Nearly 15 years after the greatest false dawn in the history of British cycle sport, John Deering can raise a sad chuckle at the memory.
On the eve of a press conference in Trafalgar Square to celebrate partnerships with Jaguar and Jacob’s Creek, it dawned on Deering, Sean Yates and other staff that the Linda McCartney cycling team had no material foundation.
The only remaining evidence of the most tenuous association with any of the sponsors is the Etxeondo team kit, bought in bulk by Prendas Ciclismo’s Mick Tarrant in the immediate aftermath of the team’s collapse.
Clothing manufacturers recycle fabric where they can, but look closely at the jersey pictured and the sublimated, yellow-on-yellow Linda McCartney logo can be seen. Its presence would have stymied Etxeondo and indirectly opened the door for Tarrant’s purchase.
Much of the kit remains boxed in the Prendas warehouse – a fine collection of original and highly accurate reproduction jerseys – with one notable exception: the jersey made for Bradley Wiggins, replete with rainbow collars and cuffs.
“It’s out there somewhere,” says Prendas’ Andy Storey with a smile.
History shines a light on the talent assembled before things collapsed. The last name on the team sheet, ironically, is Wiggins (it is arranged alphabetically, rather than by palmarés), but you’ll also find Russell Downing, who linked up again with Wiggins at Team Sky, and British champions Matt Stephens and John Tanner. Storey owns of one of the three British champion’s jerseys made by Etxeondo for Tanner, one of which Tarrant sent to the popular Yorkshireman.
Deering, the team’s press officer and assistant to team founder and owner Julian Clark, had been concerned by Clark’s absence from a team meeting the night before the press call.
The meeting was the first gathering of the entire team, when one contingent returned to the UK triumphant after David McKenzie, the giant killer who had won stage seven of the previous year’s Giro d’Italia, repeated the trick on the final stage of the Tour Down Under in Adelaide.
“Everything came apart the night before [the press conference] was due to happen,” Deering remembers. “Those who had been in Australia met with all the new guys in Surrey. It was at the Cricketers Hotel in Bagshot. That was when it was apparent that everything was not as it seemed.
“We were preparing to go to this team launch in Trafalgar Square. Because we’d been in Australia, we thought everything had been sorted, but it absolutely had not been. At first we thought there was a shortfall, but by the end of the following day it had become clear that there was no money at all.”
Deering remembers Clark fondly, describing him as no worse than overly optimistic, and stresses that his version of events is only that pieced together with other members of the team’s management. As such, we will not describe it in detail, but the theme of a cycling team with ambition far in advance of its finances is not uncommon.
“We had boxes and boxes in the hotel of Oakley clothing,” Deering continues. “We had a deal with Oakley through Neil Stephens who was coming to join us as the other DS, with Sean [Yates]. There were boxes of custom Oakley stuff with Linda McCartney all over it.
“There was some Etxeondo stuff; I don’t think it was all there. We must have had some, because we raced in it in Australia. I think they were struggling to get it ready in time. There were bikes from Principia - everyone had a new bike.
"All the riders and all the staff were there, except for Julian, who didn’t show.”
It’s tempting to cast the Linda McCartney squad in the light of a proto-Team Sky: a British team with vast ambition and significant backers. Sadly, it shared only two of these criteria with its successor.
“The fact is we’d expanded massively,” Deering remembers. “If we’d battened down the hatches and stayed at the level we were at, we might have been able to wing it by at least bringing in a smaller sponsor. But by shooting for the stars…it became a complete and utter house of cards. It’s a cliché that’s been used many times, but I can’t really think of a better way of describing it.”
Deering doesn’t entirely reject the Sky analogy, but believes the absence of talent among the British ranks would have been as significant a hurdle as the absence of funds, if the Linda McCartney team were to reach the heights attained a decade later by Dave Brailsford’s Lottery-funded generation.
“There’s a glass half full or glass half empty approach to it. We were either ahead of our time, or set British cycling back ten years. You can form excellent arguments for either side of that, and I have myself. They’re probably both true: we were ahead of our time, and definitely the collapse wasn’t good for the sport in this country as a whole.
“The whole concept was similar to Sky in that we were going to be a British team who would ride the Tour de France. One of the reasons we were struggling is that we couldn’t find enough good British riders, whereas ten years later, after Brailsford’s success at Team GB with the Lottery money, there was a huge groundswell of great riders who made that possible.
"I think we were ahead of our time; too far ahead of our time. We probably wouldn’t have been able to do what Sky did because we didn’t have the talent, quite frankly.”
He concedes that the team’s line-up for 2001 contained some “pretty tidy” riders and claims that Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady and David Millar were among those he had spoken to who were excited about the project.
Etxeondo had produced an entire season’s worth of kit before the team's collapse in 2001. Storey talks in hushed tones of the sublimated print on the Goretex winter jacket - a rare achievement at the time. The aforesaid yellow-on-yellow Linda McCartney sublimate is similarly impressive.
Storey’s admiration for the quality and attention to detail of Etxeondo’s work is obvious. He compares the zip puller on the McCartney jersey – a heavy metal number, custom made by YKK – with the rubber offering on modern jerseys, a sop to a bizarre EU directive to reduce the metal content of zips.
Storey might be described as an “early adopter” of Etxeondo’s McCartney kit. He had worn the Giordana-made garments that the team used in its first two years, including for its first (and final) Grand Tour appearance at the Giro d’Italia in 2000, where, to almost universal astonishment, McKenzie had won a stage for the underdogs.
Tarrant then ordered him a set of the Exteondo kit. When the team went belly up in the most public fashion, he called upon his contacts within the Basque house to buy the kit made for the team.
“It was like Christmas,” Storey laughs. “I wasn’t working at Prendas full-time then. I turned up after work one day and there was Etxeondo kit spilling out all over the place. The bad news is that a lot of riders lost out in the whole debacle.”
“Etxeondo had a lot of kit sat in their warehouse,” he continues, “from small to XL, but being measured for the pros, the XL was suitable for a rider of about 76kg.” This last estimate might be based on personal experience.
There is something poignant about the Linda McCartney kit. Wiggins, Downing and Yates were granted a second chance at the big time with a British team nearly 10 years later, but for too many of the riders on the roster, this was their one shot at the big time. For this reason, Etxeondo’s beautifully made garments evoke more than just a sense of nostalgia.
The irony is not lost on Deering, who, one suspects, tends to the “glass half full” perspective. He remains in contact with Downing, Yates et al and even exchanged emails with Clark recently.
His final ambition for the Linda McCartney team concerns the jersey.
“I’ve still got some of the Giordana stuff, the blue and yellow kit, but I would love to go out in the green and gold,” he chuckles. “I think that would be hilarious.”