma so well.

“She was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She had chemotherapy and a right mastectomy. Then it came back and she had a left mastectomy.

“She spent her last days at the hospice until March 24, when she died. She was 33.”

Paul, who works at St Christopher’s School in Wrexham in the hydrotherapy department, has a three-year-old daughter by Gemma.

He said: “She’s called Emma. She’s breath-takingly honest. We’re getting on with life, because that’s what Gemma would have wanted.

“She was a force of nature. She worked in a shop for years and then decided, ‘Right, I’m going to study and change my life’ and she did.

“I’m doing a degree at the moment, and I’d love to train more for the Etape, but as a single father it’s difficult finding the time.

“And every so often Emma will just say something like, ‘Is mummy still dead?’ and it just takes your breath away and everything stops for a moment.”

Despite his loss, Paul is determined to stay the course.

“Gemma was like that,” he said.

“Right up to the last, even when the doctors took me aside and said these would be her last couple of days, she still kept hope.

“She was a fighter. There was no doubt in her mind she was going to come through it.

“And the staff at Nightingale House – what they did for us! They are incredible people.”

Paul now bikes with a picture of Gemma glued to his handlebars.

Although he has spent recent months caring for Gemma, he powered up the hill, taking the curved road away from Llangollen and up toward the Horseshoe Pass.

The same could not be said for me.

The other cyclists had dubbed my bike ‘Rusty’, and although he didn’t quite live up to the nickname, he and I struggled to keep up.

After fighting the hill for a while, I flagged down the ‘sweep’ vehicle that was trailing us and hopped on board.

“Good effort,” said Mr Rusling, and then, seeing my woebegone face, he added:

“We’re doing another stretch, down into World’s End.

“What we’ll do is drive you to the top where it’s flatter and you can have another go.”

Rusty started to rival Gareth as the celebrity of the day. Experienced cyclists peered at the bike, manipulating the brakes, inspecting the gear cassette and tyres.

The real cyclists were released at the foot of the hill, while Rusty and I were given a head start up the path.

Under a blue sky, with the fields and moorland heather stretching to either side, I could see how the race showcased the best of Wrexham and Denbighshire.

But even my thrilling taste of the Etape Cymru will be nothing to the triumph that Gareth Thomas and Paul Cook will feel when they cross the finish line in September.

l To sponsor Paul Cook visit To take part in the Etape Cymru on September 14 visit

For more news from across the region visit

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