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  • 20.03.15

    Ray Eden

    One of British cycling's great characters was killed four years ago. Ian Cleverly's tribute to the big man who went from full-on smoking and drinking to the verge of Olympic selection 

Because in your view Mr Eden had the temerity to exercise his rights, you decided you were going to teach him a lesson. You exercised all the expertise and skill you had developed as a trained boxer.

“The family of Mr Eden cannot in any way be compensated for their loss. They are in fact the opposite of you – courageous, dignified and decent people, and I hope they understand that a court is constrained in sentencing powers and cannot always pass a sentence that a family might like. The appropriate sentence is one of four years and nine months imprisonment.”

Judge Roger Keen QC, 12 August 2011

By the time Judge Keen came to his summing up we had already listened to a succession of lawyers appealing for leniency on behalf of their clients. Possession of a firearm; threatening behaviour; supply of amphetamines; attempted sexual assault and robbery: the gamut of wrongdoing was lain out before the public gallery in Sheffield Crown Court for the defence to plead mitigating circumstances, the prosecution to argue otherwise, and the judge to sift fact from fiction.

We witnessed Gail, the widow of former Great Britain cyclist Ray Eden, address her husband’s killer from a distance of just a few feet. Her words to Luke Jolly were as brave and moving a speech as I have ever heard.

“I wanted the last word to let him know how I felt and how it’s affected us,” Gail told me. “It just annoys me that he has got away with it – well, he hasn’t got away with it exactly, but he’ll be out in about two years. I did it for Ray. I have always been a really strong character – that’s why he married me.”

Judge Keen dismissed the defence counsel’s notion that Jolly had thrown a “soft punch”; that he had shown “deep remorse”; that previous convictions for drug offences and cautions for common assault were somehow unrelated to the new charges being considered. Jolly – described by Gail minutes earlier as “a coward who didn’t have the decency to stop to see if my husband was okay” – picked up his sports holdall of belongings and was led away to prison.

A large percentage of the Rouleur readership will, understandably, have little idea who Ray Eden was or why he should be the subject of a feature within these pages. But his is a story worth telling. It is the tale of the most unlikely cyclist you could ever encounter; the story of a man who within the space of three years turned himself from an overweight, smoking, hard-drinking Scouser into national time trial champion, GB road rider and – were it not for an injury – Olympic selection.

The fact that I and three other Rouleur writers – Matt Seaton, William Fotheringham and Guy Andrews – have exactly the same recollections of first encountering Eden in a race situation says much about the man and the impression he made wherever he went. The now demolished Eastway circuit in East London gave Eden his first taste of bunch riding. The rules of etiquette we all adhered to, learnt from years of racing, did not apply to Ray. We believed that appearance was paramount; look smart for a winning frame of mind. Sit tight in the group until the right combination of riders is up the road, then – bam! – jump across. Use your head in the break; save some energy for that explosive sprint for the line.

So when this big fella on a bike lines up on the grid, coated in city grime from working as a courier all day, kit never quite fitting, socks grey where they were once white, helmet perched at a jaunty angle on the back of his head exposing most of his furrowed brow, he was instantly dismissed as a no-hoper. How wrong we were...

Within a lap or two, Eden would smash away off the front of the bunch, occasionally to be brought back, only to go again after a brief breather, never to be seen again. Eastway and its regulars had never before witnessed such a demonstration of raw power on the bike. Even when you knew he was going to attack, there was nothing to be done, such was the ferocity of his jump.

The weekly evening time trials saw Eden in his element, powering round ten laps of the undulating circuit in record times. Seaton, no slouch on a bike himself, recalls the demoralising effect of being handed a beating from Ray: “On a good day, I'd go under 25 minutes, maybe do a short 24 in really good conditions; then one day, there's this hulking bloke, who looks more like a rugby player – rugby league, not union, once you'd heard him speak – and barely fits in a bike jersey, and he just shows up and starts riding short 22s. And I swear you would see some gut hanging out under his jersey in those days, because he clearly lived on a diet of pies, chips and beer. But he was awesomely strong. And with that craggy, pockmarked face, frighteningly ugly too. But he was a legend to be able to do it like that.

“Seeing him a couple of years later, when he was riding for a serious team, he was still big and ugly, but had clearly learnt how to train and look after himself a bit better and had shed a stone or two. I remember thinking it was almost a shame: he'd sort of become just another bike rider – albeit a monstrously strong one – and was no longer this unlikely looking lump who would just show up after a day riding around the city smog and rip the road up.”

Eden’s colossal strength made him the ultimate rouleur: always prepared to give it a go; to instigate the unlikely move; or turn himself inside out trying. If you made the mistake of watching him go, as many of us Eastway regulars did, you would be racing for second place.

If Ray’s appearance made for an unlikely cyclist, his upbringing made it a miracle he ever found the sport at all. Gail will say nothing of her in-laws, not wishing to stoke an already inflammatory situation. Best man at their wedding and Ray’s friend and equipment backer in the early years, Richard Paige, chooses his words carefully: “They rocked up late at the wedding, then got absolutely wankered. Ray came from a really, really rough background, but he was blessed with great intelligence. My understanding is that he put himself into care at the age of 15. That kind of logic was what put him into care. His mother doesn’t know to this day that he is dead.”

Damian Foy, godparent to Ray and Gail’s son Finn, says: “He had been in care in Liverpool with various families. His mum left early on, but they did meet up later in life, but the things she said to him I can’t even repeat to you. They were simply appalling. But it shocked me.”

Eden had made his way to London by his mid-20s, laying rail tracks on the underground at night, cleaning hotel rooms in the morning, sleeping in the afternoon, and existing on a diet of cigarettes, lager and curry. Stepping into the road in Earls Court in an exhausted fug, a near miss with a cycle courier gave him inspiration for an Alan Bleasdale, Yosser Hughes conversion: “I can do that.”

“I was working at On Yer Bike in Tooley Street,” says Paige, “and he had been coming in as a courier, and we built up a rapport. Some couriers came in with a bad attitude, but Ray was likable from day one. So he was going to do a mountain bike race in Essex on Sunday and asked if we would sponsor him. I said I’ll see how you get on, and thought I wouldn’t see him again.

“He rocks up on his courier bike after the race – everybody else was obsessed with equipment back then – having wiped the floor with the Sport category riders, got his Benson & Hedges out, sparked one up and said: ‘Are you going to sponsor me then, or what?’”

“Within two years he was racing Elite level, still looking like a tub of lard. He had dropped the fags, but he would still down four cans of lager and a curry every night. Not exactly the diet of champions, is it? He did remarkably well for such a fat git – mountain biking is such a skinny person’s sport and he was knocking on 14 stone at the time, I would think. That’s an enormous amount to haul up climbs.”

Paige continued supporting Eden after starting his own bike shop, Bicycle Magic, in east London. Ray was living in a squat by this time with fellow courier Damian Foy, both joining the Eagle Road Club and learning the art of road racing under the tutelage of Vic Smith. “It was Vic who guided us a lot in our racing,” recalls Foy. “We called him Father. Also, an Irishman, Pat. Pat won the mountains jersey in the Rás and was always on at us to go over and ride it. We had this training ride where it was Pat the climber, Vic the tester and me, the sprinter, and the plan was we would just hammer Ray all day long and try and break him. These would last six hours. If new people came out with us, they never came back again.

“Vic educated us about road racing and bikes. He would come round to our squat in Hackney with his VHS player and show us A Sunday in Hell and all these classic films and educate us. We were like sponges, absorbing everything, going ‘fuck, this is amazing.’

“Ray was still smoking 40 a day, and in the evening he would eat a vindaloo and half a loaf of white bread with butter, washed down with a few cans of Tennent’s – not Carlsberg: it had to be Tennent’s Super, proper boozer’s drink.”

If the dietary lessons still had a way to go, Eden was soaking up the racing advice from Vic Smith and upsetting the old guard with his unconventional approach to everything: winning a 25-mile time trial on a cyclo-cross bike, lapping the field twice at Eastway during a hailstorm, winning the hotly-contested Bill Temme Memorial in ’94 with a brilliant solo ride, telling the organiser at a ‘cross race he would pay the entry fee out of his winnings (he crossed the line first, obviously). The stories are legion. “He won another race at Eastway on a maroon 531 Condor mountain bike that he used to dispatch on,” says Foy. “They were trying to tell him he couldn’t ride it because the bars were too wide. But he talked his way round them and won!”

The big man was turning heads, as Dave Loughran – sponsor of the Optimum Performance-Power Bar team containing the core of northern hardmen that nominated the 90s UK domestic racing scene – discovered at the national 50-mile time trial championships. “I was supporting Wayne Randle and Ray was his minute man. Wayne got to within ten metres of him at the turn, then Ray just rode away and put two minutes into him on the return leg. Wayne says to me just after the finish: ‘Fook me, Dougie. He’s reet strong that fat kid – tha’ should sign ‘im.’”

Now Eden was added to a squad including, at various times, John Tanner, Wayne Randle, Kevin Dawson, Mark Lovatt, Paul Curran and Gary Speight. “I was so lucky when I had Wayne, John and Mark riding together,” says Loughran, “because they were the three best in the country at their peak at the same time. Even when they were riding against the Linda McCartney team, with their 12 riders and two team cars, we would win, and our team had fuck all. Lovatt was a pure rivet rider. He’d go from the gun, take a few with him, murder them for ten miles, and it would either come back before the end – in which case John would take the sprint – or Mark would take it himself. You couldn’t race against it.

“They were before the Team Sky era, so missed out on the money the guys get now. I could put together a decent team, pay them five grand a year and it wouldn’t cost me much. Lovatt is a six-time winner of the Tour of the Peak, and still works for me. Half of my employees came out of the team.

“I saw Ray first in ‘94. I always looked for the riders who were at the front of the group: that was our spirit. But you couldn’t miss him, could you? I think it was Dave Williams who told me there was this kid who had started road racing who, when Wayne or Curran or Tanner attacked, could go with it. But when Ray Eden attacked, nobody could stick with him. He had such acceleration and power. He also had a knack for attacking downhill with a tailwind – he was completely clueless. When Mark was away at the Girvan in the yellow jersey, Ray came up and went straight past him, didn’t even let him sit on. He was a bit of a loner. But the reason you sponsor someone like Wayne or Ray is every time there is a photo, you can bet your bottom dollar they will be in it.”

It was around this time that Eden came to work for me, the fat controller, as a cycle courier. I figured the man who had recently won the national 100-mile time trial championship would make a pretty rapid deliverer of parcels. How wrong could I be? He was painfully slow, a controller’s nightmare, making poor money (couriers are paid per delivery) and caring even less. “Kidder, Kidder, where now?” I would holler down the radio. No reply. When I quizzed him, Ray replied that his eight or nine daytime hours on the bike were just recovery rides from the morning and evening training sessions...

Eden’s hardcore training ethos fitted in perfectly with the legendary Powerbar trio of Tanner, Lovatt and Randle, as Loughran explains. “When John [Tanner] won the Commonwealth Bank Tour of Australia, beating Hincapie and Julich and the like, Shane Sutton said it was the best ride he had ever seen from a British rider. This was in November. They interviewed John on the podium and asked what he attributed his great form to, and he replied: ‘Riding t’ Boggle Hole wi’ Wayne for last four weeks.’ All they did was ride from here to Whitby and back. 110 miles each way, over the moors, going: ‘Fuck off, you’re half wheeling me.’ ‘Fuck off yourself.’”

For Eden, training would always be exactly the same route, flat out the whole way. Bishop’s Stortford and back on Wednesdays, recalls Foy of their east London days. Once he had moved north to Doncaster, the mid-week thrash would be 140 miles in the direction of Lincoln. “I asked him if he got bored,” says Loughran. “He replied that it was training, not for pleasure, so why vary the route?”

It had all come together very quickly for Eden in ’95. He had lost a stone and a half in weight, but still carried enough bulk to be billed “the heaviest King of the Mountains in the race’s history” at the twenty-eighth edition of the Girvan Three-Day in Scotland. He had turned his silver from the previous year into gold in the 100-mile TT, again thanks to that reduction in weight. Yet he had not turned into a clean-living saint overnight. I ran into Ray at the courier’s pub one Friday night, curry and pint in hand, best wheels and kit bag by his side. “I’m off to Ireland for the Rás,” he said. Irish Pat from the Eagle RC had obviously made an impression and Ray wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He sank another pint before heading away for his train, and returned to London a week later with a stage win and three second places, giving him the points jersey. The Liverpudlian and the people of Ireland had got on famously. They recognised a kindred spirit.

The meteoric rise from overweight mountain biker to road racer of note culminated in call-ups for Great Britain. Eden pulled on the GB jersey – in those pre-Lottery funding days when a jersey was just about all the Federation could provide – for the Tour of Wallonia and Tour of East Switzerland, the latter providing this typically Eden-esque comment for Cycling Weekly:

“I attacked and attacked on this one day and I always blew and got brought back but I kept attacking and eventually I think they just thought if he wants it bad enough let him go.”

There were other less successful foreign trips with the seriously under-funded GB squad; trips which left Eden furious. He may have been new to the sport but he was no youngster and time was slipping away. “They would drive to a big race in France and have to sleep in the back of the car,” says Loughran. “He was really offended by that. This was his big chance. And he was kipping with a load of kids in the van.”

But Eden’s story certainly struck a chord with the cycling media, Gail renaming Cycling Weekly “The Ray Eden Weekly, because he was always in it.” Richard Paige concurs: “I have got a copy of Cycling Weekly with him on the front cover, riding my bike, wearing my helmet, and looking like a sack of shit. And that’s the front cover!”

Being called to Birmingham for testing at the Olympic Centre showed how seriously those at the British Cycling Federation were taking Eden. “He did all the cardiovascular tests; measured him up for his skinsuit; drug testing – Ray always got drug tested, wherever he went. They couldn’t believe that he had risen so fast. He had all his GB kit,” remembers Gail.

We all wished Eden the best of luck early in ’96 as he packed his bags for AS Corbeil, the French team run by the Gallopin brothers, Guy and Alain. It was a disaster. He was back in no time, the rumour reaching my ears that he had been sent packing for eating pizza and drinking beer. “I went over to visit him,” says Gail. “They didn’t pay him, didn’t give him his mail. His team manager, Guy Gallopin, caught me picking the lock on the mailbox. He weren’t happy but I told him where to go. It were me sat drinking beer and eating pizza, not Ray. They told him that he couldn’t ride for GB in any upcoming races. So he just left, without being paid, and met up with the GB team. And they brought him home.”

There were other reasons for Eden’s swift return, Foy remembers: “They kept hassling him to take vitamin injections, but he was disgusted with the whole idea. He said: ‘They’re moaning at me about eating a few biscuits and having a can of Guinness, yet they want me to do that.’

“They also accused him of throwing a time trial, the Circuit des Mines, because he used the small chainring at one point. But he was second to a Cofidis rider: it was a great ride. He always felt that because he was older and wiser, he didn’t need to take orders like the young French and Lithuanian kids.”

There was still Olympic selection to aim for as Eden came home, settling in Doncaster with Gail and working part-time at Loughran’s Planet X warehouse (as did, and still do, many of the team sponsor’s other former riders). A crash in a road race in Hull resulted in a broken shoulder: the Olympic dream seemed to be over, although Eden was reluctant to let it die.

“It was a couple of months before he was supposed to go to Atlanta,” Gail explains. “When we got him home, he wouldn’t take any pain relief in case it was on the banned list. He had a turbo trainer on the patio, so we turned the bars round so he could still ride and spin his legs every day.”

It was never going to happen. Eden finally gave up the notion of being a fulltime bike rider and turned his attention to fatherhood. Son Finn is a talented rower, with a big engine, like his dad. Gail and Ray used to row together as a double, but he was “a nightmare” says a smiling Gail. He would sit in the bow seat, telling his wife to sit up straight – a classic back-seat driver.

“He started making decisions based on his personal life rather than from a sporting perspective,” says Paige. “Time was not on his side. He was too old and he knew it. If you understood the man, and where he’s come from and what he’s done, you knew he just wanted to be happy and have a family. And his family became absolutely everything to him.”

Eden ultimately came back to riding “more for fun than anything else,” according to Gary Davy, a fellow Planet X employee and longtime friend of Ray’s. “Riding with Ray was like following a derny. He’d flick his elbow every so often, but you couldn’t come through. Everything was done at Mach 9 – none of this tapering or easy days stuff – but that’s how he was. He did everything like that; very old school mentality. I’ve never seen him with a heart rate monitor. ‘You know when you’re knackered,’ he always said.”

When the old Planet X-sponsored gang reconvened for the legendary Boggle Hole weekend ride (bring a toothbrush, a few quid and a propensity for suffering), Foy was suffering more than most. “They all went to the pub but I went to bed early. The next morning I had a voicemail from Ray, but he thought he was ringing Gail. It was a really beautiful message, saying how much he loved Gail and Finn. They really made an effort for each other. They had an amazing relationship. He found that love, and I think that was all he had been looking for, really.”

So it comes as no surprise that the loving family man should intervene when neighbours were arguing in the street early one Friday morning in March. Ray tried to calm the situation, encouraging Jolly and his girlfriend to take their differences back inside the house. One punch from the former boxer and Eden was down. He died three days later.

“Turns out he had a virus,” says Loughran, “so his white blood cell count was five when it should have been seventy-something. His blood wouldn’t clot. They got it up to about 50, I think, by Saturday lunchtime, but that was it. He had gone. I was away, but flew back Sunday and got there Monday morning when they did these stem cell tests. He just looked like he was asleep. I said: ‘Come on you lazy bastard, you’re the only one that knows where everything is.’

“The doctor asked about organ donation. Richard said: ‘Well, I’ll have his lungs and legs…’”

Ray would have appreciated the joke.

 

From issue 27 of Rouleur 

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