Three days ago I sat riveted in front of the television. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, a Great Britain cycling team in the Senior Men’s Pro World Championship Road Race in complete control and delivering to a triumphant finish their 26-year-old sprinting star, Mark Cavendish. My tweet during the race ‘Today’s World Championship is brought to you by the letters G and B’ was a response to such a complete display of cycle racing.
To give non-cyclists some comprehension of this sporting achievement it is akin to the England football team telling everyone they are going to win the world cup, winning every match emphatically to the final and then delivering one of the greatest games ever to win the championship.
How did we get here as a nation? Only 10 years ago we would have been hard pushed to spot a British rider in the bunch never mind expect them to contest the finish. 20 years ago it was even more fanciful to expect us to perform on a World stage. Whilst my time in the domestic cycling spotlight was brief, curtailed at the age of 20 by a head-on collision with a car, the story of our generation’s experience of riding for our country shows just how far British cycling has come.
As a Schoolboy I was a pretty good sprinter. When I could avoid my inherent self-doubt and subsequent nerves I was one of the best in the country for my age, winning a silver medal at the Juvenile National Championships at age 16. Fast-forward two years and with wins and good rides under my belt as a Junior, at age 18 I was chosen to be part of the Great Britain team.
In 1989 you were informed that you had been chosen to ride for your country by a typed letter telling you that you were on the ‘squad’. However, this meant little more than you might be chosen to ride certain races as a GB rider throughout the season.
In June the national squad of junior men and women travelled to the industrial town of Brno in Czechoslovakia, which was still, but only just, part of the Communist Eastern Block. Our GB team kit was ‘loaned’ to us for the trip. It consisted of a second hand tracksuit, washed but not necessarily in your size. We were also given a short-sleeved GB road jersey. Despite these being an out of date design we were instructed that all kit must be handed back at the end of the trip, the only thing we were given was our skin suits. As these were an all-in-one with nothing worn underneath this decision had more to do with hygiene than generosity.
I performed well in Brno. Halfway through the points race something clicked, against the traditional cycling nations I suddenly realised that this was no harder than riding with the senior riders at the local track, which I did on a weekly basis. I began gaining points and won the last lap sprint, meaning double points and narrowly missing out on a place on the podium. On the strength of this ride and some good results on the road that year, I was chosen to represent GB at the World Championships in Moscow in July, a month later.
The Junior World Championships, 1989. Moscow USSR
Our hotel in the Russian capital, the Hotel Ukraina, was the tallest hotel in the world until 1975. A relic of Stalinist hubris built at the end of the 1940’s, it is one of a group of skyscrapers puncturing the Moscow sky known as the seven sisters. As the world championships were to be held the following year in the UK, it would seem the Russian Federation who arranged the accommodation were keen for reciprocity. You can’t help but think that the hotels of Middlesborough in 1990 were a disappointment to them.
So good was our hotel that the mighty Italians were also staying there. However, in what would be the first of many great differences between the teams, they had brought their own food along with their own chef. We were left to try and satiate our substantial appetites from what was a limited ration of meat and rice. There were sweet biscuits that I recall we would try and sneak out of the restaurant in our over size tracksuits, but generally I recall being hungry for two weeks.
Come the points race, my big event, on the fastest track in the World I thought I was ready. However as I began the ride I discovered I had been put on the same gear ratio as the rest of the team, 88 inches, 3 inches below what I was used to riding. I should have checked it. I was up against the best in the World including the mighty Dmitri Nelyubin who, as a member of the senior Soviet team, had won the 4km team pursuit gold medal at the Seoul Olympics the year before, I didn’t stand a chance.
The road race was around a circuit specifically built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. A young American whose brashness and arrogance saw him go it alone for the majority of the race, before being brought back by the bunch for a sprint finish, dominated the race. His name was Lance Armstrong. My road race ended spectacularly when an Italian put their pedal into my front wheel denying it any spokes.
The team did what it could and I mean no criticism of the coaches and mechanics who came with us who were similarly hamstrung by resources and worked hard for us to our immense gratitude. Riding our own bikes of various quality and dressed in second hand clothes we remain proud of what we did.
Becoming a Senior rider at age 18 meant we were put onto the Senior Development Squad, which saw us being called up for a couple of international races but we were very much in at the deep end. The development team riders of today, or World Class Performance Plan as its now called, are taken to Tuscany to train and develop. In my first senior year I won an international race in the Isle of Man and had some promising results but two races into my second season I had an appointment with a car’s bonnet during a stage race and thus ends my racing story.
Of the Junior GB squad that year I believe there are only two riders still pulling on their lycra in anger. Manxman Andrew Roche is currently a professional rider on the domestic circuit. Matthew Charity I still see riding his bike on Facebook in his adopted homeland of the USA. National champion that year, Richard Hughes, along with Lee Burns, Rachel McGhee, Mark Armstrong, David Cross and the awesome brother and sister duo Mark and Sally Dawes were all lost to the sport.
However, also on that squad was an extremely likeable character whose constant smile and perkiness endeared him to all who knew him. That rider was Rod Ellingworth who would go on to become not only Mark Cavendish’s coach but also the mastermind behind the team performance which would deliver the first Men’s Cycling Road Race World Champion for 46 years on Sunday. Through an injection of lottery funding and making sure that nothing is ever left to chance again, British cycling has never had it so good.
Rod and I exchanged emails last year during the Tour de France, at which he was Road Coach for the SKY professional team. He told me what continues to inspire him is remembering back to when “us lot” went away on GB trips and the other European nations looked at us as if to say “you don’t belong here” Rod wrote “Well, f*** em……….we are here now!” Yes mate, we most definitely are.