Far from the packed city centres where he deploys his talents to greatest effect, Elite Circuit Series champion Graham Briggs (Raleigh) trains alone on the roads of the Peak District.
An estimated 10,000 people roared Briggs to victory over friend and rival Russell Downing (NetApp-Endura) in the series-closing Sheffield GP last July, but during five-hour rides on the cold roads of a national park wrapped in seemingly endless winter, such scenes must be a distant memory.
Briggs, who raced in 2012 in the jersey of Elite Circuit Race Champion, enjoyed one of his strongest seasons last year, winning four of the seven rounds of the Elite Circuit Race Series, and finishing second in two others.
Victory in the Colchester round of the Tour Series brought success and vital exposure for the sponsor in front of national television cameras, while impressive performances in the breakaway at the national road race championships and on the Queen Stage of the Tour of Britain, proved that his talents extend beyond hour-long, wheel-to-wheel, city centre duels.
Last year was last year, however. Briggs, unsurprisingly retained by Raleigh for a year in which the onus will be on one of Britain’s five remaining UCI Continental teams to step up and fill the void created at the top of the domestic road scene by Endura’s merger with NetApp and their graduation to the next tier, will find himself with it all to prove again 2013. He will not be alone. Many who contributed to a landmark year for British cycle sport in 2012, from Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins to Wiggo’s new team-mate, Jon Tiernan-Locke, winner of the Tour of Britain, will find that yesterday’s triumphs hold little sway among rivals seeking victory today.
The good news for Raleigh is that Briggs’ results in 2012 were not the outcome of chance, but of a new-found confidence. Having crossed the threshold to greater self belief after years of bewilderment at the higher win ratios of his rivals, Briggs is now armed with faith in his own abilities, and those of his team. Raleigh’s strengthened line up has yielded immediate success. Tom Scully, third in the opening round of the Jayco Bay Crits, the now traditional hors d’œuvre to the Tour Down Under, scored a more significant result by winning the opening stage of the Tour of Normandy; one followed almost immediately by team-mate, Alexander Blain, en route to second overall.
The young Briggs began his sporting life as a footballer, but turned to cycling in his search for a less team-oriented sport. He laughs at his naivety (“the races I won last year, I couldn’t have done it on my own”), and at his own conclusion that early success in local road leagues confirmed his status as “a bit of a sit-in sprinter”. It was on a cyclo-cross bike that Briggs began a competitive life on two wheels, an off-road discipline that led him to mountain bike racing. The foot and mouth crisis of 2001 put paid to both, and his quest for continued success brought him to the road.
The promotion of Endura Racing to ProContinental status, via a merger with NetApp, will create a void in domestic racing this season, one Briggs believes Raleigh can fill. Endura were dominant in 2012, winning the Tour Series, the Tour of Britain, and all but one round of the Premier Calendar. The man who prevented a clean sweep in the latter was Briggs.
There will only be six rounds of the Premier Calendar this season, reduced from seven races in 2012 and from 27 races when it was launched in 1993. Briggs, who recalls a Premier Calendar event “every weekend” when he began racing, echoes Jon Tiernan-Locke’s sentiment that the next generation of world class British road racers cannot be nurtured solely on a diet of crit racing. He suggests promoting National A and B series races to the top tier, and more spectator-friendly locations for Premier Calendar events. Sponsors want crowds, he says, pointing to the success of the Elite Circuit Race Series.
Crowds are something Briggs has grown used to. A career spent for the most part racing in front of tens of thousands of spectators in city centres has not made him immune to their presence. He jokes that the crit rider’s greatest asset is an ability to remove his brain and focus solely on the task at hand, but reveals that even in the heat of battle, those racing wheel-to-wheel are aware of the supporters. Colchester and Woking are the best supported rounds of the Tour Series, he says, and, perhaps not coincidentally, those with the most demanding circuits. The Lincoln GP, arguably the most prestigious one-day race in Britain, is on Briggs’ radar, but with little more than six weeks until its 58th edition on Sunday May 12 when we speak, he is uncertain if he will have the form to mount a serious challenge. A strong ride next year, however, is high on his to do list for 2014.
The scale of support for last year’s Tour of Britain, however, surprised even Briggs, a rider who has witnessed its growth first hand, having raced in the 2009 and 2010 editions. The 2012 race attracted an estimated two million spectators to the roadside. Briggs recalls difficulty in finding a quiet spot for a natural break on the opening stage in Norfolk, such was the scale of the support. He attributes much of its growth in popularity to the success of Cavendish and Wiggins on the world stage and a greater interest in cycling among the public at large.
His ride on stage six was one of the highlights of a race packed with impressive performances from home-grown talent. Five riders went clear in the Brecon Beacons, but on the first ascent of Caerphilly Mountain, three fell away, leaving Briggs and Kristian House (Rapha Condor Sharp) to forge ahead. When the pair was joined by Jon Tiernan-Locke (Endura Racing), only Briggs was strong enough to remain with the eventual race winner, descending with him into Caerphilly, before succumbing to the effort of the second ascent. Not bad for a crit champion.
Briggs is modest about the performance, and about a similarly gutsy ride at the national road race championships where he rode in a day-long breakaway with eventual winner, Ian Stannard, and Stannard’s then Team Sky colleague, Alex Dowsett. Having done no specific road training for either event, Briggs followed the simple template of racing flat out for the first hour, crit style, and gritting his teeth for the following three or four hours. “You just have to hurt yourself for a bit longer,” he smiles.
Briggs supplements his five-hour solo efforts in the Peak District with time spent with what must by the highest quality training group in the country. “The Donny Chain Gang”, a loose alliance of some of the strongest riders in the north of England, is a regular engagement for Briggs and features an ever-changing line up that has included Team Sky’s Ben Swift, double Olympic champion Ed Clancy, the Downing brothers, and BMC Racing’s Adam Blythe. Training rides, open to all, take place on a Tuesday morning, Thursday night, and Saturday afternoon, the last known as “the Saturday run” and one Briggs describes as “a bit Wacky Races”.
Dental issues have forced a slow start to the season upon Briggs and afforded little time with his team-mates. Camaraderie and a close working relationship on the road will be essential if sustained success is to be attained. “You need every one of those guys for the Tour Series,” he says. “If you want to win overall you need all those guys going well for 10 rounds, which is quite hard to do.”
Endura Racing’s success last year, and with it the promotion of its riders to some of cycling’s biggest stages, is inspiring, Briggs concedes, and their ability to compete on even terms with the world’s best (a phenomena he characterises as “not getting their heads kicked in week in, week out”) a testament to the high standard of racing in the UK and a shift in recent years to a more Continental style of racing.
Briggs, however, holds no ambition to join them. His love of the British scene and the opportunity it affords him to train on home roads and to race in the crits that have brought him so much success is enough. “I think I’ve found my niche,” he says. Having discovered his calling, and the confidence to win consistently, he will remain a difficult man to beat.