In a break from the usual blog posts updating everyone on what’s been happening at the club, I’ve written this one all about how I got into cycling the first time around. This is quite possibly of no interest to anyone in the world apart from me, but please indulge me: I’ve been housebound for a month and will potentially be off the bike for three months in all due to a nasty muscle injury, so I needed something to do. I joined Lea Valley CC back at the end of 2008, but this was actually my second coming as a cyclist. The original story goes back to the old days when cycling had practically no public profile whatsoever.
When I was growing up I don’t remember ever seeing cycle racing in the newspapers or on the TV. Nobody ever talked about it at school. I couldn’t have named a single cyclist, not even Eddy Merkcx. My hometown (Harlow) actually had a velodrome that people travelled from far away to race on – I didn’t even know it existed. The only races I had heard of were the Tour de France and the Milk Race and the only thing I knew about them were the names. In my final years at primary school Robert Millar won mountain stages of the Tour de France and took the King of the Mountains jersey. I knew nothing about this. I didn’t even know they rode up mountains. Then in 1986 Greg Lemond became the first English-speaker to win the Tour. Again, not even remotely on my radar. The following year I became dimly aware that Stephen Roche became the first Irish winner, but I didn’t see any of it – I didn’t even know you could watch it on Channel 4. My world was all about football and music.
So how did I enter the world of cycle racing? I suppose the first step was when I was about 10 years old and accompanied my dad round to the house of one of his friend’s where his teenage daughter had a ‘racing bike’ for sale second hand. The agreed price was a fiver. The wheels were far too big for me at that time, so I stuck to my BMX and the bike stayed rusting in the shed for several years as a very cheap investment for the future.
I woke up on my 13th birthday to the surprise discovery that the rusting bike had been pressed into action (my dad had paid for it to be serviced) and I was given a work permit so that I could go and get a paper round. Imagine my joy. For the next three years I got up at 6am seven days a week, initially earning the princely sum of £4.50 a week. The bike itself was not fantastic: plastic grips on the handlebars, three Sturmey Archer hub gears, nothing that could be described as gleaming. When I rode it to school my friends asked me why I had stolen a postman’s bike.
I started tentatively heading out on rides of up to ten miles in the countryside to the east of where I lived in Old Harlow: Matching Tye and Green, The Lavers, no further than that. I would have been wearing jeans and travelling without a pump, or a spanner, or tyre levers or any idea what to do if something went wrong (and obviously no mobile phone to call for help in those days).
Mercifully, for my 14th birthday I got a new bike. It was still cheap and heavy, but definitely an upgrade. Gone were the plastic grips on the handlebars: instead they were covered in black foam padding. It had these weird dual brake lever things (I don’t know the correct term for them, but in addition to the usual levers there were horizontal ones coming out of the sides of the hoods which you could pull up when you were riding with your hands on the tops of the handlebars – not actually very effective). Excitingly, the bike came with a rear derailleur which meant I now had a staggering FIVE speeds to choose from.
I started riding further afield, going twenty or thirty miles at a time. Without any technology, the exact distance of each ride was difficult to calculate: I had to work out an approximation by getting a piece of paper and pivoting it on a pencil as I followed every twist and turn of the roads on the OS Map laid out on my desk.
As luck would have it, it turned out that my best mate at school also liked cycling. He was used to riding further than me as his dad took him touring. His bike was also considerably better than mine – it was lighter, it had a front mech (so a mindblowing TEN speeds), it had quick release wheels and his brake hoods weren’t made of metal so he could actually ride with his hands on them. One day early in 1988 he came to school in a mood after a row at home and declared that he was going to run away from home and live in youth hostels. This wasn’t a terribly good idea, but over the course of the day I managed to convince him to radically change this plan into me and him going on a youth-hostelling and cycling holiday in the summer. I was only 14 (turning 15 that summer) so I wasn’t sure if my parents would agree to this. However, it wasn’t out of the question: they had recently let me travel down to London on my own to watch Manchester United away games (and this at a time when football matches were a rather more dangerous affair than nowadays) so there was a chance. Sure enough, they agreed.
With the exception of a trip to Scotland when I was just 6, I had never had any reason to head further north than Milton Keynes. My first taste of The North had come in 1987 when we stayed in Sheffield and visited The Peak District. I thought it was amazing (The Peak District, not Sheffield) and told my mate that we should try to get there by bike. So, armed with a youth hostel handbook, we set off to Harlow Library to spread open a load of OS Maps and try to work out how we could do it. We came up with a route of Harlow – Cambridge – King’s Lynn – Thurlby (a tiny place in The Fens in Lincolnshire) – Lincoln – Edale (at the foot of Kinder Scout and the start of The Pennine Way). We had wanted to limit it to about 40-45 miles per day, but the final day was going to be 65 miles – much further than I had ever ridden before. It was impossible to borrow the maps (and we would have needed about ten of them anyway to cover the whole trip) so all we could do was write down directions on scraps of paper that we would then take with us. The unfortunate knock on effect of this was that we felt we had to stick to A roads and B roads the whole way as at least these were easy enough to identify.
As the next few months passed, I got fitter, rode further, saved up money from my paper round and got more and more excited at the prospect of a week of freedom and independence, leaving behind Essex and ending up in the heather-clad moors, only for my mate to break his ankle while rollerskating just days before we were supposed to set off. We hastily rearranged it from July to the October half term and hoped my mate would be physically capable of riding by then – fortunately he was.
The first few days were fairly straightforward, albeit a bit wet and cold and largely on main roads through boring Fenland. The final day was brutal, though. First of all, we shared our dormitory in Lincoln with The Incredible Snoring Man who ensured I got very little sleep. We had to contend with a headwind for the entire day, most of which was spent plodding past power stations and coal mines in Nottinghamshire. Then in Derbyshire we hit a small town called Eckington where the road went up and up and up. Coming from Essex it was something of a shock to find that a road could climb for three miles. We got later and later and it got darker and darker and we felt emptier and emptier. The last fifteen miles were in total darkness and when we finally made our way up the Pennine track to the hostel in Edale they told us we were too late for dinner and there was nothing to eat. Not quite the glorious return to the Peak District I had been dreaming of.
In the meantime, in early September 1988 one of the customers on my paper round started getting Cycling Weekly…er…weekly. It caught my eye so I bought a copy myself to investigate. It was a window into a secret world. Little of it made sense to me. What was a time trial and how was it different to a road race? What were all these categories and codes? What did ‘st’ in the results mean? What was the BBAR? What on earth was a ‘Raleigh-Banana’? The results page listed things that looked like times and speeds and yet they couldn’t possibly be real. As if somebody could ride 100 miles in 3 hours 43 minutes! As if someone could ride for 12 hours (12 hours!) at nearly 25mph! This was just crazy talk. There was no internet then and I didn’t know anybody in the world who could answer these burning questions for me, so I penned a letter and sent it off to the magazine. The months came and went with no response, so I was left to try to puzzle it all out for myself.
Anyway, I was hooked, despite not really understanding it. Nowadays, with footage of every race on Eurosport or ITV and instant updates available on the internet, any race reports in magazines are cursory affairs because the writers know that practically all their readers already know what happened. But back then this was the only way you could find out anything other than the biggest international races. The reports were compelling reading with two or three pages taking you through the story of how the latest Star Trophy race unfolded. I was fascinated by tales of Ben Luckwell charging up The Tumble in Wales leaving everyone in his wake and Paul Curran doing the same up Winnats Pass a week later, even though I couldn’t see it. They also printed the world rankings and I saw that an Irishman, Sean Kelly, was number one. “Ah, he must be the guy who won the Tour de France last year,” I thought (wrongly).
I hadn’t picked the best time of year to suddenly get into cycling as the season was practically over. In those days the Vuelta was in the spring and the world championships were in August so there wasn’t an awful lot left. Once again, I had failed to watch any of the Tour earlier that year, but I was at least aware of it because there had been a big controversy about the winner, Pedro Delgado, testing positive for a banned substance that wasn’t quite banned after all (it’s a complicated story). But I did manage to get one taste of cycling on TV before the winter hit: some recorded highlights of the Nissan Classic stage race in Ireland which (I think) was shown on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon in October. The only thing I can recall about it now, nearly 30 years later, is a solo breakaway by a British pro called Darryl Webster who did 100 miles on his own and at one stage got 20 minutes clear.
It hadn’t really crossed my mind that I could race myself, it was just something I liked reading about. I had been saving up my money for months to finally get myself a more appropriate bike, but my focus was very much on touring. Finally I had enough money to get myself a Peugeot Azur from Chris Grange’s cycle shop in Bishops Stortford. My dream machine with 12 speeds, quick release wheels, brake hoods you could ride with your hands on – I had arrived. It also had the all-important carrier for my panniers, mudguards, nice wide tyres and wide gear ratios to deal with climbing hills while carrying heavy loads. Little did I realise this would rapidly turn out to be absolutely the wrong purchase.
Christmas came and I got a Cateye Vectra computer with a wire that threaded down to a sensor on the fork. This was entering the space age alright: now I would know exactly how far and how fast I had ridden. I also picked up a Systeme-U top as worn by my new favourite, the bespectacled and ponytailed Laurent Fignon.
Then, out of the blue in the middle of January, a man called Ken phoned our house asking to speak to me. “Hello, is that Jamie? I saw your letter in the comic and thought I’d get in touch, not many Fakes in the phone book” he said. He might as well have been speaking Martian, I couldn’t work out what was going on. It turned out he was talking about Cycling Weekly – this was on a Thursday evening and my copy wouldn’t be delivered until the following morning (by me!), but Ken already had his and bewilderingly, four months after I had sent it, my letter featured prominently (under the headline ‘Jamie, 15, wants to know all about cycling’) along with explanations to answer all of the questions I had asked. Although Cycling Weekly had pointed me in the direction of Harlow CC, Ken was from Bishops Stortford CC and was trying to ‘poach’ me. I explained that we would be moving house in just a few months, but he still said it was worth joining and so I became a member a week later.
A man called Peter (who also lived in Old Harlow) kindly drove me up to their social evenings every week and I started going on the club runs and doing 45-60 mile rides every Sunday (at this point still wearing tracksuit and trainers and riding with panniers). Sensibly, they put me in the slowest of their three groups (they had quite a large racing contingent at the time), under the supervision of a man called Ian and his daughter Wendy, going at a rather gentle 14-15mph.
I had now become completely obsessed by cycling and was pouring all my money into it to try to get ready to try racing for myself – my next purchases were my first ever pair of lycra cycling shorts (with actual leather chamois) and my first ever pair of cycling shoes (old school black ones with laces) which had to go into toe clips and straps – not easy for a quick escape in an emergency.
In the Easter holiday I went on another youth hostelling and cycling holiday with my mate, this time heading south to recce the area my family would shortly be moving to. We went from Harlow to Holmbury St Mary in the Surrey Hills (which involved getting hopelessly lost looking for the tube in Stepney, taking the District Line right through the centre of town out to Richmond, and nearly coming a cropper descending the ridiculously steep White Down fully laden), then down to Arundel in the pouring rain, then across to Alfriston (wasting two hours getting repeatedly lost in Brighton and setting a new max speed of 45mph), over the South Downs to Eastbourne, up through The Weald to Crockham Hill, then home through the sprawl of London with a trip on the Woolwich Ferry.
On that final day we took a detour to Eastway, the cycle circuit near Leyton that was the centre of crit racing in the area. It’s sadly gone now, bulldozed to make way for the Olympic Velodrome. I had already ridden down there from Harlow in to see the ‘March Hare’ race meeting where lots of my club mates raced and there was a chance to see the domestic pros in action (in those days there was no ‘elite’ category and pro racing was completely separate from the top amateurs). Now I got to ride it for myself: I raced my mate round for a couple of laps and average 19.3mph – surely that would be good enough for the real thing?
I was to find out in the middle of April. I entered a crit organised by Crest on the Saturday and another organised by Lea Valley RC (as the club was then known) on the Sunday. I did my best to make my touring bike appropriate for races: the mudguards and carrier came off, but the tyres were still 28mm wide (at a time when most racers had just 19mm) and I had a pretty useless selection of gears. The restrictions on what gears under-16s could use in races coupled with the wide spread of gears that I had (for touring) meant I was left with just two cogs I could use in my races, an 18 and a 21. In those days, of course, the levers were were on the down tube (and weren’t even indexed) so I had a vested interest in avoiding changing gear if at all possible.
My most vivid recollection from the day of my first race is the smell of embrocation in the changing rooms – even today, when I get a whiff of that I am transported back to Eastway 1989. To say I struggled would be putting it mildly – I lost contact with the bunch of 15-year-olds on the climb on the first lap and spent pretty much the whole race puffing around on my own in the red. The younger riders (13/14) had been set off a minute ahead of us, so when they came round I tried to stay with them instead, but got dropped again. I didn’t actually come last (there were a few other stragglers I picked off), but I spent precious little time actually in a group and got lapped twice by the winner (in a race that was only 12 laps long). Ken (who had driven me down there) had to shout out to me to stop when I crossed the line shortly after the leading group – I thought I still had to do my final two laps.
Although it had been a baptism of fire, I was filled with enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to try it again. I got home bursting to tell my family all about it, only to find the Hillsborough disaster was unfolding live on TV. The shocking scenes there dominated my thoughts for the rest of the day, but the next morning after my paper round I had to head straight back down to Eastway to race again. This time I stayed with the bunch for the whole of the first lap but then made the rooky error of pedalling around the tight left hand bend at the end of the finishing straight. My pedal hit the ground, my bike bucked up in the air and I landed spreadeagled over the top tube with my feet still strapped into the pedals. I just about managed to stay upright, but soon realised my back wheel was so buckled that I had to abandon.
Over the next two months I crammed in as many crits at Eastway as I could (instead of revising for the GCSEs I was taking). I got better at sticking with the guys who were younger than me, but never got close to troubling the guys in the leading group. To be fair, one guy who kept winning my races was a youngster by the name of Roger Hammond – within a few years he was Junior World Cyclocross Champion and then later, as a pro, became National Road Champion and was something of a cobbled classics specialist with a 2nd in Gent-Wevelgem and 3rd in Paris-Roubaix, so it’s no wonder I was struggling.
My one moment of (relative) glory was when they had the regional championships. The BCF regions in those days were different to the BC regions now: Bishops Stortford was in the North London region. The top three riders in our regional crit would be selected to race in the national championship and, to my joy, there were only six of us in the race. Two strong guys dropped the rest of us early on. My bunch of four stayed together for the rest of the race and to my huge excitement I found myself taking part in a genuine sprint finish (with a place in the Nationals at stake for the winner) – I was 3rd out of the 4, so 5th out of 6 overall – not terribly impressive, but this was enough to get my name in the results section of Cycling Weekly, something that has never been and will never be repeated.
In June I turned 16 which meant I would have moved up to Junior category and done races of 25 miles against 18-year-olds. Given that I was being slaughtered by 15-year-olds over 10 miles, this wouldn’t have been worth it. On top of this, we moved house down to Sussex where there was no equivalent of Eastway. So that was that: I didn’t do another crit again for 20 years.
Before we moved house I also got my first taste of time trials. There were no tri-bars in those days (they were only used in triathlons) and most people just rode on normal road bikes (though the top guys had low-profile bikes and disc wheels). I don’t think anyone wore helmets either – pretty much nobody wore a helmet to cycle at that time. If you were doing a road race you usually had a token effort, a so-called ‘hair net’ thing which was basically just leather straps – only a very small minority had something that looked like our modern helmets instead, but outside of that I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone wearing a helmet. My first time trial was a 10-mile effort on the A12 to and from Mountnessing. Unsurprisingly, races are banned on this stretch of road now – even then it was like a motorway. My dad drove me there, saw what I would be racing on and insisted I wore the ‘hair net’ (which, frankly, wouldn’t have been much help if a vehicle hit me at 70mph). I did it in 29:00, which I was pretty pleased with as I’d never managed to go over 20mph in any of my training rides up to that point. I also did the midweek Bishops Stortford club 10s on a course between Hatfield Heath and White Roding – despite the dodgy turn (practically a U-turn) and the sapping climb about a mile from the finish, I managed to get my PB down to 28:42.
Just before we left Essex forever, I got a pair of custom-built Campag wheels for my 16th birthday. I joined Central Sussex CC and immediately put the new wheels into action doing their club time trials on dual carriageways outside the town of Horsham. Obviously first time out I didn’t know the roads at all and there weren’t any marshals – annoyingly I took a wrong turn when I was on track for a PB and ended up riding 12 miles before I got to the finish line. But I came back four more times and finished the season with a new PB of 28:00 (which I was furious about because I made it 27:59).
While this was going on I finally got to see my first Tour de France on TV. The 1989 Tour was an absolute classic, from Pedro Delgado missing his slot for the prologue and losing minutes on the very first day, the epic battle between Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon through the moutains, Robert Millar breaking away with Delgado and Mottet and beating them up Superbagneres, and of course the final day time-trial where Lemond (with his newfangled tri-bars) snatched victory from Fignon by just 8 seconds. I was actually gutted for Fignon, but I think I was in a very small minority in this country. The Channel 4 show was a long way from the fantastic job that Gary Imlach, Ned Boulting and Chris Boardman do now for ITV: just 30 minutes of highlights with commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen that sounded like it had come down a telephone and the hairy-handed Richard Keys (later of Sky Sports Football) as a fairly clueless anchorman back in the studio. The one thing that was better than now was the theme tune:
I got to see some of the stars of the Tour up close in real life when I went to watch the final stage of the Tour of Britain later that summer (which was a crit around Whitehall). Robert Millar won the overall that day. There was no separation between the fans and the teams so my brother went and grabbed loads of autographs (including, bizarrely, that of Richard Keys).
My other big chance to see the stars was the following summer. For a few years Britain hosted a ‘classic’ race in the summer called the Wincanton Classic. In 1989 it was based in Newcastle, but in 1990 they moved it to Sussex. I rode down to Ditchling Beacon (just 15 miles from where we now lived) and had the fantastic experience of sprinting up the top of the climb over names like ‘Millar’ and ‘Kelly’ chalked on the road and surrounded by hundreds of spectators.That high was shortlived – I turned around at the top and started freewheeling back down to join my friends at their vantage point, nearly shot past them and slammed the brakes on, then toppled over sideways and become stuck lying against the steep banking with my feet unable to unclip from the pedals while dozens of people laughed at me until somebody finally rescued me. We saw the peloton make easy work of the Beacon (when interviewed after the race, Robert Millar dismissively said “What hill?”) as they did several loops, then we rode down into Brighton to watch the finish on Madeira Drive right on the seafront in brilliant sunshine (Gianni Bugno won, if anyone was wondering).
After moving to Sussex I rapidly had to learn how to climb as Ditchling Beacon was far from the only hill around. We lived in The Weald which was hilly enough in its own right (if you’ve ever ridden down to Brighton, you’ve probably gone down some of my old training roads around Warninglid, Handcross, Balcombe and Ardingly), but we were also within easy reach of both the North Downs and the South Downs. The worst of the latter for me was not Ditchling Beacon, but Steyning Bostal. You’ll find it described in Simon Warren’s 100 climbs book (climb #21), but the version he uses (which is also the version used for hill climbs every October) is actually the easier one with a nice stretch of flat between the two ramps. If you’re looking for a challenge, start on Newham Lane instead of the Bostal Road – not only is there no flat if you go this way, but you have to make a right turn while climbing a 17% gradient (just pray there is no traffic coming).
My new club was smaller and only had one group for the winter training club runs so I was thrown in at the deep end with the strongest guys. To make matters worse, the club coach (who was a 1st cat road racer) insisted that I could only use my small chainring during the winter months (to help me get used to riding at a high cadence). This might have made some sense if I was intending to do road races (which I wasn’t) and if I was on a racing bike with high gears instead of a touring bike. I was left spinning like a lunatic. I only managed two of their 60-mile training rides – one went up Leith Hill, the other somewhere on the South Downs near Arundel (I had no idea where I was), both of which left me utterly destroyed and demotivated. Then fate intervened: my Saturday job at Fads (‘The paint and paper people!’) suddenly turned into a Sunday job which gave me a face-saving excuse for not being on the club runs. Even better than that, no other town centre shops were open on a Sunday in those days (I’m not even sure if it was legal for my shop to open), so hours could pass without a single customer coming in: I got paid time and a half to basically do my A-level homework on the counter.
At the start of 1990 I finally got a bike (or frame and components to go with my Campag wheels) that could be described as a racing bike, a black and white MBK with Colombus steel tubing, indexed gears (obviously still on the downtube) and concealed brake cables. Combined with the Look clipless pedals I had got for Christmas, and the special sunglasses I bought, I felt I really looked the part at last. The only thing spoiling the look (from my perspective) was the helmet that my parents were now insisting I wore. These were just appearing on the scene, but were still very much a minority thing and I just couldn’t see the point myself. Nowadays almost everyone wears them and we take them for granted, but at the time I thought it made me look like an alien. It wasn’t very sophisticated either – it was literally a lump of polystyrene with a detachable lycra cover and a strap underneath.
Over the 1990 season I reached a level of fitness I wouldn’t see again for nearly 20 years. I was out all the time training on our local circuits trying to outsprint my brother or club mates to the tops of the hills and the village signs. I went on two more touring holidays with rides of 70-80 miles (at that time my furthest ever): one around Suffolk and Norfolk at Easter and one heading in a big C-shape from Harlow-Oxford-Overton-Southampton-Hindhead (the Devil’s Punchbowl)-home. On the latter of these we tried to get a ‘moody’ photo of the barbed wire security fences around the Greenham Common air base (scene of the protests in the early 80s). The security guard saw us, satisfied himself that we weren’t peace protestors and then invited us in to pose for a photo where he pretended to arrest me.
I did lots of time trials – in the summer months I was sometimes doing three a week, with Central Sussex club 10s on Tuesdays, Crawley Wheelers club 10s on Thursdays and then an open event (usually on the A24) at the weekend. I got my 10 PB down to 27:15 and tried a few 25s with a PB of 1:12:57.
And then….I lost interest. I had bought an electric guitar and wanted to be in a group. As the season finished in the autumn of 1990 I started going to more and more gigs in London. I grew my hair long. I wasn’t remotely tempted to get out training through the winter. So, I hit the start of the 1991 season with practically nothing in my legs and a misplaced belief that this didn’t really matter as I had some kind of magical natural fitness. I entered a 25-mile time trial on the A27 somewhere out between Worthing and Chichester. The weather wasn’t great, but it was the same for everyone and nobody else seemed to be affected like me. As I went round I looked in horror at my average speed: at my very best in a 10 I would be looking for 22mph, for a 25 more like 20.5mph. I soon realised 20mph was going to be impossible and hoped that 19mph could still be considered respectable in the circumstances. But that slipped away and then so did the chance of even hitting 18mph. In disgust, I didn’t write down my time or keep the results that were posted to me so I am afraid it is lost to history, but I remember it was bad. Very bad. Far worse than anything I had done before, I might even have come dead last.
I quit racing on the spot. I didn’t want to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning any more to go to a start line in the middle of nowhere, didn’t want to force myself out in all weathers to train and train and train. I didn’t feel that I looked right any more: my long hair was poking out from under my alien helmet, my legs looked very hairy compared to the others and there was no way 17-year-old me was going to shave them, and I had got so short-sighted I had to wear my round John Lennon-style glasses instead of my shades. My enthusiasm for cycling ebbed away and most weeks I couldn’t even be bothered to ride at all.
There was one final hurrah when my friend and I went on one final cycling tour in July 1991, ending up in the Peak District again, but this time via a zigzagging longer route. On the final day we went up Winnats Pass – at least that’s what the route was, but I can’t remember anything about it. I rode up there again in 2014 and it was absolutely murderous – 25% in places and my heart rate hit the highest ever recorded while I ground up at about 6mph barely managing to keep the pedals turning. I simply refuse to believe I could have ridden up there wearing trainers and with full panniers – we must have walked.
Anyway, almost as soon as that holiday was over I was off again, Interrailing around Europe, and then off to university without my bikes. When I came back home the following summer my dad tempted me out for a training ride (he was now doing triathlons). He dropped me within a couple of miles – oh, the humiliation – and I turned around and went straight back home. That was it, I’d had enough. There was no way I was ever going to get involved in such a stupid masochistic sport ever again. Sixteen years passed before I changed my mind.