Less than 85,000 people live on the Isle of Man, but most, if legend is to be trusted, are cyclists.
We know that a disproportionate number are elite professional riders, and one in particular, has brought the island’s cycling culture international recognition. A certain former world road race champion, however, is not its only road sprinter.
There is another, less well known, less accomplished, but younger, and inspired by the achievements of his friend and compatriot. He describes his riding style as “a bit fierce, a bit stupid”, and compares himself to a Jack Russell terrier. He likes to ride through gaps he shouldn’t, and when the five kilometre to go banner is passed, it is adrenalin, he admits, that takes over. Sound familiar?
Mark Cavendish’s legacy is already assured, but his Manx training partner is working hard to build his own. In 2013, Chris Whorrall will do so with the British UCI Continental squad, Team IG-Sigma Sport.
“I was hoping to get a tan!”
Whorrall has a broad grin on his face as he outlines his goals for Team IG-Sigma Sport’s pre-season training camp on Mallorca. A sense of humour as well as talent is clearly requisite for Manx pro cyclists. Sat on a bar stool at Mallorca’s Ponent Mar hotel, sipping from a cup of coffee, his new directeur sportif, Simon Howes, adjacent, Whorrall is an engaging mix of confidence and diffidence. Press interviews are unlikely to be any rider’s favourite part of the job, especially after a five-hour training ride, but Whorrall is honest and amusing.
He began racing as a 10-year-old, competing in the Tuesday night league organised by Manx cycling stalwart, Dot Tilbury. Regular victories and second place finishes drew invitations to compete in Manchester. It was here that Whorrall came to the attention of British Cycling, who invited him to train at the Manchester Velodrome, and to join the Talent Team.
A path followed by some of the brightest stars in world cycling opened up before him. By graduating to the British Cycling Academy as a first year under-23 and moving to the federation’s Italian base to be coached by Max Sciandri, Whorrall followed a journey from the Isle of Man previously made by Cavendish and by close friend, Pete Kennaugh, both still resident in Italy when he arrived to share a house with Luke Rowe, Andy Fenn, and Erick Rowsell, among others.
Whorrall remembers his time at the British Cycling house as one of the best years of his life; tough, but essential, and the defining experience that confirmed his preference for the road over the track. “I got my head kicked in, really,” he jokes, “but it brought me on an awful lot.”
“To be thrown in at the deep end out there, you realise: ‘This is where I need to be, and this is how hard I have to train’. It was good to learn that. When we came down a level and did the likes of the Tour of Berlin, you could just tell. We were mopping up there.”
Whorrall acknowledges the frequent characterization of British Cycling’s Academy as a conveyer belt of talent, but extends the analogy by voicing the less commonly heard view that it is one from which riders can also fall. “You get thrown in and if you’re doing well, you’ll get through, and if you’re not, you’ll get thrown off it, which is a bit unfortunate.
“That’s what happened to me, really. I wasn’t performing as well as they would like to on the track side of things and they just went on that. I didn’t get put back on it for the second year. Even though I went out to Italy and performed really well on the road, they didn’t really chat to Max Sciandri, the road coach, about how I was performing out there. Once I went out to Italy on the road, I realised that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a road man. That’s what caught my eye, really.”
Whorrall is now focussed entirely on the season ahead. His primary objective is a strong performance in the national championships, where he will compete in the under 23 category for the final time. He is also hoping to perform strongly in the criterion races that dominate the British professional calendar, and for a place on the Tour of Britain team, should IG-Sigma Sport be selected. Racing week in and week out is an exciting prospect, he says.
A taste for the “hustle and bustle” of a peloton filled with riders fighting for road position was forged in Italy, where, Whorrall says, he would routinely arrive at the foot of climbs at second wheel. A similar instinct takes over as the sprint begins to unfold. “I’m not the most powerful, or the quickest,” he admits. “I’m just good at positioning myself well; being in the right position at the right time. I’ve always found myself in among the sprinters. When it gets to that stage of the race, I really light up.” It’s a talent he admits is unlikely to win him any friends among his rivals, but, as he observes caustically, “We don’t want friends, do we? We want results.”
The Mallorcan training camp has given Whorrall and his team-mates an opportunity for high-quality training and a chance to bond. He is enthusiastic about both. The relationship between team-mates has strengthened each day as they have got to know each other better, he says, and some of the longer rides he describes as “epic”.
While the sprint lead-out drills have been enjoyable, their value will only be known when racing begins, he says. Natural leaders will emerge in the heat of competition, Whorrall predicts, and only then will it become apparent how the riders relate their training to racing.
The Isle of Man’s cycling culture has been compared by some to Belgium, a comparison that makes Whorrall smile. Rolling out from the island’s National Sports Centre (“the NSC”) at 9.50am is “a rule”, he says.
There can’t be many riders whose out-of-season training is conducted with some of the biggest names in the sport, but Whorrall and the island’s other top riders roll out with Cavendish when the Manx Missile returns to the island. “When he comes home, he trains with us, he’s just one of the boys, and we kick his head in!” he laughs. Whorrall’s association with Cavendish began with their stint on the Manchester Youth Tour, when Whorrall was just 10, flying from the island to north west England. “Cav’s a great role model for us,” he says. “He’s a great guy.”
Similarly, his close friendship with Team Sky’s Pete Kennaugh, who added an Olympic team pursuit title last August to the world title he had collected four months earlier, is an aid to Whorrall. Kennaugh’s advice has been the best he’s had from anyone, he says. The ability to talk to a “a mate who rides a bike”, especially when the majority of that riding is done in the colours of Team Sky and Great Britain, is one Whorrall clearly values. Away from the bike (“Turn that off!” Whorrall laughs, pointing at the voice recorder when the subject turns from cycling) the pair enjoy honing their DJ skills.
The season ahead could prove key to Whorrall’s development. He has seen his former Academy housemates find positions in cycling’s elite WorldTour, and his friends win world and Olympic titles. His contribution to IG-Sigma Sport’s camp in Mallorca – working hard on the road, talking easily with colleagues at the hotel – suggests he has found a team with whom he can progress. With a national under-23 title in his sights, and regular appearances in Britain’s biggest races in the offing, he is well placed to do so.