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An interview with John Herety
John Herety, Rapha Condor Sharp team manager, is one of the most experienced and respected men in British cycling. Having raced on the Continent and on the burgeoning domestic scene in the 1980s, John has successfully managed Rapha Condor Sharp for the last four seasons. Ahead of the Tour of Britain, Mr. Herety talked to us about road racing then and now.
Tell us about your career. You started your professional life as a chef, didn’t you?
I was racing in an era when the UK amateur scene was dominated by Liverpool-based riders. Most were on the dole, so they were able to train full-time and get by on very little money. When I was 18, I started work for a catering company at Manchester Airport. Unlike a lot of chef jobs, it was well-paid and the hours worked well for training. Working from 8.30am to 4.30pm gave me time to get out on the bike.
I was coached by Harold ‘H’ Nelson, a highly-regarded coach who imparted a strong work ethic to his riders. I also trained with Graham Jones and Paul Sherwen. My results weren’t great. I was good but I didn’t have the time to train enough and also to rest.
At one stage I took a two-week holiday and used that just to train. That was the point where my performances started to improve. Around the age of 19 or 20, I started to win races. Then I got a letter telling me I was on the long list for the Olympics, so my choice was made; I quit working. Being able to train full-time, riding 20-25 hours a week and with the time to rest made all the difference.
In 1980, I came third at the national champs racing against pros. I was then selected to ride at the Peace Race (Warsaw-Berlin-Prague) that year which was my ticket to the Olympic team.
What was it like racing in the Eastern Bloc?
The Eastern Bloc racers were at their peak in those days. We were boys against men compared to them, they were like bodybuilders. We now know why but it was unheard of in that era for riders to be so well conditioned. It was really tough racing.
And then you went back for the Moscow Olympics.
We were there for a month but because we were behind the Iron Curtain, we were only allowed to train on two roads. One was a 50km track like Eastway (the now bulldozed race circuit) that was alongside an eight-lane highway. You’d ride down it, turn around and come back. We worked out that if we trained with the Russian team we would be allowed on normal roads. It was a real culture shock.
1980 was a good year for you. You won the Manx International, a high-profile race which follows the same course as Isle of Man TT motorbike race. Other winners include the likes of Jacques Anquetil and Tom Simpson.
Yes, I was in a break with, among others, Marc Madiot and Stephen Roche. I managed to hang on to them on the mountain and then I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ So I attacked. There was never a master plan in my head for racing. When you hear young kids today talking about how they have each race and stage of their career planned out… I just went for it.
And then you were picked up by the Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt (ACBB), at the time one of the best amateur teams in the world.
In France, as in the rest of Europe, the Peace Race was massive, so winning a stage meant I was sought after as a rider for their amateur teams. The ACCB was the best of all of them, it had a great heritage and it was like a finishing school for young riders. Phil Anderson, Stephen Roche, Paul Sherwen, they all came through that system. I lived with Sean Yates and Jeff Williams while I was there. It was a good set up, very disciplined.
We started off with a training camp in southern France. It was all very traditional and we rode some small races to get warmed up for the season. It was kind of expected that you would win down there, so I went out and made sure I got one under my belt. After that, I came back to Paris and won 15 races that season, a few of which were amateur classics. I was signed to a pro team straight away but not to Peugeot, like a lot of guys who came through the ACBB. I chose Co-Op Mercier instead, for a bit more freedom.
I raced for Co-Op Mercier for three years in Europe. In that time I became the 1982 UK National Champion. That was a great win and wearing that jersey in Europe was a good experience. But over the years I saw that I didn’t have the constitution for racing at that level.
Back then, you raced constantly; if you rode the Tour and simply survived then you were considered to be doing OK. The workload was too much for me and I developed chronic fatigue syndrome. It was tough but I have no regrets.
Paul Kimmage was one of your peers riding during that time. From reading his book, Rough Ride, he seems the kind of rider who might have benefited from the mentoring that is offered to younger riders nowadays?
Oh, definitely. Back then, you either had the toughness to make it or you were broken. There was no grey area in between; that was what the sport was.
And so you moved back to UK racing.
Yep, moved back to the UK where the racing scene was strong and I could earn a salary that matched what I was earning in France. In many ways, back then it was a similar kind of atmosphere in the UK as it is today. The Kelloggs crit series had started. It was televised and was a competitive, entertaining spectacle. The Milk Race (now the Tour of Britain) was popular, too, and it was a good time to be racing domestically. My main trouble was I wasn’t ever properly rested. After getting so run down in France, I still kept getting ill.
In today’s era my fortunes might have been different. Now with all the testing and data analysis we’re more sensitive about how to treat individual riders. Then again that could have also not got me into the teams I rode for in the first place. There were no lab tests or data files, you just rode everything back then and proved yourself by winning races.
You rode during a pioneering time for the sport. Were the 1980s an important era in its development?
Oh absolutely. I remember when heart-rate monitors were first introduced and thinking it was a crazy idea. There are lots of benefits that technology can provide but I like to think that progress comes from marrying different eras together, combining old-school methods with modern technology. It’s a continually changing sport but the bottom line is still the same. You train, rest, train and rest. Then you make sure you ride the correct races for you.
The 1980s was also a time when national barriers were broken down. The end of the Eastern Bloc meant there was an influx of riders from Eastern Europe, while at the same time new riders from the West were beginning to emerge.
English-speaking riders like Greg Lemond and Roche were going to foreign teams and winning and in doing so they were breaking the mould. The sport was going through big changes. It was becoming more global and the nature of sponsorship changed. Teams became bigger, more professional; nationality didn’t matter, just publicity.
When I was racing in France, winter training just wasn’t considered important as in the way it is today – we just used to do a bit of cross-country skiing. But back then the early-season racing was more relaxed. Now, with better communications and increased interest from the media and advertising, the need to win is far greater. The pressure is on from the very beginning.
What do you think of the current state of UK racing?
Our mainstream sporting culture has never really included road racing. British cycling culture has traditionally been about time trials or touring, it’s very niche and more about a tradition. That’s why televised crit racing is perfect for a UK audience. They get it instantly, it’s such a good spectacle. When we used to race at the Kelloggs series the crowds loved it, they understood what was unfolding in front of them. UK racing fans, at least the casual ones, often don’t get the complexities of a stage race, where the winner on a particular day rider isn’t necessarily the overall race leader or winner.
That’s why the Tour Series is so great. It harks back to the days of Kelloggs, something that the crowd can enjoy and where they can get close to the riders. It provides an opportunity to showcase the talent of UK riders, of which there’s a large amount at the moment.
Having said that, we still don’t have the depth of talent that exists in other countries. In the 80s there were probably as many good UK riders as there are now but they simply didn’t have the access to the top pro teams that would allow them to develop further. Fortunately that’s changing now.
What about Team Sky?
They’re on a different level entirely to what the other UK-based teams are doing. They’re operating on a global scale. They can sign riders from any corner of the globe and they do.
Here in the UK, the scene is not really any stronger than it was back then. We still only have 10 to 15 top riders performing at the highest level. That’s because there simply aren’t enough big UK teams.There needs to be more teams racing well as that brings up the level up for everyone.
It’s also becoming more and more expensive to run teams. Domestically, there simply isn’t the critical mass to bring in more investment.
How has the evolution of technology informed your management?
Things have changed significantly, particularly in the past few years. Like everyone else, I have to be conscious of numbers and statistics, testing wattage, weight, all the things we use as guidelines to a rider’s condition. But in terms of racing, things have also changed. The rules are much stricter but riders are less confident on their bikes.
Before, it was just about racing to win. Riders these days are afraid to come near the team car; in my day, I’d have my head in the door talking to the manager. I still stress to riders that it’s about skills acquisition, about basic riding skills. All the SRM power metres in the world are irrelevant if you haven’t got ‘it’.
Our understanding of psychology has also changed our approach but the fundamentals remain the same. For example, a sprinter will have a completely different mentality to a time-triallist. Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter in the world, personifies that marriage of efficiency, power and the correct mindset. He’ll bang the table and be very extroverted because he’s a sprinter. At the same time, he is so fine tuned that he’ll know exactly when to go in race. He is a manager’s and a sponsor’s dream because he knows when he can win, and 99 times out of 100 he does.
Back in the 80s we were racing to win however and wherever we could. Then Indurain arrived. He limited his races and focused on the Tour de France. He was reacting to the pressure to perform, both for publicity and money. The sponsors wanted a Tour win and he delivered. And of course, Lance took it to the next level.
In a way we’re victims of that now. Cycling is giving in to the demands of sponsors and changing the culture, the heritage of the sport. Racing is becoming merely about output. With technology you can regulate your physical performance to such an extent that you no longer need to understand your body like you did when I was racing. The skill of a rider knowing his limits is missing. That applies to the management, too. I acquired skills by getting clipped around the ear for riding at the wrong pace. Life experience counted for a lot in your racing; you were taught how to ride in a group, in pairs. Skills counted and they still should.
So many riders go to the front and go too hard at the start of a race these days. They don’t have the etiquette or racing brain. They can’t manage their ambition and their capabilities.
An example of a rider who can is Zak Dempster. He’s not necessarily stronger than other riders but he has a racing brain. After one unsuccessful year, he worked out how to win races such as the Premier Calendar. He has good judgment and knows he needs to continually develop as a rider.
Rapha Condor Sharp have had a fantastic season, winning the Tour Series, Premier Calendar team prize and the Nat Crit Champs. Given that you dominate the UK scene, how do you think you’ll go at the Tour of Britain?
The Tour of Britain is difficult. Once again it has a very strong field. Two years ago we decided we’d just try for all the breaks – a bit like the French do at the Tour – which was great for publicity. I’m against riding just for the sake of publicity but we will look to animate the race without being stupid. Given the way fans react to us, we really want to give them something. It’s a superb race for a lesser known rider to make his name but getting in the breaks and making it stick is tough. A lot of the time you’re only waiting until the big boys say enough is enough. We’ll probably get our arses kicked but we’ll try our best.
And what of the ToB as an event in itself?
Love it. I’ve experienced many races all over the world, both as a rider and manager and the level of support at the ToB is great. The hotels are good and that means a lot to foreign teams. To be able to drive into the centre of London in the team car and ride around the Houses of Parliament is a massive thing. To close down one of the biggest cities in the world for a bike race shows the race organisers have got some clout. It’s superb.
Do you think UK cycling needs to put more money into domestic races. Is it hard to compete with more established events elsewhere?
We need a couple more stage races in the UK. At the moment, the calendar is still in decline and has been for quite a few years. So many good events have gone, the Tour of the Pennines, the Tour of Lancashire, the Tour of Ireland to name but a few. Races with good exposure, i.e. TV coverage, justify expenditure to sponsors from outside the cycling industry. Our sponsors Sharp are a good example. That’s what we need to really make the sport grow in this country in the long-term.
Rapha Condor Sharp's provisional Tour of Britain line-up:
Ed Clancy (GBR); Dan Craven (Nam); Zak Dempster (Aus); Kristian House (GBR); Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (GBR); Andy Tennant (GBR)
Reserves: Graham Briggs (GBR); Dean Downing (GBR); Ben Greenwood (GBR); Casey Munro (Aus); Dean Windsor (Aus);