The Welsh high school that breeds champions

2018 Tour de France champ Geraint Thomas, four-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale and two-time British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton are the pride of Whitchurch High School in Wales. Courtesy Whitchurch High School

On Friday afternoons at Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, the staff cycling club hits the south Wales roads, decked out in identical gear. "It's a bit sad, but we all bought a Team Sky kit to look the part," said Eric Coombes, head of science for the high school. The congruity serves as a tribute to one of their former pupils: the 2018 Tour de France champion, Geraint Thomas.

That corner of the north Cardiff suburb is engulfed in Thomas euphoria, with the local council adding a yellow jersey to their red dragon emblem. Memories are flooding back of the young Thomas from his time at Whitchurch (1997-2004), then just a promising cyclist. The school's current head teacher Huw Jones-Williams, who taught Thomas in Personal and Social Education class, remembers a "modest lad, with a great sense of humour, who wasn't an out-and-out joker, or a real extrovert, but he had an inner confidence in his own belief. And when he got on a bike, he tore the track to shreds.

"Everything you see on television is true. [Thomas'] reaction to winning, there's an amazing talent, an incredible self-belief and someone who has modesty beyond his years," Jones-Williams says. "He is someone who is truly, truly a champion -- and it couldn't happen to a nicer person."

Those in the physics department have stayed closest to the 32-year-old cyclist because of their mutual love of the sport, and talk of aerodynamics and G-force in class inevitably juxtaposed with Thomas' feats. It was at Thomas' school leaving when Coombes challenged him to a cycling race up Caerphilly Mountain, a nine-mile sprint there and back from the school and a frequent feature on the Tour of Britain route. "It was his first mountain he went up when he was cycling for [local club] Maindy Flyers," Coombes says. "We never had that race -- just as well really, as I'd have been embarrassed. I don't think Caerphilly Mountain compares to Alpe d'Huez."

The Wall of Fame at Whitchurch features photos of past and present pupils who have excelled in sport, including recent Commonwealth Games silver medallist, gymnast Latalia Bevan. Also alongside Thomas are the school's former pupils four-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale (Class of 2005) and two-time British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton (Class of 2007). When Bale paid tribute to Thomas, he wrote on Twitter: "Incredible achievement from a fellow Whitchurch High pupil!"

On Sunday, as Thomas' Tour victory was confirmed with a sip of champagne down the Champs Elysee, a hashtag started popping up on social media: #whitchurchmassive. Thomas used it when he paid tribute to Warburton, who retired from rugby last month. It popped up again when Bevan won her silver back in April and again when Bale scored his remarkable overhead kick against Liverpool in May. It will be used in the future -- maybe with promising sprint cyclist Jacob Dixon, who is in Coombes' form group. But it is anchored on pride.

Steve Williams is the man who taught PE to Thomas, Bale and Warburton, and Jones-Williams says he has gift as a teacher. "Everyone can taste the champagne, but it's how do you deal with that cracked pelvis, or that broken arm," Jones-Williams says. "How do you deal with that sense of not quite making it? [Steve] is always championing their cause, even when in real time it might not be working out. You're not just producing robots or machines. You are helping to shape lives -- and Steve did that."

Coombes remembers a biology teacher coming to him many years ago, worried about a pupil. Though this lad named Geraint loved cycling, he frequently came to class covered in bruises or cuts. Or, on occasion, he simply wouldn't be there. Years on and in the back of Thomas' 2016 book 'The World of Cycling According to G,' he writes: "I'd like to thank ... Whitchurch High, for allowing me all that time away. Mr Williams for letting me leave the school rugby team."

The school knew they had a talent on their hands, but perhaps not a future world-beater until later. "It was just after he left Whitchurch where he had the crash in Australia where the piece of metal went through his front wheel and he ruptured his spleen," Coombes says. "We realised at that point he was quite a special cyclist."

Coombes and Thomas still catch up now, bumping into each other on Wales' roads, Thomas easily discernible in his Team Sky gear, his white Oakley sunglasses and Pinarello Dogma bike. Though he is Thomas the superstar cyclist, he's still the former Whitchurch pupil, keen to hear how the school's going, Coombes' latest news or who the latest medallist to come from the school will be. "He's a nice lad," Coombes says. "He'll always speak to you; he waves as he inevitably zooms past you."

Whitchurch is now making a space on the Wall of Fame for a yellow jersey. "There's no arrogance, and the [former students] come back grateful knowing where they came from," Jones-Williams says. "That's an enormous sense of pride. Geraint wasn't a shouter or a gloater when he was in school. He was a bright boy, very switched on but very modest with it as well, and hopefully, that's helped him close everything down and just focus on the job in hand."

Coombes has now bought a yellow jersey, to go with his Team Sky kit. He is also delighted that Thomas' triumph has seen his Fantasy Tour de France form improve. For Jones-Williams, Thomas' win in France is the perfect start to his farewell year at Whitchurch, a time he will look back on which included three former pupils called Sam, Gareth and Geraint.

"They're the three superstars, you could almost write it as a Disney film," Jones-Williams says. "I doubt there'll ever be another school where you get three major sports people achieve almost No. 1 status in their sports. It's mind-blowing."