We’re still here

This is a slightly amended version of an original blog from 2011 which I wrote following Mark Cavendish’s World Championship win in the Men’s Road Race in Copenhagen.

The achievements of Team GB and British Cycling on the track at the Rio Olympics is yet another reminder of how far British Cycling has come since I rode for the national junior and senior development GB squad during the latter end of the 1980s.

I know the current crop of riders get sick to the back teeth of our past glory stories and how it was ‘back in the day’, however, whilst there is pathos in the careers that never were, this is meant as a celebration of what cycling has achieved and I don’t begrudge them a penny.

To preface my musings from 2011, I think it’s worth me just adding what track training was like when I rode for the squad in 1989. It consisted of one morning session each week, on the one track the UK had in Leicester, every Wednesday. No matter where you lived in the UK you had to travel weekly to it, and whilst expertly coached by Alan Sturgess, the session was often rained off as it was an open air velodrome.

Rain on a track day meant long hours in the saddle on the road, with the junior and senior teams riding together in dull and damp resolution that we’d missed another day to hone our track skills.

Footage of one of these GB training session, taken from the Channel 4 Equinox documentary on the Bicycle, is below and remains the only footage I have which shows me riding:

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 on tight narrow courses round car parks, 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 of France, Belgium and Denmark and also the mighty USSR and East Germany, I suddenly realised that this was no harder than riding with the senior riders at the local track.

I began gaining points and won the last lap sprint, meaning double points and narrowly missing out on a place on the podium which was reserved for the Eastern Bloc countries somewhat surprisingly.

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

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.

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.

None of that Junior GB team went on to be household names, Manxman Andrew Roche was a professional rider on the domestic circuit for time.  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 medals at the Rio Olympics.

I emailed Rod back in 2010 whilst he was performance director at Sky, where he still holds sway, and 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.

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