A giant electronics facility on a west London business park is an unusual destination for a professional cycling team, but it is at the UK headquarters of one of their three title sponsors that the Rapha Condor Sharp team is holding an informal introduction to their 2012 squad.
The team flew back from the second of two Spanish training camps the previous day and there’s a relaxed and jovial atmosphere among the riders and staff, many of whom have known each other only weeks. Such interaction lies at the heart of manager John Herety’s ambitions for his team this season.
Nine of his 14-strong 2012 rider line up are eligible for under-23 racing. Seeking a new goal for a team funded to compete at UCI Continental level, Herety has set himself the not inconsiderable challenge of developing fledgling talent while retaining a core of senior riders he expects will continue to deliver success in the biggest races on the domestic calendar.
And so in a function room of Sharp’s vast UK headquarters given over to lunch after a formal round of press interviews, senior riders like Olympic gold medalist, Ed Clancy, former national road race champion, Kristian House, and the vastly experienced Dean Downing banter with the team’s intake of young riders.
By happy accident, an opportunity to speak to Herety comes as he breaks for lunch, and over sandwiches he describes his plans for the season ahead and the logistical challenges of working with such a young squad.
“I’d forgotten how time consuming it is working with young riders. It’s made me consider things I’d taken for granted, like, do they drive a car? I remember asking Tim Kennaugh. I was staggered: ‘He can’t drive!’ I thought, ‘I have to remember to ask that question.’”
He smiles in amused bewilderment at the additional challenges his team’s new direction has brought. Following Kennaugh’s revelation, he then checked the transport arrangements of his other young riders to find that not all of those with licences owned cars. Far from reconsidering his decision, Herety’s only issue with his youthful cohort is that it is not larger. A UCI Continental squad comprised entirely of under-23s would require “pretty sympathetic sponsors,” he admits. “Ours are all sympathetic, but they have tasted success!” he adds with a grin.
In an earlier conversation, Dean Downing has compared Rapha Condor Sharp to a family, a sentiment with which Herety concurs. Downing is one of the mentors he has appointed to ease the path of his under-23 riders into the world of professional cycling. Herety contrasts his own approach and that of Downing, a rider he says who has “done it on feel”, with the new generation of riders who “talk about cycling as a set of numbers”.
“My biggest challenge is to recognise the signs,” he says, referring to the young riders’ keenness to impress. “On the first of the two camps we got them to be really honest. Every night we had a meeting. It was only when one showed a bit of weakness that another would say, ‘My legs hurt.’ We did an experiment where we got James McCallum to say he was tired. At the end of the day, we encourage them to be truthful.”
Herety freely admits that Endura Racing will be the strongest of Britain’s six UCI Continental squads in 2012. Jon Tiernan-Locke, who has begun his career in Endura colours with overall victories at the Tour of the Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut Var, transferred with Zak Dempster and Dean Windsor at the end of 2011. Herety insists his former riders left the team with his blessing. “They [Endura Racing] have a programme that’s right for those riders,” he says.
Herety remains convinced that Rapha Condor Sharp’s train of success will not be derailed by the loss of talents like Tiernan-Locke’s. “My experience of working with sponsors is that the Tour Series is massive. The team for the Tour Series will include Ed Clancy, James McCallum, Dean Downing…none of the youngsters. Every time we approach the biggest races, it will be business as usual,” he says.
Herety’s phone rings. He’s needed for a meeting with the team’s sponsors. There’s just time to discuss the prospects for London 2012 (the mainstream media’s sudden and overwhelming interest in cycling has placed the sport in a ‘delicate state’ he says, vulnerable should crashes or other uncontrollable events ruin British athletes’ chances of success), and the daily challenge of riding on the road in a “car centered nation” (Herety says ‘radical people’ are needed for a coordinated cycling programme in inner cities: “not just painting lines; something a lot more substantial”).
Twenty minutes with Herety provides ample evidence that his world is a hectic one. Does the pre-season scramble ever leave him wondering why he does it? “I love this time of year. You wouldn’t put yourself through it otherwise,” he says.
“The most frustrating aspect is feeling you could do a better job in certain areas. You just have to let a few things go for the benefit of the organisation. The clothing, for example. Sky probably have three people to do that job. I don’t begrudge that. That’s how it should be done. But there are upsides to running a team like this. I’m my own boss. I decide the race programme. I can’t complain about it. It’s unusual to have this ‘family’ in a professional set up.”
Rapha Condor Sharp 2012 rider line-up