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  • The Chairman: Former British champion Tim Harris and his Belgian Seat of Learning

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    Cavendish, Froome, Thomas, Dowsett, Yates, McLay – even Gaviria. The big draughty house in Belgium that provides an invaluable stepping stone to the professional ranks

    Photographs: David Powell
    Tim Harris

    This is the story of a big house in Belgium.

     

    Within its walls, along its corridors, through its communal kitchen and living space, some of the finest riders in the world have idled, prepared for races, slouched in front of the TV, boiled water for pasta and generally discovered whether or not they will make it. It is a remarkable institution, with no official accreditation. It is almost as if it doesn’t exist.

     

    “Nobody knows we really do this. They wouldn’t have the foggiest idea. It’s not a known thing.”

     

    *         *         *

     

    When I first met Tim Harris, he was upending a chair in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the north-west of England.

     

    We were in the breakfast room, gloomily pushing sausages around our plates and preparing for another day of torrential rain on a particularly inclement edition of the Tour of Britain. It must have been 2009, I think.

     

    I was presenting the TV coverage on the race and Tim was driving one of the official Skodas, a job he still does to this day, both on that race and on the Tour de France. He was someone I knew from a distance, always smiling, often chatting, permanently tanned and relaxed. But I hadn’t yet been introduced to him, until that morning.

     

    I looked up from my breakfast to see him peering at the underside of his chair. Frowning in concentration, he pushed the seat section out, and, to his evident delight, found what he was looking for. “Ha!”

     

    “Thought so,” he declared, not without a sense of triumph. “Bloody crap, these.” Then he righted his chair, sat back down on it, and continued to butter his toast. “I could do them for half that.” And that, it seemed, was his final word on the matter.

     

    I looked around at my fellow breakfasters to see if they were as confused as me. They were an assortment of men and women who had worked on the race in a variety of functions for a number of years. They evidently knew Tim well and they didn’t seem remotely bothered by this somewhat impassioned furniture-based monologue. It was as if they had heard it all a hundred times before. Which, it transpired, they probably had.

     

    This was especially true for Jos Ryan, whose job it is on the Tour of Britain to chaperone riders on and off the podium at the end of stages. She knows them all, and they all know her. The esteem in which she is held is evident. She also knows the chair-fixated Tim Harris better than anyone. For well over two decades, she’s been living with him.

    Tim Harris

    You see, chairs have been the making of Tim. He decided to call time on his successful career some time in the early ’90s when, according to him, everybody in the peloton became “incredibly fast” and there was no point in turning up any more, if you weren’t prepared to join their club, which he wasn’t. So that was that.

     

    That was all very well and good, but it kind of begged the question that faces every retiring athlete with almost two thirds of their allotted life-span remaining: what do you do now? Adrift in Belgium, where, after spells in Italy, Spain, Holland and Portugal, Harris had finally settled, his plans were vague at best, and at worst non-existent.

     

    Mercifully, his landlord Julian Nees had an idea; an idea that involved wholesale chair supply.

     

    Nees ran an amateur cycling team and a furniture business. He suggested that Harris should try his hand selling chairs. After six months, he had sold none. Not one. Seems he wasn’t very good at chair-shifting. In desperation, and to raise a bit of cash, Harris arranged to sell his car (a beloved Mercedes) to someone in Spain. So he drove there from Belgium, and, while he waited for his customer to arrive with the money, headed for the beach, presumably to gaze at the horizon and into the void of his life, contemplating the deep financial abyss into which he had been plunged.

     

    Then he got a phone call. A customer wanted to order 600 chairs. Salvation! He kept the car, and drove back to Belgium, running away from the car sale and headlong into a life of intense furniture trade.

     

    And that’s very much where he now finds himself, hemmed in to within an inch of his life by hardwood chairs, and destined for a sedentary life all over Europe. The chairs ooze from the back of vans parked up outside his red-brick East Flanders house. They fill warehouses, proliferate in rooms, pack out sheds, stack up in cellars, awaiting shipping to their final destinations; a royal hunting lodge in Balmoral, the Honorable Artillery Company in the City of London or a conference room in a hotel in Slough. For objects designed to sit still, his chairs show an extraordinary degree of motion.

     

    There is a seminal piece of absurdist theatre by Romanian exile Eugène Ionesco, Les Chaises, in which the stage gradually fills with chairs on which no one is sitting. In the unlikely event of anyone adapting the play for film, they needn’t bother building a set. They simply need to ring up Tim Harris (or email him, at an address that begins timharrischairs@…) and hire his capacious premises in the Hageland. It would look just right.

     

    One day, I ask Tim Harris who he sells chairs to.

     

    “Anyone who sits down.”

     

    *         *         *

     

    We are in his home, his actual home, rather than the legendary house. We’re going to drive over there later on in the day. It’s a cold January late morning. The kettle is whistling again, for the third time of asking. Tim is leaning against the back of the couch. In front of him, the dining room table is littered with photographs, posters and cuttings, going back as far as he can remember.

     

    We’ve lost ourselves in names and races and photographs of half-remembered riders, and household names looking impishly young.

     

    The chairs are only half the story of how this all came about. They are simply the means to an end. They are the kindling wood that has lit the fire, although they are, of course, fashioned from high grade oak. I wouldn’t want to suggest that they should be chopped up and used to get a fire started. But what really matters, for our purposes, is this: The business they generate has allowed Tim and Jos to indulge their shared passion.

     

    In short, and by a remarkable sequence of events, they have, almost accidentally, set up an unofficial cycling academy; a kind of freelance refuge for an extraordinary community of cyclists, drawn from across the globe. The pictures on the table reflect the diversity; Norwegians, Chinese, South Africans, Colombians. It is a kind of homespun base camp for the sport’s Everest, a place for riders to find out what they are really made of, a springboard to greatness for the chosen few, or a chastening retreat into the real world for the many who fail to make it. From May through to September, their beds are full of aspiring talent, resting up after another day smashing themselves to pieces in the crucible of Belgian kermesse racing. The place is a giant hurt locker, with a considerable heart.

    Tim Harris

    The whole thing really started in 2003 with a puncture. Tim Harris, the chair-trading retired racer, was out on his bike, enjoying, or perhaps simply enduring, the endless network of quiet, concrete roads that criss-cross the landscape, when he felt it go. He wasn’t far from home, so it was perhaps even more irritating to puncture right there. He stopped outside a tall, double-fronted red brick house, and set about changing his tube.

     

    He glanced up at the building. It was rather fetching, detached, with ornate brickwork decoration; a typically proud example of provincial bourgeois architecture of the late 19th century; not unusual in this part of the world, but perhaps an unusually fine example. It was the oldest house in the neighbourhood, and, after a variety of incarnations, most recently as a supermarket, it had become somewhat (very) dilapidated. But, he couldn’t help but notice, it was for sale. Chairs had been selling well. In the early part of the 21st century, a lot of people had wanted to sit down.

     

    So he bought the house. And then the cyclists came.

     

    Their hospitality and services have been used over the last decade, according to best estimates, by a staggering total of 106 professional riders (setting aside the many, many hundreds more who never make it as pros). It is a roll of honour that includes 30 Olympic medallists, 30 World Championship medallists and 4 Grand Tour winners. Bradley Wiggins, Ryder Hesjedal, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are among the signatures in their guest books.

     

    Legends mugs by Richard Mitchelson

     

    In one photo (Jos keeps so many), the latter is seen posing awkwardly outside their house in the white of his Konica Minolta team with a huge trophy he won on stage five of the Giro delle Regioni during an excursion to Italy that summer. The ‘Froome Room’ is still in use. When I visit, it is awaiting the imminent arrival of the Canadian cyclo-cross team in preparation for their World Championships; a spartan, clean, bright space. Froome passed through it a decade ago, and was barely noticed by his hosts, meek and unassuming as he was.

    Tim Harris scrapbook

    In their formative years, so many riders have, at some time or another, arrived in spring at the front door of the imposing house in the tiny Belgian hamlet of Tielt-Winge, dropped off their kit bags in one of half a dozen shared bedrooms and prepared for a season of some of the hardest racing there is. They are graduates of the Harris-Ryan Academy.

     

    *         *         *

     

    In many ways the territory of the Hageland, a beautiful, apple-growing chunk of gently undulating Belgium to the south of Antwerp and the east of Brussels, bears some comparison with Harris’s home county of Norfolk. Harris grew up as a cyclist knowing that his strengths lay in hard races on flat roads. After a typically eccentric British cycling childhood, recording his weekly mileage in scrapbooks, yearning for the glamour of continental racing, and feeding on the scraps of race reports fed back to the isolated community of enthusiasts at home via Cycling Weekly or the occasional snippet on World of Sport, he went on to fulfill his dream. He didn’t win the Tour de France. But he did make a living.

     

    The first inkling of success to follow came when he went to Italy on the invitation of a complete stranger, who he had bumped into in Norfolk, and promptly won a race on the shores of Lake Como. The victory in the prestigious Trofeo Citta di Dongo (the small town where Benito Mussolini was shot dead in 1945) accorded Harris instant notoriety back home. His local newspaper in Norfolk detailed his success overseas and recounted his winnings in loving detail: “a marble and bronze trophy valued at £80, a cup, a three-feet high bottle of wine plus six other bottles of wine, a tubular tyre and 50,000 lire in cash (£30).” The trophy still sits in his living room. But I think the wine’s been drunk. And the lire spent.

     

    The photograph of the olive-skinned 17-year old from Swaffham accompanying the article in the Eastern Evening News sits next to the pigeon racing results. That was about the status of the sport back then. By a curious twist of fate, his back garden in Belgium has a pigeon racing coop next door.

     

    “Look at me,” says Tim, gazing fondly at the newspaper clipping from 1980. “I look more Italian than the Italians.” Indeed he did. He still does. He ended up learning to speak fluent Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to go with his Mediterranean appearance after years spent racing on the Iberian peninsula. His best results came in the Tour of the Algarve, where he won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey. He also rode alongside the likes of Chris Lillywhite, Paul Sherwen and Adrian Timmis in the much-loved iconic colours of Raleigh Banana, before finishing his career with Maestro in Belgium.

     

    He won the British National Road Race title too, in 1989. And in doing so, dispatched some impressive opponents; including Robert Millar, Malcolm Elliott and Sean Yates. There were 14 British pros in that race. This year, there are 17 World Tour pros with a British licence. Not so very different.

     

    The day I choose to visit Tim and Jos, he has just taken delivery of a series of prints from that era, sent to him by an enthusiast for the addition of his signature. Since his racing career has been largely, if not exclusively, lost to time, I have no visual clue as to what kind of rider he might have been. Was he a climber? Could he sprint? I ask him whom he most closely resembles in the modern peloton.

     

    “In fact, let’s narrow it down. Which Quick-Step rider were you most like?” I ask him (we’re in Belgium after all). “Were you a Tom Boonen? Or a Niki Terpstra?”

     

    He scratches his chin and thinks. I try again. “You weren’t a Brambilla, obviously. Maybe a Fernando Gaviria?”

    Tim Harris

    Tim Harris smiles. It turns out that Fernando Gaviria was their latest guest for a good part of 2016. He’d shared a room with the other Etixx-Quick Step Colombian Rodrigo Contreras. Both riders have moved out now and, in Contreras’s case, returned to Colombia for the foreseeable future.

     

    Gaviria and Contreras were just the latest in that impossibly long list of fish out of water to have been floundered around in the landing net of Harris and Ryan. Contreras, Jos fondly recalls, is from a family of Colombian potato farmers, and had never tasted yoghurt before his arrival in Belgium, where he consumed vast amounts of it, as he struggled to recover from an early-season injury. He also tried to grow potatoes in their garden, but a prolonged spell of heavy Belgian rain meant that his crop failed. I am shown the bucket of unimpressive spuds grown by the Colombian rider. They are rather small. Rather touchingly, neither Tim nor Jos seem too keen to throw them out.

     

    Gaviria, more of a city slicker than his roommate and compatriot, developed something of an obsession with the lawnmower, a device he was operating for the first time in his life, it seemed. Tim and Jos have a tidy lawn at the back. He offered to keep it trimmed. Only Shane Archbold (one of an army of Kiwis to pass through) had ever previously offered to mow the lawn. And even then, according to Jos, he only did it once.

     

    Gaviria’s first effort at cutting the grass was perhaps his finest; a wonderful swirling curvy line of cut grass across the middle of the lawn. Unusual, but rather nice. After that, and bit by bit, he graduated to more conventional straight-lined, but never lost his passion for the lawnmower, just as Contreras’s enthusiasm for strawberry yoghurt never let up. Both young men were a long way from home, you see.

     

    “Fabio Sabatini?” I am still trying to guess what kind of rider Tim Harris was.

     

    “No, nothing like him.”

     

    “Zdenek Stybar? Matteo Trentin?”

     

    “No.”

     

    And suddenly I had it. “I know!” I declared, strangely certain that I had matched Tim Harris to his modern day Quick-Step doppelganger. “Gianni Meersman!”

     

    “Yes,” he agreed, with a curt nod. “I was a bit of a Meersman.”

     

    Whatever that meant.

     

    *         *         *

     

    Initially, he had bought the house with an eye to renovating it, in his words “just for something to do”. What he would do with all that space in the long-term (Jos and he lived, and continue to live, in a more modestly-sized home just outside nearby Herselt) he would maybe figure out later.

    Jos Ryan

    Then he got a phone call out of the blue from the management of a team called Giant Asia. It was a call that would change everything, which in turn only came about because of the SARS epidemic in Asia. That year, every single race in Asia was cancelled, which left them looking for action. Naturally enough, they thought of Belgium. Then they called Tim Harris.

     

    “Have you got somewhere we can all stay?” enquired the voice on the other end of the line.

     

    “No, not really.”

     

    That was the end of the phone call. But not the end of the story. They rang back the next day.

     

    “But didn’t you buy that big house in Tielt-Winge?”

     

    “Yes.”

     

    “Can’t they stay there?” The voice on the other end of the line was rather persistent.

     

    “No, not really, it’s a ruin.” This was getting awkward. “There’s no electricity for a start.”

     

    “Well, what if the team pays for the re-wiring…”

     

    “Um…”

     

    “We’ll be there in two weeks.”

     

    And so that was how the first occupants of the Harris-Ryan Academy (not their name for it, mine) came to move in – a number of Australians, a few Taiwanese members of the team management, and an Iranian racer called Hossein Askari (“If he’d managed to get a visa, he could have got top three in the Tour. He was that good,” according to Tim.)

    Tim Harris jerseys

    It would be glossing over the truth somewhat to say that the first tenancy was a triumph.

     

    “I was at a race that summer when I got a phone call from one of the neighbours. They told me that armed police were outside my house with machine guns.”

     

    Inside the house, a dangerous brawl had broken out. The Australian riders, furious that they hadn’t been paid for two months, had turned on the management, taunting them, provoking them. One of the Taiwanese then flipped, grabbed a meat cleaver from the kitchen, and the whole ungodly mess spilled out into the street. That was when the neighbours called the cops and the Belgian rapid response unit got involved.

     

    The next day, when everything calmed down, a meeting took place in the house between Harris, the Taiwanese, a representative of the riders, a policeman with a machine gun – who’d trained with the Baltimore police in the US – and a pile of cash. It was like a scene from The Negotiator, with Tim Harris from Norfolk in the Kevin Spacey role.

     

    The situation was resolved. And Giant Asia checked out.

     

    After this curiously melodramatic start, the cycling community became aware that there was a new place to stay in Belgium. Unsolicited, the bookings started to come in. The next guests were altogether easier to manage. The British Cycling Academy, accompanied by their staff at the time of John Herety, Rod Ellingworth and Chris Boardman, breezed into town in a flurry of red, white and blue tracksuits. But even this visit was not without its complications.

     

    Word had got out that Boardman, the recently-crowned World Hour Record holder, was arriving in town. The local mayor got involved. A civic reception was arranged and the press were informed. Even a local film crew turned up. The reception mostly involved sitting around a table in the garden eating cake, and posing for photos on the steps outside the house. Boardman was big news in this cycling-mad country, but, the evidence would suggest, was yet to perfect his winning smile for the cameras.

     

    “So word got back to British Cycling that there was a good place out there,” recalls Jos, before she’s interrupted by Tim.

     

    “Well, I wouldn’t say it was a ‘good’ place. It was a place.”

     

    “Good for what they needed.”

     

    It had become a thing. Before long even Eddy Merckx was ringing them up, to see if they could accommodate a team from Bahrain. And all because a chair salesman with a few quid in the bank punctured in a tiny Belgian hamlet.

     

    “It’s completely ad hoc. It’s the most ad hoc arrangement you could possibly have. It’s bizarre, really. But it works.”

     

     

    *         *         *

     

    So, finally, we drive off to visit the big empty house. It’s empty for now, but in a few weeks it will echo to the sound of Bluetooth speakers, and showering, cooking and cleats. En route, we pass by Merckx’s birthplace and the cycle route named after him, meandering along classic Belgian racing roads; sometimes along typical concrete surfaces, with their infamous ‘death ridge’ gully in the middle, and at other times on cobbles or even unmade dirt tracks, many of which featured in last year’s Dwars door het Hageland, an insane tear-up through what looked like peoples’ back gardens.

     

    The fact of the matter is that Belgium has always done cycling differently from anywhere else.

    Tim Harris

    “Nothing’s really changed since the days of Tom Simpson,” explains Tim. “You can get off a boat, with no team, no club, and just start racing. If you’re any good, you can be a pro within two years. You can’t go to France, or Spain or Italy without being in a club, with infrastructure. But in Belgium, you come, you sleep and you race. It’s like prize fighting.”

     

    Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by Andy McGrath

     

    Despite the fact that I have read about it, written about it, spoken about it and have visited the country dozens of times, it was only on this trip to spend time with Tim and Jos, and their ‘project’, that I felt I began to understand more clearly what the sport actually represents in Belgium.

     

    For a start, the night before, we had attended a gala evening at the team launch for Quick-Step. It was vast beyond anything I had seen before: thousands of VIPs, an unimaginable budget to pay for an insurmountably huge buffet. This team is of national importance.

     

    Their fortunes matter to the nation in a way I find hard to equate with cycling. It’s more like football, and even has some of football’s less edifying traits. The only threat of violence I have ever seen, for example, on the Tour de France, I witnessed in Ghent in 2004, when rival fans of Lotto and Quick-Step were having a drunken hooligan-style stand-off in a square outside a row of pubs. It was, if truth be told, a little tame. But I cannot imagine anyone from, say, Guildford, screaming ‘Fuck Team Sky!’ and then hurling a plastic chair.

     

    It’s markedly different. Even here, especially here.

     

    This little community, hard up against the Dutch border to the east is simply representative of so many regions of this tightly-packed, tough little country. Here in the Hageland, the landscape and its people still feel deeply wedded to the sport, in ways that are, to the Anglo Saxon understanding, profoundly foreign; admirably foreign. Even in the depths of a shivering January afternoon, and at almost every turn in the road, there is another old boy, nose down into a headwind, blasting away along the lanes, expression set in grim concentration.

     

    Tim Harris talks about ‘The Ride’. Jos shows me snapshots of Fernando Gaviria on ‘The Ride’, bananas stuffed into his pockets, skittering along the cycle lane alongside the bigger roads, or setting off onto a stretch of cobbles on ‘The Ride’.

     

    “What ride?” I ask him. “Who organises ‘The Ride?’”

     

    “No one,” he shrugs, mystified by the naivety of my question. “It’s just ‘The Ride’. It’s always happened.”

     

    In Herselt, at one o’clock in the afternoon, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of locals meet under the church tower and set off on a 90-kilometre loop. They go when the clock strikes one. And they don’t hang around either. There’s no jollity, no levity, no ‘banter’. This is not a sportive. This is a ride, this is serious. This is Belgium.

     

    “You can race every day in Belgium. There’s always a race.”

     

    We have arrived at the house. A short fumble with the keys and a handsome set of doors at the back give way to a beautiful tiled hallway. I look out for ghosts in flip-flops, padding around the rooms (it can sleep 12 comfortably, more at a push) with towels wrapped round their waists.

     

    So many have come here, especially from Britain. Pick a name, and they’ve probably spent weeks, months or even years at Tim and Jos’s: Helen Wyman, Steve Cummings, Andy Tennant, Pete Kennaugh, Emma Pooley, Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Jonny Bellis, Ed Clancy, Jo Rowsell, as well as Lizzie Armitstead and Adam Blythe. They were together for few years, the golden couple of the British scene. They have now moved on, re-settled and in Lizzie Deignan’s case, married. But they were together for a long time in Belgium, learning the ropes. Learning how to be racers. The pictures and the heartfelt little notes they left behind bear testament to what formative years they must have enjoyed in the spartan surroundings of Tielt-Winge.

    Tim Harris scrapbook

    Bradley Wiggins spent July of 2004 in the house, preparing for the Olympics. Tim managed to get him a place, at the request of John Herety, in the starting line-up of a local post-Tour criterium. Since the organisers had never heard of him, despite his recently acquired status as the world pursuit champion, he was paid the minimum appearance fee, about £100, it seems. No favours in Belgium.

     

    Walking through the high ceilinged, empty rooms, Jos lights upon a rather faded bouquet of plastic flowers (you seldom get real ones on the podium in Belgium, apparently) that had been presented to a 19-year-old Mark Cavendish in August 2004 on the occasion of his first win as an under-23. There’s still a little sticker on the cellophane with his name on it.

     

    “Don’t forget,” Tim reminds me. “No one believed in Cavendish. Only Rod. But out of anyone I’ve ever met, he was mentally the hardest. There was something about him.”

     

    Cavendish had been one of the first batch of Rod Ellingworth’s protégés, along with Steve Cummings and Matt Brammeier, the Manxman’s head shaven to within less than an inch of its life. Pictures of his visit tell the story. In one sequence, he is evidently bossing other riders about in the kitchen, presumably telling them how they’re doing it all wrong. I can almost hear his voice, complaining. In another, he looks at the camera, fuller in the face than his stubbly, gaunt 2017 self, but nonetheless unmistakably Cavendish; even down to a nasty looking scab on his chin from some appalling high speed faceplant.

     

    Of course, it isn’t and it can’t be, for everyone. There is a huge rate of attrition. For every well-known rider who stays with them, and signs their guest book, there are probably ten or 20 whose names raise barely the slightest flicker of recognition. It’s a place that informs many young riders whether or not they are going to make it.

     

    “They arrive, and the first day they’re shocked. It’s grim, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dangerous…” Tim is making this sound like a highly unusual holiday brochure. “Then they either dig in, or completely collapse. You know quickly whether or not they can be a cyclist. It’s a quick way of finding out.”

     

    One entry in the guest book takes the form of a poem, written by a rider called Joel Davison, who hailed from Bingley in Yorkshire. Poetic Injustice starts with the line, ‘Like Martin Luther King, I had a dream’, recounts a litany of chastening failures, and ends with the line: ‘It’s in words, not trophies, that I’ll be remembered as a rider’.

     

    Another rider, Hamish Haynes, the surprise winner of the 2006 British Road Race Championship, writes of how the place got under his skin. “For the first few weeks, I really wanted to move into an apartment by myself, but you lot wore me down. Now I don’t want to leave. I’m thinking of pretending to go to England while secretly moving into the attic’.

     

    And he might just have done that. You could get lost up there, under the colossal eves. Or down in the dusty brick-vaulted cellars. John Robertson, the South African behind Barloworld, laid out bedding in the cellars and made out to his young riders that they’d be sleeping down there. It was a bluff, but a revealing indication of who wanted it, and who was flaky.

     

    In fact, the house has produced a number of British Road Race champions, including Rob Hayles, who prepared for his 2008 victory by sitting up till three o’clock in the morning smoking cigars, drinking brandy and eating Spanish ham with Adam Blythe. Three days later, he was the champion.

    Mark Cavendish

    In recent years, few riders embody the spirit of the house more than Dan McLay. His emergence into the spotlight of attention that came with his startling win in the Grand Prix de Denain, and the subsequent selection for the Fortuneo Vital Concept Tour de France team, were just the visible crown of a career built, like an iceberg, underneath the waterline. Along with the likes of Adam Yates, Mark McNally, Adam Blythe and James Shaw, these are the ‘ones who got away’, the talent that was never nurtured by the Academy, those who relied both on the house in Belgium and on the financial safety net of the Dave Rayner Fund, an organisation with which Harris, as a former team-mate of the fondly-remembered rider, does a great deal.

     

    It is Blythe and McLay’s achievements that give Jos and Tim the most pleasure, as well as the profound satisfaction they get in the success of Nikki Brammeier (née Harris), who still lives with her husband Matt just around the corner. Blythe’s acknowledgement, penned in gold ink into the black pages of their guest book, reflects how ‘Tim has transformed me from being a right twat to one of the Greats’, remembering how Tim had picked him up at the airport when they first met with the words, ‘I hear you’re a right twat’. Blythe, of course, had been dropped by the British Cycling Academy. And now, he too is a national road race champion.

     

    McLay wanted to emulate Blythe. Tim recalls how he was painfully quiet at first. Within the first week he entered the amateur (under-23) Dwars door Vlaanderen. There were 325 starters. He won the race. And so it started.

     

    Four years of trying, and winning progressively, incrementally bigger and bigger races have led to this seemingly sudden elevation, though, for those who have known him all the while, it is not sudden at all, but rather the culmination of steady improvement. For this reason, there is a belief that he will cope and endure and enjoy a long and prodigious career. He never gave up, not even when he saw his junior World Championship Madison partner Simon Yates heading for a top team. McLay was left behind. He had to have the greatest reserves of patience and belief, and the talent to go with it.

    Tielt Winge

    McLay’s story sums up the spirit of the place.

     

    “We knew he was going to be good,” says Jos.

     

    “You’d have to be donkey not to know he’d be a good rider,” Tim agrees. “But people don’t see that. They don’t see the hard work, the bumps, the scrapes, the hospital rides…”

     

    Jos chimes in: “…the having no money, the ducking and diving…”

     

    “…the scraping around.” We are heading to a conclusion.

     

    “That’s 90 per cent of cycling, and for 90 per cent of people, that’ll be it.”

     

    “Is it better, now?” I ask him. “I mean, is cycling better than in your day?”

     

    “No.” The reply is instant.

     

    “No?”

     

    “No, it’s rubbish.”

     

    Then he pauses. He doesn’t often pause. His thinking drips enthusiasm, his words tap into the wonder and the hurt, the stories and the memories of a life spent turning wheels, surrounded by those who share same curiously beautiful, beat-up obsession. He can’t help himself, you see. He just loves it.

     

    “Well, maybe not rubbish. That’s a ridiculous thing to say.”

     

    Quite a story. We close the door of the house behind us, double locking. The massive old oil-fired heating system in the cellar, surrounded by chairs, will remain switched off until the Canadians arrive and fire it up. Then, with the frigid creep of spring, the story will start once again, and the house will become a home, with all that entails; a place to recover, to bicker, to retreat and celebrate. A sanctuary.

     

    We head over the road for a sandwich, striding fast, pulling collars up against the cold. A wind that’s coming straight from the north, threatening snow.

     

    Passage du Tour 17.4 cover print by Roger Blachon

     

    As we hurry along, we cross the route of the 2015 Tour de France. That year’s race passed no more than fifty yards from Tim and Jos’s front door, stage three heading south from Antwerp. As the peloton hurried along the road, heading, eventually for a showdown on the Mur de Huy, a dozen of the best riders in the world, from Jack Bauer to Alex Dowsett, Chris Froome to Pete Kennaugh, would perhaps have glanced to their right and recalled their time spent learning the life of a racer in the tall house of cold comfort and big dreams.

     

    Funny how things turn out. If Tim Harris had never punctured on that day in 2003, who knows how many of them might never have been on the road that wet Belgian morning, where their present looped back on their past.

     

    This article was updated in August 2018 to reflect Geraint Thomas’ victory in the previous month’s Tour de France.