We’re Here Now

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 Despite these being an out of date design we were instructed that all kit must be handed back at the end of the trip, the only thing we were given was our skin suits.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.

Hotel Ukraina

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.


Filed under Cycling, General and Personal

9 responses to “We’re Here Now

  1. martin rockley

    Great blog David. Good story well told and top pics too! After all these years I have swapped my mountain bike for a road bike – it’s like moving from a Ford to a Ferrari.

  2. @SidneyUK A great piece of work. I’m thinking the letter I wrote was back in 1990. At the time I had experienced a total lack of help/advice from the BCF in diagnosing/treating a knee injury received during training. My best efforts were self financed physio and trips to the hospital. For a full time rider living on the dole money was now a problem. Frustrated and no where else to turn I became a forgotten person. I received no calls from the BCF and was allowed to become another ‘could have been/waste of talent’. For a 19 year old development squad rider with massive ambitions and desire it all seemed wrong. There will be hundreds more stories from young talented riders who were forgotten. Thank god for the current national cycling set up & Rod Ellingworth.

  3. Richard Hughes

    What a fantastic trip down memory lane, both happy and sad at the same time. Remember that year because I broke my wrist in the tour of assen, hence all my form disappeared before the worlds (u guessed it absolutely no help from Team GB), those were meant to have been my main target for that year, even rode the Girvan as a junior in prep early in the season.
    Suffice to say my performances were decidedly below standard at the worlds, however my legs came good and then won points race, pursuit & bronze in the kilo at the National track champs shortly after.

    Remember the peter Buckley series that year as well as I had bike trouble in the last round down south, and Mark Dawes won it after a ding dong year.

    My cycling story continued as a senior, I rode for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in 1990 in Auckland, had trained like a b*stard for it, remember a 10 mile TT over the xmas period just before leaving as the games were in Feb/MArch, a lot of names were there, and Boardman beat me by 1 second !
    The games were very enjoyable but I rode the indiv pursuit, points race, 10mile scratch, 100km ttt and road race…………………
    Great legs for the TTT, dead in the pursuit, 4th in the points race, 7th in the scratch, packed in the road race, not too bad for a 18yr old. Rest of year was dificult after having form so early in the year, seemed to remember coming good again late in the season, and went to Barbados with Spencer Wingrave for GB for some track carnival races 🙂
    1991 a much better year, def stronger, won loads of 1st cat races, rode the Tour of Holland for GB, with familiar faces from my junior days both on our team and dutch, Oz etc etc and then rode the worlds Team pursuit in Stuttgart, after training sessions at Leicester rain permitting. Bikes provided late. Twas pre tri bars, we did 4:20 ish. Also that year won national TTT with Boardman, Gary Dighton and Pete Longbottom (Rip), and also the team pursuit with Glen Sword, Boardman, Scott o’Brien. And a silver medal in the Points race ably assisted by Daryl Webster who was an inspiration to me in my schoolboy days.
    And then in the off season I hurt my back, turned up for the Nat squad medicals, to be told We’ver never seen a prob like that b4, no advice given or referal made, hurt like b*stard to stand but not when riding, had a really good winter training so prob had the best legs I ever had. Obviously 1992 was Olympic year, so was in with shout for Team pursuit and TTT. Eddie Soens was a great race that year with a group of 5 of us away all race, forgot to drink my bottle so blew on the last lap (will never forgive myself for that). Still no treatment or support for my back, which was getting worse. Called a halt to my season in May as couldn’t function properly. Eventually ( 9months) later contact was made with a spine consultant who was registered on the British Olympic Assocation. Clever bloke that he was he was not sports orientated in any way. Had epidural injections to no avail, until eventually had spine surgery and was advised never to race again. NO REHAB organised other what I managed to fund, which was far from satisfactory. Did start riding my bike again (though never ridden a bike since the surgery without being in pain). Seemed to have swapped able to ride but not stand for able to stand but not ride.

    I did start competing again in 1994, my first race back was the Golden wheel race at Herne Hill Easter meet, had been to Majorca for a training camp where could only ride for upton 3 hours before the pain too bad. All the big hitters fancied the Golden wheel victory, Tony Doyle, Rob Hayles, amongst others. My Welsh teammates had not ridden with me before because of my layoff, and the kicking they had given me in Spain. So when I pulled of the win – I was pretty pleased, I still had “it”. On that basis got selected for the Commonwealth Games in Canada, where I rode the points and scratch race. My best effort was the scratch, where managed to cross to the break who were about to lap the field, but as i eased off the last guy blew spectacularly and took me out the back……………….end of……..gutted………….:-(

    Onwards, although cycling was my life, It was obvious that any career was now not going happen, so I applied to study Physiotherapy at University. Competed in 1995 adn started studying in 1996, just as the MAnchester Velodrome was starting to change how things were done.
    And now ? I have a 1st class honours degree in Physiotherapy and specialise in Spinal problems. I have my own Practice in Nantwich, Cheshire. And also assist in the provision of Physiotherapy services to the British Superbike Championship.
    Its not all bad, met my future wife at the Canada games, and now have 2 children Thomas aged 8 and Jessican aged 6. They both ride their bikes, Thomas rode no stabilisers aged 3 and jessica learnt to ride aged 2 – amazing. They race BMX, go mountain biking, I ride a bit from time to time, though it still hurts. Got quite keen earlier in the year and did a few 10’s with a best result of 22.37, which equalled my PB aged 14 years………………….

    So I have to agree with you Dave, the current setup is utterly fantastic, the support in depth, the pools of expertise, the facilities, the financial support, the equipment – WOW !
    It obviously works as the results have got better and better, I would sell a kidney to have my time again with todays level of support.


  4. Nice one Dave (and other contributors) makes me think about all the other greats that have come from our area and also given to cycling over the years, lets hope it continues.

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  6. Scott farrell

    Hi David,

    Happy new year and your blog inspired me to get in touch, I raced against you for a time as a schoolboy on both track at Harvey Haden stadium and mostly at criterium events.

    I won a few races now and then but mostly I would be in the top 4 , missing the podium twice in two national events as a schoolboy.

    We raced together as a team for the East Midlands , in fact I helped you get back in the race after a flat tyre lol,,
    Great to see you did well and that mark and Sally went forward. They were both club members with me and we did spend a lot of time together.

    Cycling ended for me at 16 due to certain reasons and unfortunately just as I was maturing to be a good road rider and finally on the radar as one to watch.

    I have no regrets and today in off to buy a bike and I look forward to enjoying a differnt time while riding.

    All the best to you and thank you for sharing that blog with us.



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