The people of Yorkshire set great store in medals tables. While the British nation as a whole bathed in the post-Olympic glow from London 2012, rightly proud that we were capable of pulling off such a huge undertaking, chuffed that only the behemoths of China and USA landed more gold medals than this island nation of shopkeepers, the 5.3 million inhabitants of Britain’s largest county held their very own little celebration.
Yorkshire, in its own right as a standalone country, would have finished twelfth by the end of the Games, tucked in behind Australia and Japan, and well ahead of Spain, Brazil and New Zealand.
“I think the Leeds chaingang would have finished about fifteenth,” says Giles Pidcock, only half joking. With the likes of triathlon stars Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, and Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead forcing the pace on the legendary twice-weekly tear-ups, Pidcock’s maths may not be totally accurate but neither is the assessment too wide of the mark. NetApp-Endura’s Scott Thwaites is another regular, as are Sky’s youngsters Josh Edmondson and Raleigh’s Tom Moses. “It is a bit of a dick-measuring contest sometimes though,” Pidcock says of the lads’ over-enthusiasm. Boys will be boys…
Pidcock, in case you hadn’t worked it out, is a Yorkshireman and proud. He also organises one of the finest criterium racing evenings in the country, held in Otley each July. Winners of the elite race often as not hail from the county: Jonny Clay, Chris Walker, Russ Downing, Scott Thwaites. Manxman Mark Cavendish (2005) and 2013 winner Felix English from Brighton are anomalies. It’s a hardman’s crit. And they make them hard in Yorkshire. Always have done.
From Beryl Burton to Brian Robinson to Sid Barras, through to those name-checked above, “God’s own county” has turned out a steady stream of cycling greats that threatens to turn into a torrent in the coming years. The Tour is coming to town and the population of the White Rose expanse of northern England are ready to welcome it with open arms. If there is a quantifiable legacy from the London Olympics, then the Tour de France starting in Leeds – some of us are still struggling with the incongruity of that concept – will multiply the effect.
“The local kids see people from round here, people who are friends with their brothers and sisters, winning gold medals; they take a deep breath and then find out the Tour is coming,” says Jon Riley, Ilkley Cycling Club’s media officer. “It is not like standing at the edge of a football training ground with your binoculars. These people are riding the same roads as the kids, they are in the same cafés, and then you see them on telly the following day.”
The peloton, shortly after leaving Leeds on the Tour’s opening day, will barely notice the two small towns separated by six miles of gorgeous Wharfedale Valley, but Otley and Ilkley are hotbeds within a hotbed; strong cycling communities within a tradition of strong cycling.
I am sat with two men of this parish, Pidcock and Riley, telling me how great Yorkshire is. And we all know how grating that can be, yes? About as annoying as Londoners bemoaning the lack of a drinkable cup of coffee in Otley. (“Was it ordinary coffee you wanted, love?” she said, spooning two shovels of instant gack into a cup. I didn’t dare ask what the alternative might be…)
The thing is, it’s hard to disagree with them. Any excuse to leave town and hit the Dales and I’m there. The riding is superb, the scenery likewise; the pork pies to die for, the coffee… variable, as is the weather, of course. You can experience every climatic variant in the space of one short ride. There’s rarely a dull moment, and if Yorkshire produces hard men and women, then its weather systems play a part in the finishing school.
But it’s the start that interests me. Who is taking the raw material and churning out these talented bike riders? The clubs in Otley and Ilkley stand to produce their fair share in the coming years, so they are good places to begin. Otley Road Club dates back to the 19th century, folding and re-launching under another guise until the present-day incarnation, Otley Cycle Club, emerged in the 1920s.
But the big story here is Ilkley CC. Starting from scratch just three years ago (the town’s original club disbanded in the 1950s), membership has rocketed to over 1,000 – this in a town with a population of around 20,000. Any given residential street in Ilkley is going to have several cyclists living there. The resurrected club’s very first ride, hatched like most of the best plots by a handful of men and women over a few beers one evening, attracted 100 riders. Ilkley was a town crying out for a club.
And the impressive statistics don’t end there. Thirty-two per cent of Ilkley’s members are younger than 18, with girls marginally outnumbering boys – which in itself is a remarkable figure in a historically (certainly in recent decades) male-dominated sport. Ilkley CC has won awards for its work in the community. The club has developed its own Youth Development Pathway, to progress the skills of children from their very first unsure wobbles on two wheels through to elite-level competition. “By the time they are ten, they can ride anything with confidence,” says Riley, and I can well believe it.
What the committee of Ilkley has tapped into is, in many ways, a return to traditional cycling club values, brought up to date. Many long-established clubs of the kind that taught me the ropes as a green 13-year-old seemed to be struggling when I returned to the sport in my late twenties. Sponsored teams were forming by the dozen – fine for the aspiring racer, but where do the youth fit in? Too many clubs had evolved into male-dominated “keep up or piss off” cliques, unwelcoming to say the least. The upshot was, understandably, dwindling membership or extinction for those unwilling to change, while the likes of Otley and Ilkley have thrived.
“I think what Otley do very well,” Riley says, “and what we try to do as well, is to have a club that isn’t the traditional ‘whippets in lycra’. Everybody gets taught how to ride in a group – that social experience without having to race.”
“Like it was 40 years ago,” Pidcock adds. “People want to be pro bike riders and have all the gear, but without having the ability and the palmarès. They might think Otley and Ilkley are a bit staid. That’s fair enough, but you need to learn the ropes first. The clubs are really important. And they are seeing a resurgence, I think.”
From what I saw of the youngsters in action at the White Rose Youth League in Bradford, the clubs of Yorkshire and their progeny are in rude health. The circuit at the Richard Dunn Sports Centre is the perfect environment for up-and-coming riders to take the skills taught in club sessions into a racing situation. Even the very youngest know how to follow a wheel, not that they are averse to attacking given the chance. These kids are being taught correctly.
The finale of the under-14s race reminded me of the Tour finish in Calvi just three days earlier, where Daryl Impey dived into the final corner to set up Simon Gerrans for the win. In Bradford, it was a small boy outsmarting a much bigger lad with a clever move down the inside of the right-hander. I checked the results with the commissaire. Thomas Pidcock. That surname sounds familiar…
So Giles: pushy parent, guilty as charged? “My eldest son is very competitive. There is some talent there, certainly in terms of bike handling. You want your own kid to do well, don’t you? But the problem we have got is holding them back. They want to do it all, now. What we want to make is bike riders, not racers. They have to drive it. I can drive the car, but they have to do the rest.”
Extract from issue 42 of Rouleur Magazine, published in November 2013.