Dot Tilbury pulls a thick folder from her handbag. Within its pages are a detailed breakdown of her year’s work with the cycling youth of the island – results, finances, races ridden and mostly won – to present to the backers of the young riders’ endeavours.
She also produces a remarkable photograph taken 16 years ago. Twenty-six children of varying sizes clad in identical Isle of Man jerseys, mostly far too big, pose for the camera before racing the Manchester Youth Tour in 2000. Of these 26 kids, almost half are familiar to me as having made a name for themselves in cycling, either though the GB Academy structure, domestic professional racing or WorldTour level. It’s a stunningly high hit rate.
Pete Kennaugh raises a smile for the camera, little sister Emma in front with her jersey almost dragging on the ground, brother Tim to the side. Jonny Bellis, the former Saxo Bank pro eventually forced to retire following a life-threatening motorbike accident in 2009, rests his arm on Kennaugh’s shoulder. And right at the back, looking mean and moody peaking out from beneath his Nike cap, Mark Cavendish.
Tilbury, a now-retired Post Office employee formerly in charge of the Isle of Man’s stamps and coins, went down to the National Sports Centre to help out in the ’90s, then “took it over and have been doing it ever since”.
“Dot will have three or four hundred kids down at the park,” O’Hare says. “And she will remember everyone’s name. She is wonderful. And strong with it.”
I suggest to Tilbury that ‘fearsome’ might be a more suitable adjective. “I’m not fearsome! But I don’t stand any messing. And I’ve got a good team of helpers.”
Helpers such as double Olympian and five-time British road race champion Marie Purvis, now Marie Morgan, who has joined us at the table. O’Hare and Morgan are still debating her Olympic nightmare in Barcelona 24 years after the event. A two-woman break, ten miles remaining, front wheel puncture, disastrous pit change involving a spare bike handed to her in top gear…
On a more positive note, breaking the British Hour Record in 1995 by over two kilometres was some debut to track racing. A bike built for Yvonne McGregor, who unfortunately broke her arm, happened to be the right size for Morgan. Two weeks’ training on the Manchester boards and the Manxwoman had the record by some distance.
How do these two talent spotters operate? Enjoying the bike comes first, Tilbury maintains, not results. “One thing I learnt is that if children are super when they are in the under-10s, it’s usually because they are big lumps. Peter Kennaugh was tiny when he was young, Jonny Bellis the same. They would finish mid-field, top ten maybe.
“Same with Cavendish when he first came down. According to folklore, he said to his mum ‘I will win this race if you buy me a mountain bike’. And he did. He was special, very special. Hated losing with a passion, same as now.
We don’t, as a rule, coach them when they are really young. They just need to enjoy riding
“But children develop at different ages. We’ve got a lad at the moment who wasn’t really that interested in cycling, he just came down more for the social thing. But then he started training and keeps getting better and better. We don’t, as a rule, coach them when they are really young. They just need to enjoy riding.”
“I’ve got this lad now,” Morgan adds to illustrate the point. “Thirteen years old, and he was going out five days a week and absolutely battering himself. I’ve got him to rest now, by varying what he does. Surprise surprise, he is going better.”
The inspiration of Cavendish is another factor that, unsurprisingly, gives the hordes of kids attending Tilbury’s sessions something to aim for. “We had 672 signed on this year,” she says. “They don’t come every week, but we average 300 on a Tuesday night.”
“They see somebody like Cav, who has come up through Dot’s sessions, and they think if he can do it, then so can I,” says Morgan.
And there is a clear career path laid out for those with a serious desire to follow in the footsteps of Cavendish. The Isle of Man Youth Tour began in 1994, the year after the cycling week folded, giving hundreds of junior and youth riders a rare chance to race on closed roads.
Another interesting development that sets the island apart from the mainland is that it runs most of its race programme (major events like the Youth Tour and Manx International excepted) under the auspices of TLI, a move O’Hare strongly disagrees with.
“This is a sore point with me. How can you expect BC to take our young riders for the GB Academy when we are not paying them any revenue? You just want the benefits – under TLI, it’s cheap and they can sign on the line. But they wanted it that way. I thought that was sad.”
For the young Pete Kennaugh, though, the advantages were clear: “I could race against all the seniors as a kid, which was great. You go from racing around car parks to racing on the road, which is all you want to do.”
Richard Fletcher, organiser of the recently resurrected Manx International GP, backs Kennaugh’s rationale: “The kids were finding the transition to adult racing tough. TLI rules allowed us to put 14 and 15-year-olds in with juniors and seniors, BC rules didn’t.
“More kids have stayed in the system because of this. But the larger events are run under BC. It was just down to numbers basically. It was cheaper and simpler.”
Fletcher’s next step is to use the Manx International as a springboard for mounting a bid to host the National Championships, a prerequisite from British Cycling that the organiser was happy to carry through.
“We haven’t had top-class racing over here since 2003. The follow up conversation with BC was, what do we need to do to get a national champs? They said run a national series race. We went back to the government and asked if they would back us to apply for the nationals in three years’ time. That’s what this is about. There’s no guarantee we will get it in 2018, but I am ever the optimist. It’s about getting elite racing back on the island. But it’s also about legacy, to keep a festival of cycling going after that.”
The inaugural Isle of Man Cyclefest took place a month after the Manx International, with something for everyone over the four days based in Ramsey on the north of the island: a hill climb, MTB races, a Gran Fondo, plus the opening round of the Pearl Izumi Tour Series televised criteriums.
As Dot Tilbury continues to churn out young prospects, inspired by Cavendish, Kennaugh and the rest, and they progress to the Youth Tour, British Cycling’s Academy and beyond, “The Rock” once again hosts the Manx International and a cycling festival too.
For all our misty-eyed reminiscing about how great the International Week was back in the day, times move on. And the island, after a minor lull, has moved with them.
There’s a widely-used saying on the Isle of Man heard as often as O’Hare’s “85,000 alcoholics” line: “If you don’t like it, there is a boat in the morning”.
Very true, but we rather like it.
From issue 65 of Rouleur. Part 3 to follow