Shop stars: the role of the local bike shop in developing the next generation of British cycling talent
How Condor Cycles, Hargroves Cycles and Pedal Heaven help nurture Britain's rising stars
The role of the humble bike shop in the development of some of Britain’s brightest cycling talent often passes unremarked.
With the rise of British Cycling’s Olympic Academy, the shop team can be overlooked but some of the UK's top young riders, including Owain Doull, Jon Dibben, Dan McLay, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Hugh Carthy, have carved their path to the top with support from a local bike shop.
However, funding a cycling team of any size is a sizeable commitment, and while the shop receives publicity as a by-product of its riders results, passion tends to be the driving force, rather than commercial gain.
We spoke to three of Britain’s most prominent shop teams: the venerable Condor Cycles, owners of the JLT-Condor outfit, Hargroves-Ridley RT, and comparative newcomers Pedal Heaven, to discuss motivation, success and the often hard road to funding and mere survival.
Enjoyment first, then results: the Hargroves way
If running a WorldTour team requires a logistical approach of almost military precision, Pete Hargroves is happy to admit that his outfit ‘aren’t that good at planning’. He can afford to concede the point, given the success his team has enjoyed.
Olympic gold medalist and future Team Sky rider Doull, track world champion Jon Dibben (newly signed by Cannondale-Drapac), and Fortuneo-Vital Concept’s sprinter McLay, who recorded four top-ten finishes in the opening week of his debut Tour de France in July, are all Hargroves old boys.
Not that the boss is prepared to claim any credit for their success. "We didn’t make them the riders they’ve gone on to become," he says, with admirable frankness.
"In the case of all three of those riders, they’ve sent me a text or a message within minutes of their success. They’ve never really left Hargroves, even though they’ve gone on to greater things. They all keep in contact, as do the parents of those three. We just thoroughly enjoyed ourselves."
Enjoyment is a recurring phrase. Riders are chosen for their ability to fit the team ethos, rather than the pursuit of success. Hargroves offers McLay’s victory in the 2010 Junior Tour of Wales, arguably the most prestigious race on the junior calendar (Charly Wegelius, Johan Van Summeren, Daniel Martin, Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Alex Dowsett all feature on the winners’ roster) as an example of the team’s philosophy.
"They’ve got to fit in with our general ethos," he explains. "It’s got nothing to do with talent and everything to do with them being prepared to ride as part of our team.
"We won the Tour of Wales with a three-man team because they were all prepared to ride for each other. It was a group of friends, rather than a team handing out instructions: ‘You will do this, you will do that.'"
Perhaps it’s a philosophy founded in Hargroves’ first cycling love: cyclo-cross. Hargroves Cycles-Ridley RT remains a force in the discipline today, with British number one Ian Field committed to the team for the 2016/17 season.
Field, the reigning National Trophy Series champion, courtesy of a clean sweep of all four rounds last season, has raced for Hargroves since 2008, when he graduated from British Cycling’s Olympic Academy for mountain bike riders.
“I decided that I wanted to do ‘cross, and even back then Hargroves was the ‘go to’ team for ‘cross riders," Field says. "Pete had a team even before the business had become the big company it is now. As the business has grown, so has the team and the ability to bring in sponsors. It’s been nice to be part of that."
Field can certainly count himself among those who have flown the flag highest for Hargroves on the ‘cross scene, both at home and abroad. His domestic success is only one part of a wider campaign that routinely sees him compete in the most prestigious cyclo-cross races in the world.
"It’s everything. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to race. Hargroves’ support makes everything possible" - Ian Field
Field carries Hargroves colours through the hallowed sands of Koksijde and Zonhoven, in front of thousands of cheering Belgians, where the sport is a national obsession. Here he might be said to be following Pete Hargroves’ lead, and he enjoys the shop’s backing, home and abroad.
Field describes the value of the shop’s support in simple terms: "It’s everything. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to race. Hargroves’ support makes everything possible."
Despite the critical nature of the shop’s backing, and the magnitude of the races in which Field routinely competes – World Cup races and Belgium’s aptly-named Super Prestige series – Field says he is under no pressure to perform. He concurs with Pete Hargroves' own analysis: that results follow enjoyment of the sport.
"Pete knows because he’s been there and done it himself," Field says.
"He knows that riders place enough pressure on themselves to get results without having a team manger putting pressure on them as well. He knows how much it means to the riders on the team to win races and national titles.
"It’s nice to have a manager like that, who to a certain extent steps back and lets you get on with it. He supports you, but he’s not one to spoon feed his riders, or crack the whip. It’s more of a family environment. You can’t deny that over the years it’s brought results."
London calling: the Condor connection
It’s impossible to discuss shop teams without acknowledging the contribution of Condor Cycles, a business which since its foundation in 1948 has supported British cycle sport
Managing director Grant Young, the son of founder Monty Young, says Condor has always been synonymous with racing; that the business was an extension of Monty’s passion for bike racing and of his desire to be involved with the sport, in whatever capacity.
Condor’s sporting history is illustrious. The Condor-Mackeson team of the 1960s was the first to attract sponsorship from outside of the sport, and Hugh Porter became its first world champion by winning the pursuit title in 1968.
Team Sky riders past and future, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Tao Geoghegan Hart, are among a host who have received support as amateurs.
"They all started with the help of Condor," Young recalls, proudly. Both Wiggins and Geoghegan Hart, from Kilburn and Hackney respectively, might have struggled to launch their careers without such support.
"Certainly with Wiggins, his parents didn’t have the money to spend on what’s required for the sport," Young recalls. "Tao came to us as kid, really. He was quiet, and interested in cycling. He came to us on a Saturday job and loved it. We brought him out of his shell. His mother said, 'I can’t thank you enough. He’s a changed boy.'
"He could have gone either way. Fortunately, he’s gone the right way. We looked after him for many years in the junior team and we were so proud when he signed for Sky. I was away at the time and received an e-mail from Claire [Beaumont, marketing manager] saying, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel like a godfather!’"
Today, Condor’s pro team operates on a seven-figure budget, has powerful backers from within and from outside the sport in the shape of insurance giant JLT, and wheel and clothing supplier Mavic.
However, development remains the focus, with at least five under-23 riders in the JLT Condor squad each season and Condor also supporting the HMT Academy junior outfit, but the team is also home to triple Olympic champion Ed Clancy.
"I met up with Ed yesterday," Young says. "He was in London for some television work and his agent asked if we could meet somewhere quiet, but as soon as he came into the shop, people were asking him for autographs."
It is at once accurate and ambiguous to describe JLT-Condor as a shop team. As Clancy’s visit makes plain, the premises on Gray's Inn Road remains the focal point, but a squad racing at home and abroad in races as varied as the Tour de Korea and the Tour of Britain requires significant backing.
"It’s a huge responsibility," Young concedes. "Claire and I spend at least 50 per cent of our time on team business, which isn’t ideal. I’m always looking forward, always looking for sponsors. Even when Rapha parted company, which was a blow, we were fortunate that the guys at JLT were passionate about the team and keeping everyone employed, because to the team, it is a job."
Former British champion John Herety has run Condor’s team in its various guises since 2007, making Condor’s sponsorship arguably the longest, unbroken commitment in cycle sport. While JLT, perhaps better known to British Cycling members as providers of Cycleguard insurance, are comparative newcomers, the passion for cycling is shared by the most senior employees; a must in Young’s experience.
Despite the unprecedented success of British riders in recent years, up to and including the Rio gold rush, gaining sponsorship is a difficult task, Young says.
"What I’ve found in the past with our more substantial sponsors - JLT and, prior to them, Sharp, is to have senior people in the company who have a real passion for cycling, is very helpful. People say to me, 'it must be easy to find sponsors', but it’s still the hardest thing in the world. It’s very, very difficult. Everyone you contact has already been contacted by other people, not only from within this sport but also from every other sport. They’re inundated."
Pedal Heaven: economic reality and the fight for 'hard cash'
Pedal Heaven, the most recent of six British teams with UCI Continental status, is a team already acquainted with the challenges of securing sponsorship.
Despite an impressive 2016 campaign which brought victory in the team competition at two rounds of the televised Tour Series (Redditch and Portsmouth) - enough to net them third in the final overall standings - external funding has been hard to find.
Owner Craig Peter says the team’s founding principle is passion: an opportunity to use the shop’s marketing budget to develop emerging and especially local riders; to contribute to the sport.
"Local riders look at us and say, ‘Wow. That’s the team I want to ride for,'" - Craig Peter, Pedal Heaven
To this end, Pedal Heaven has two squads: the UCI team and the ‘academy’ (the latter, ironically, enjoys the backing of an external sponsor in Excel Resourcing). Peter received 150 applications from riders eager to join the team, many from abroad. His first loyalty, however, is to home grown talent. He feels the same about the quality of domestic racing.
"To me, it was really important to race in the UK, because I honestly think we’ve got some good riders here," says Peter. "We don’t need to go to France and Belgium. The UK can offer a great standard of racing."
The twin track approach is the result of Peter’s ambition for, on the one hand, his team to compete in the UK’s biggest domestic races, and on the other to build a team around the shop, in the most literal sense. "Local riders look at us and say, ‘Wow. That’s the team I want to ride for,'" he says.
The paradox of Pedal Heaven’s comparatively brief existence has been to win plaudits for its professionalism, while struggling to find external funding.
Despite some impressive results in SweetSpot’s Tour Series, the team failed to qualify for the same promoter’s Tour of Britain. Peter says he has lost sponsorship opportunities as a direct consequence.
Still, he is not prepared to throw in the towel, though he admits that attracting financial support is not easy. "Being in the cycle trade, I can source product, no problem, but money is what you need - hard cash," he says. It’s a refrain that even the biggest teams in the sport would recognise, such is cycling's reliance on sponsorship.
With two teams disappearing from the WorldTour at the end of the season (IAM Cycling and Tinkoff), one can only imagine the difficulty shops face in attracting commercial partners for their teams. Condor's Young succinctly confirms Peter's view: "It is very, very difficult".
Having achieved the self-imposed goal of gaining a UCI license within their first five years, Peter's Pedal Heaven squad is reluctant to give up without a fight. Peter says real satisfaction would lie in switching on the television in two years' time and seeing a former Pedal Heaven rider competing in one of the sport’s biggest races.
Porter, Wiggins, Doull, Dibben, McLay, Geoghegan Hart, Carthy... the line of riders produced by shop teams has real pedigree. While we’ve focused on three of the biggest here, the list of small, independent shops supporting teams and individuals is lengthy. Broaden the definition to online retailers, and the list grows again.
The advent of the British Cycling Academy has reconfigured the landscape for young, talented amateurs, and while it may at first glance appear to represent a creaming off of the talent once available to shops, for Pete Hargroves at least, it has presented no real problem.
"We just worked with it," he says, pointing out that McLay was enrolled on the Academy programme when he won the 2010 Junior Tour of Wales in Hargroves colours.
Young British riders now have many routes to the top and while the Academy naturally claims the plaudits that accompany Olympic success, it is equally important to recognise the endeavours of those closer to the grass roots of the sport
Shop teams have long been part of cycling's foundations, giving generously to support riders for the love of the sport. The most successful become part of the fabric of the sport, as Condor and Hargroves have shown. Those, like Pedal Heaven, who seek to emulate them deserve our admiration.