“That wasn’t supposed to happen!”: Guitarist-turned-commentator Perry ap Gwynedd on Thomas, Bernal and this year’s Tour

A grin the size of the Severn Bridge breaks out on the face of Peredur ap Gwynedd when he recalls the memory of Geraint Thomas winning the Tour de France last summer.

The proud Welshman might spend most of his year as a guitarist with the electronic rock band Pendulum, but when July rolls around he’s one of the voices of the Tour de France, on Welsh national channel S4C.

He’s covered every Tour since 2014 but even he admits he had doubts Thomas could ever win the biggest prize of them all.  

Speaking to Allez! Allez! CC before heading to Brussels for this weekend’s Grand Depart, he said: “When it happened we were like ‘that was weird, that wasn’t supposed to happen!’ and looking at his face when he won – the incredulity of it – you could see it!

“I have a t-shirt that says ‘I just won the tour, man’. I’m sure he would have always liked to have won the Tour but I’m not sure even he thought he could do it a few years ago.

“It was very strange because when we first started this whole project in 2014, I never thought I’d see a Welshman win the Tour de France in my lifetime.

“Back then, Geraint was still the best Welsh cyclist that we had but we thought he’d go on and be a Classics guy and a good domestique. We thought he’d go on and win Paris-Roubaix or something but five years later he won the bloody Tour!”

Perry got into cycling watching not the Tour but the Milk Race due to a lack of Channel 4 signal in his part of Wales growing up.

Little did he know then that a couple of decades later, he’d be in Paris, working for a national broadcaster witnessing Welsh sporting history.

He said: “Last year’s Tour de France was just the most emotional I have ever, ever been in my entire life. There’s my wedding and my son being born obviously but it was just so emotional.

“The feeling of walking up and down the Champs Elyseé. We could go wherever we wanted and we looking at the crowd and there was just red dragon flags all the way along. I think I saw one Union Jack. It was all bloody Welsh flags and I just thought ‘this is amazing’.

“We’re only a small country of about three-and-a-half million people. A lot of Wales descended on Paris.”

Perry, who has also performed with the likes of Faithless, Natalie Imbruglia, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Tinie Tempah, says he can pinpoint the moment he thought the Team Ineos rider might be in with a shot.

Back in 2015, Thomas stormed the Tour de Suisse, finishing second overall on GC.

But it was a performance on stage five, a hilltop finish in the ski resort of Sölden, that caught the eye.

He said: “It was one hell of a climb which goes up about 2,800m. He came fifth on the day and I suddenly thought ‘my god, he could possibly go on and win the Tour’. The only thing in his way was Chris Froome!

“There was an ongoing joke that he was the Welsh crash magnet but he’s hard you know. When he crashed coming off the Col de Manse coming into Gap a few years ago, when he lost his sunglasses. He hit his head against the pole and I just thought ‘oh my God, that’s bad’ but he just got up and back on the bike!

“The previous Tour I think he broke his pelvis but still finished the Tour; the guy is hard!”

The links between music and cycling are well-versed. Kraftwerk, famously, used to jump off the tour bus 100km from the gig venue and cycle the rest of the way while former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne penned a book chronicling his cycling life.

Perry himself is no slouch and is also a fan of the ‘cycle between gigs’ approach adopted by the German music pioneers.

“I haven’t done much cycling myself at all at the moment because I’ve got an 18-month-old son so I’m the most unfit I’ve ever been but cycling is a bit of an obsession.

“If there’s two gigs and I can cycle from one to the other I’ll do it rather than take the tour bus. The first one I did I started in Zurich and the gig the next weekend was in the west of France so everyone flew home and the tour bus went to France but I cycled it.

“It was six days and I got there before they did which was pretty cool. I was bike-packing before it was called bike-packing! I had a small bag on the saddle – 8kg of luggage, on a carbon bike as well!

“The last time I did it when I was touring with Faithless about three years ago from Zurich to Ghent in four days. The first day was going over the Black Forest which wasn’t flat, the second day started with the Vosges mountains which isn’t flat and then it was through the Ardennes and then Flanders so none of it was flat! I just love doing it though – there’s something quite zen about it!

“I’m there on my bike for four days or a week and it’s just me and my thoughts – it’s quite cathartic really.

“Most of my cycling is done solo anyway. I used to be part of a club in London which doesn’t exist anymore so since then – and the advent of the child – it’s mostly solo.”

Spending a lot of time on location at the Tour de France has given him plenty of time to get to know some of the peloton.

And they’ve been more than happy for to have an internationally-renowned musician along for the ride when at training camps across Spain and Italy.

One of Perry’s best mates is former BMC and Lampre rider Manuel Quinziato, with whom he’s spent many a day on the bike.

He admits he still pinches himself when he’s riding in Italy alongside his heroes of the peloton.

He said: “My first one was in 2011 and I’ve done quite a few with them in Livigno in Italy, pre-Tour de France and pre-Vuelta and that’s something else!

“I’m nowhere near them! Once they go uphill, I’m doing my own pace because I’m not even going to try and follow those guys.

“Where you are in Livigno, it’s altitude training because it’s about 1,800m above sea level but there’s a valley, a very high valley, with about 30km of flat so that’s what the pros do every morning. They do about two hours easy on the flat just getting warmed up.

“There’s a long, long train of you, sometimes up to 40 riders all in two by two and sometimes you get to be at the front and you think ‘wow, there’s Elia Viviani behind me!’.

“So many pros go there pre-Tour that you’re literally riding alongside Viviani or Steven Kruijswijk or Peter Sagan and it’s just bonkers!”

So what about this year’s Tour? Perry believes those writing off Thomas may be acting in haste and, despite the crash that curtailed his Tour de Suisse, he is still the man to watch.

He said: “I’ve heard a lot of people say he isn’t as fit as last year but he is. Last year, in the Tour de Romandie he came 32nd, this year he was third so he is doing a lot better this year than he was last year.

“You’ve got Egan Bernal there as well. It’s going to be an interesting Tour because, yes, it’s a lot more open than it was because of Chris and Dumoulin not being in it.

“Jakob Fuglsang, whose best finish at the Tour was seventh, has just won the Dauphiné, he’s been doing really well all year so I’d keep an eye out for him but Geraint is still favourite.”

If his compatriot was to win a second Tour title, Perry will once again be ready to help him celebrate – with a Welsh flag!

The 44-year-old, whose brother Rheinallt is also part of the S4C team, always takes the Red Dragon whenever he heads to France.

And last year one of them took centre stage with Thomas.

Perry said: “I buy a couple of Welsh flags before I go to the Tour every year because our satellite truck has a big mast on it so we put the flag on top of that so when you go to the zone technique you can see.

“I took two last year – one on the mast and then the spare was on the gazebo we have outside the truck to shade up from the sun. During the last time trial when Geraint came third and unofficially crowned Tour champion, Brailsford ran through the zone technique area and went to Geraint.

“He saw our flag and asked if he could take it so that flag you see around Geraint’s shoulders is my flag! He was holding it aloft at the end of the time trial and on the podium!

“This year I’m taking three with me.”

S4C will be showing the Tour de France in full every day. For more information on timings etc click here.

All images courtesy of Perry ap Gwynedd and ASO.

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