As Mandy Jones emerged into sight on the Goodwood racing circuit with a clear lead over the rest of the field in the road race at the 1982 World Championships, the fans gathered by the finish line could hardly believe it. A 20-year-old with limited international experience had attacked the strongest riders in the sport with only a lap left and showed no sign of slowing up. The subsequent crescendo of noise that echoed around West Sussex gathered force as she sustained the gap and became only the third Briton – after Beryl Burton and Tommy Simpson – to win the race in the modern era. “Even when I watch the race now, it’s like watching somebody else,” she told Cycling Weekly later. “When everything comes together like it did that day, you don’t think about it: you’re in the zone. It’s what you train for.”
For British cycling the significance of the achievement was manifold. It showed that Burton’s global success was not the exceptional to a rule and that her compatriot women could compete with the best abroad. It suggested also that the national team had unearthed a new star with the potential to dominate the sport in the years ahead. For Jones had secured a place in the pantheon of great British cyclists but had only begun to realise her talent. Or so it seemed. What few outside of her inner circle realised was that the victory and all it required triggered a breakdown that would force her to quit the sport, temporarily, and would mean she never matched the heights of that day in Goodwood again. In fact, even today, few outside the cycling community of the day know the story of how she rose and fell and eventually, but modestly, rose again.
Known now by her married name Bishop, Mandy lives on the outskirts of her hometown of Rochdale, in a converted barn atop a hill with sweeping views of the West Pennine Moors. Possibly because it is so exposed, on the late summer's day that I visit, I need to bend forward to break the force of the wind that has whipped up as I scramble to the front door.
Inside, you meet a queue of bikes but there is little evidence on show elsewhere for the calibre of cyclist in this building.
Mandy's husband, Nigel, was a domestic professional in the 1980s who wore the yellow jersey in the Tour of Britain. Next door is Mandy’s mum, Judith, and her second husband, Bob Porter, a professional with the Falcon team in the 1970s and a winner of the British Best All-Rounder title. Both of them, however, bow to Mandy's wonderfully bold achievement on that bright September afternoon. “I just carried on around the descent and I looked back and they’d gone,” she recalls, sitting at her kitchen table, having been asked about the audacity with which she took control of the race. “It was the perfect time to jump, a tricky bend, when everybody’s relaxed. They think, ‘Oh, nobody’s going to attack now.’”
Mandy could hardly have avoided becoming expert in the sport while she grew up in a family that was devoted to it. Her father, Barrie, and mother had met while riding with the East Manchester Clarion in the 1950s and remained committed to the club scene when the family moved from the city to Rochdale while Mandy was a child. She served the typical apprenticeship for young cyclists then, progressing from club runs and touring holidays to short time-trials as an adolescent. The undulating terrain around these parts ensured she grew formidably fit scarcely without trying and began to impress in competition, most memorably when she finished joint first in the national junior 10-mile TT.
At the time, Mandy was going out with a fellow member of the West Pennine Road Club, Ian Greenhalgh, a domestic professional with the Wightmann-Knight team who was 15 years her senior. Quick to realise her potential, he persuaded Mandy to begin training properly with him and another local professional called Jack Kershaw. That task became easier when she moved in with Ian not long afterwards, devoting herself fully to the stoic lifestyle of the professional athlete, albeit with none of the support. “We lived on the dole,” she says. “It was a conscious decision because I wanted to train full-time. I probably wouldn't get away with it now but they weren’t as rigorous then [about checking suitability for the dole]. We were very frugal. We ate plenty of vegetables and fruit, nothing fancy, and we made it all ourselves. And Dad drove me everywhere.”
On Greenhalgh’s instruction, the three of them rode 50 miles hard each morning and did 80 to 90 miles twice a week with their club's fast group. As Mandy had shown considerable potential in the individual pursuit, he also drew up a programme tailored towards it in which she performed intervals while he paced her on a motor-bike. “Ian was a very determined person,” she says. “You went out in any weather, didn’t make any difference, and he would never let up.”
To her knowledge, none of her domestic contemporaries committed themselves to the sport so wholeheartedly, making it easier for her progress to the national senior team. She was still a teenager when she travelled to the French Alpine town of Sallanches to compete in the road race at the 1980 World Championships. Still was also still riding the second-hand Woodrup bike, which her father had bought for her despite it being two inches too big and overgeared, yet she performed superbly and held on to win bronze after a sprint finish. “It was completely unexpected. I still didn’t understand the natural ability that I had. I was too young for that.”
Illness ruined her hopes of improving on the achievement at the following year's worlds, but her by then overriding ambition had been to impress in front of a home crowd at Goodwood anyway, regardless that winning bronze had made little difference to her lifestyle. She acquired small grants from the Sports Council and a local authority, which helped to pay for her equipment, while the British Cycling Federation provided a skinsuit and travel expenses but beyond that she was on her own. The British women’s squad had to wear shorts and jerseys loaned to them from the men.
The women were also given no opportunity to train together as a team and lacked the money to travel to races abroad. “You might race against these girls once, at the beginning of the year,” Mandy says, “and you wouldn’t see them again.”
Her prospects for the road race at Goodwood worsened when she overtrained for the individual pursuit that preceded it, causing to her finish well down the field despite having broken the world record at the National Championships earlier in the season.
The failure left her so devastated that she hardly thought about training in the 10 days that remained until the road race. Inadvertently, but vitally, this meant that she tapered her regime before the term had been coined. “I was so fed up. I didn't feel like talking to anyone. All I was doing was pottering around [on the bike]. It meant that I was rested.”
In an era when the authorities believed women were only sufficiently strong to race over distances of around 40-50 miles, the course comprised four and a half laps of an eight-mile circuit mostly across the South Downs. The most demanding aspect of it was the 10 per cent climb about 1km from the end of the circuit. When Mandy ascended it for the final time, she left behind a lead group comprising Maria Canins, future winner of the Tour de Féminin, Gerda Sierens, champion of Belgium, and the German Sandra Schumacher, who would go on to win bronze in the same event at the Olympics. While she acknowledges the importance of her strict regime, Mandy struggles to account for the ease with which she left such accomplished talent behind. “I don't know, I felt strong. I was another year older, another year stronger. It just builds up over the years…”
Typically for Mandy, that evening she enjoyed only a modest celebration with her family and was back out on the course on the following day as a volunteer marshal for the men's race. However, the achievement would soon bestow on her the kind of celebrity that it deserved. She received scores of invitations to appear as the guest of honour at cycling events and, being loyal to the club scene, accepted as many as she could. She agreed to interviews with a national press who rarely took an interest in cycling then. She appeared on mainstream TV shows – A Question of Sport and Crackerjack, no less – ensuring a level of exposure for which she was wholly unprepared. “You didn’t get any training to deal with the media. They do now but we didn’t. I found it difficult.”
In fact, she had not considered at all what life might hold beyond the world championships and, partly as a result, struggled badly for motivation when she returned to training in the close season. This lack of focus, however, was only a minor problem compared to the sheer emotional exhaustion that she was also suffering from, as a result of her relationship with Ian. It had pushed her to breaking point. “I was really, really struggling and it was just because of the way Ian was. He just used to push it and push it and push it.” To illustrate quite how hard-bitten was her boyfriend, she recalls how once he rode off in disgust from a domestic race because she had failed to win. In training, he was sometimes worse. “I’d get to the point where I was at the side of the road and I couldn’t breathe. It’s like a panic attack and I’d be [she starts gasping] like this and I had to stop. I just cracked in the end.”
For balance, this story should include Ian's version of what happened. Quite plausibly, he could argue that he was demanding what any coach would of somebody with aspirations to become a world champion, which in turn meant putting their personal relationship to one side. Unfortunately, he did not respond to requests to be interviewed, so we must make do with Mandy’s interpretation: that Ian took her success – or failure – as a reflection on him. ‘It was a bit of that. [He was thinking,] ‘I hadn’t done it [been successful], I couldn’t do it and I’d been training you and you’ve not done it and it reflects badly on me.’”
Mandy would be far from the first elite athlete whose success relied partly on the influence of an overbearing boyfriend or father figure. Two decades later, Mandy felt a shiver of recognition when she read Victoria Pendleton's autobiography and discovered that the multiple Olympic champion had put her achievements down partly to a desire to please her dad, who had driven her on ceaselessly in her youth. “That’s a bit like I was with Ian – ‘I want to prove to you I can do this.’”
Though Mandy says the relationship had been failing long before they split up, it somehow lasted another seven years and produced a son, Sam. When finally it ended, they returned to live with her father and Mandy started riding again seriously for the first time since she quit the sport. She had long since rediscovered her passion for it but a chronic calf injury had curtailed several attempted comebacks.
With the problem finally cured, she impressed enough to earn a place on the British squad's Olympic programme for the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Sadly, while riding off-road in the winter beforehand, she crashed and damaged a spinal disc so badly that she had eventually to retire for good, despite the efforts of several medical experts. It meant that she never came close to matching her success almost 12 years earlier, ensuring her memory of her career is bittersweet. ‘Yeah, I always, always felt there was more [to achieve]. Whether it was going for the Olympic title and maybe world records, I never got to my full potential. I could have gone faster.’
This is an adapted extract from Kings of the Road: A Journey into the Heart of British Cycling (Aurum Press). It has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.