Leah Thomas’s journey from newbie to Olympic hopeful
Every good cycling result has a compelling backstory—just ask Leah Thomas.
After her breakout ride—a sixth place finish at the 2015 USA Cycling Time Trial National Championships—Thomas examined her bicycle and saw that her saddle had slipped down more than one inch during the effort. Thomas had no idea that such a thing could happen during a race.
“To say I was green was an understatement,” Thomas told VeloNews. “I was new, naive, but also had this understanding and deep confidence that I belonged in the pro peloton, and that if I kept my head up and ears and eyes open, I could be racing top races.”
That confidence has helped Thomas blossom into one of the top American riders in the international peloton and an Olympic hopeful for the 2020 summer games in Tokyo, less than five years after her saddle mishap. This past season Thomas stepped into the UCI Women’s WorldTour with the Danish Bigla Pro Cycling Team. She capped off the season with a victory at the Chrono des Nations time trial in October.
The win punctuated an already impressive year; Thomas dominated the Tour of Scotland, winning the final stage, the general classification, and the points jersey, and she also took home the gold in the ITT at the Pan American Championships in Mexico. Taken alone, Thomas’ results give the impression that she transitioned from the domestic race scene to Europe seamlessly. But that wouldn’t be the whole story.
“I was completely unsure about what to expect in the 2019 season,” she said. “I had a new coach, a new team, new peloton, and was going to be living in Europe essentially full time. I had lived abroad for a year during college, so the living abroad was the least of my fears.”
The challenge was just another one Leah Thomas has overcome in her rapid rise through the women’s peloton.
After her first appearance at Nationals in 2015, Thomas signed on with Team Twenty16 (which would later become Twenty20) and spent two full years on its roster. Riding for Kristin Armstrong and watching her battle out a spot for the 2016 Olympics taught Thomas invaluable lessons about racing tactics and also the skills required to navigate life as a professional cyclist.
“I grew a lot over that time and am grateful for their support,” she said. “They helped see me to a third place finish in the ITT in 2017, and I had some other good results on my resume. I felt like I had my feet under me.”
In 2018, Thomas took her sure footing and moved to United Healthcare to join a “once in a lifetime team roster,” including fellow Americans Katie Hall and Janelle Cole. During that time, Thomas’ personal development as a cyclist was counterbalanced by her growth as a teammate.
“We raced as a unit, supported one another, lifted each other up, and I believe we won every stage race and podiumed at every road race that season,” she said. “It was on that team that I learned, you may not be the strongest, but racing with a united front, completely committed to a goal, makes you much harder to defeat.”
Despite their dominance in the women’s peloton in the U.S., UHC shuttered at the end of 2018, forcing Thomas to make some big decisions after a satisfying season at home.
“This was perhaps the biggest blessing,” Thomas said, “because it pushed me to look for opportunities in Europe.”
Thomas signed with Bigla for 2019 and tried to ready herself for the changes that she knew were imminent but that would end up being too foreign to fathom until she experienced them herself. In Europe, Thomas found her uncertainty about transitioning to racing in the European dissipate as she got to know her teammates and lined up at the storied spring classics. She learned that the team’s racing style suited her, as did the overall nature of European racing.
“The racing is more aggressive, the courses more intricate, and the peloton is stronger,” Thomas said. “I was worried I would be in over my head – and at times I surely was – but the aggressive style of racing fits me.”
Ironically, it was the ‘living abroad’ piece, the part of moving that she wasn’t worried about at all, that ended up challenging Thomas the most. Not only had she moved her life to Europe, she also spent long stretches away from her European home. She and her long-term boyfriend split up. She was learning to deal with the dynamics of a different management style. There were times she felt homesick and, “didn’t want to always have to adjust from my American ways.”
“All of those challenges really forced me to think about what I need in order to be a successful athlete,” she said. “Pretty much every piece of stability I had going into the 2019 season was uprooted from under me, and while I felt like I was scrambling, I know that all the changes and challenges and hurdles thrown at me last year made me stronger and more resilient.”
Last year Thomas also experienced what she calls “the biggest test there is” for a professional athlete: how to respond to disappointment. After a crash at the Boels Ladies Tour, she went into World Championship’s injured and off form. That was the initial disappointment: after dedicating much of the season to training for World’s, Thomas felt confident she could show up in England in the tradition of strong American time trialists. The second let-down was her result.
“Coming in 7th felt like a complete and utter failure,” she said. “It would have been one kind of disappointment to come in 7th knowing I had my best race, but I left Yorkshire feeling I didn’t come close to demonstrating what I knew I was capable of. I was injured, I was hurting, and fell into a dark place coming home at the end of the season. I didn’t know what the extent of my injuries were at the time, but I felt like so many people had put so much behind me to give me the best shot at a good time trial at World’s and I had let everyone down. It took a while to be able to use this experience as motivation to be better and get stronger.”
With Tokyo on the horizon and three coveted spots on Team USA up for grabs, Thomas has even more motivation to keep pushing. She’s focused on the spring season and battling it out with the team to get Bigla the best results possible. Her strong showing in 2019 created memories she’s proud of, but what motivates Thomas most is the other side of the story.
“Being a professional female cyclist is hard and grueling, but that’s what makes it rewarding,” she said. “I have learned so much about myself, and there is still so much more to learn, and figuring out the best ways to move forward is a puzzle I love solving.”