CAPE MAY — At this time 15 years ago, Tom Gibbons was sitting on a couch at home in Middle Township, his bandaged big toe propped on a pillow.
An accident during a surfing contest had forced him out of the water for a few weeks. The only surfing he was doing was with the remote control.
“I was at a contest in Ocean City, and the surf was flat,” Gibbons said. “A bunch of us decided to jump off the rockpile. I jumped and landed on a shell that sliced open my big toe.”
While recovering, he was scrolling through the channels and came across the 2002 Tour de France.
Gibbons, then 12, watched Lance Armstrong win the fourth of his seven Tour championships, though they were all later erased because of doping violations.
“Watching that race is what got me interested in cycling,” Gibbons said. “I thought that might be something I’d be good at.”
He was right.
Now 27, he turned in an impressive performance last week at the USA Cycling National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky.
Gibbons was believed to be the only rider to finish seventh or better in three races. The 2008 Middle Township High School graduate placed second in the men’s CAT-1 road race, fifth in the men’s CAT-1 amateur criterium and seventh in the men’s amateur time trial.
He was among two local riders who fared well at the four-day event.
Noah Granigan, a 21-year-old Middle Township graduate and a student at the University of Colorado, placed second in the men’s Under-23 criterium.
“A sprinter, time trialist and road racer walk into a bar,” Granigan wrote on Gibbons’ Facebook page. “Bartender says, ‘Hey Tom.’”
Gibbons nearly won the road race, a 110-mile event last Friday that featured 130 riders.
Gibbons, who rides for Belgium-based team Baguet-MIBA-Indulek-Derito CT, was among a group of 20 that broke to the lead at the 55-kilometer mark. He surged to the lead with about 250 meters remaining, but defending champion Daniel Holloway of Texas Roadhouse Cycling Team nipped him at the tape. Both were timed in 4 hours, 13 minutes, 58 seconds.
“I thought I had a good chance at winning it,” Gibbons said. “I had real bad leg cramps at the end for the first time ever, but I thought I could hold him off. It was a great race. I really wish I could have won it. There’s no feeling on earth that compares to winning a bike race.”
Gibbons has developed a knack for riding well on holidays.
He got the biggest victory of his career on Easter, winning the prestigious Menen Classic in Belgium. He topped a group of 164 riders during a one-day, 94-mile race through narrow roads.
He prevailed in a three-man sprint down the stretch to get the victory over runner-up Rob Ruygh of the Netherlands and Belgium’s Martin Palm.
“Winning that race was definitely the highlight of my career,” Gibbons said. “Even if I had won something at the nationals, I think (the Menen Classic) would still rank first for me. It was happiness that bordered on disbelief.”
It represented the highlight of an unorthodox road to success.
Unlike most top cyclists, Gibbons was not a phenom. Once his toe injury healed, he first started competing in triathlons with a mountain cruiser. He didn’t make the transition to cycling until age 21, after his sophomore year at the University of Miami.
He became friends with Noah Aguilera, a businessman and avid cyclist from Miami. Aguilera introduced him to Johan Bruynell, a noted cycling director, who convinced Gibbons to go to Belgium.
“When he told me he was going over there, I was flabbergasted,” Gibbons’ father, Edward, said. “He didn’t know anybody and he had nowhere to live. He wound up staying in a hotel for a few days before he could find a place. But as shocked as I was, I was also impressed that he was willing to make those sacrifices to pursue his dream.”
Gibbons competed in Belgium from 2013-15, racing in cycling’s equivalent of baseball’s minor-league system.
He spent most of last year racing out of Athens, Georgia, throughout the East Coast and returned to Belgium this season to race with Baguet-MIBA-Indulek-Derito.
Before heading back to Europe on June 29, he kept up his cycling regimen by riding between his father’s Linwood home and the family house in Cape May, where the late Anne and Harry Gibbons raised Edward — who is now a top local triathlete — and 10 other children.
And even though Tom Gibbons has ridden thousands of miles all over the world, it remains his favorite route.
“I rode over the West Cape May bridge, along the beachfront and headed back on Ocean Drive,” he said. “But I made sure to go by my grandparents’ house and wave. My family has always been extremely supportive.”