It’s just a plain white jersey with red, white and blue bands around the middle, this pattern repeated with accents on the cuffs and collar. But it’s not just any old jersey…
It’s just a plain white jersey with red, white and blue bands around the middle, this pattern repeated with accents on the cuffs and collar. But it’s not just any old jersey. It’s the jersey that since 1959 has signified that the wearer is British Road Champion. The iconic ‘stripes’, carried for a full year by the winner, are currently ensconced on the shoulders of a certain Mark Cavendish and previously worn by riders such as Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, David Millar, Roger Hammond and Robert Millar, to name but a few..
To wear the jersey is an absolute honour, an attainment pursued by many but achieved by few. Although the stripes have always been revered, over recent years their importance and relevance has been magnified in part by the profile of our sport as well as such distinguished wearers.
June 1997. The National Road Race Championships. I crossed the finish line in Wales in third place behind winner Jeremy Hunt and in tears, shouting and cursing at myself as I freewheeled to an abrupt stop beyond the finish line. I had come so close. At 27 I was at or near the peak of my physical shape and saw, at the time, the bronze medal as a symbol of loss and diminishing opportunity. Nothing more. That defeat burned deep inside my psyche for a year. That simple, white jersey, never far from my thoughts as I put in the hard miles.
June 2000. The same race. I was fourth from a group of four. I was disappointed but this time didn’t shed a tear. I slowed to halt alongside David Millar who had just finished 3rd, sitting on the kerb sobbing, his head in his hands, a simple illustration of exactly how strong the desire to win this race is. I put my hand on his shoulder and said to him, “Dave. You’ll win this one day. I promise you.”
Rewind to June 1998. Yes, the National Road Race. This time in Solihull over a fast, gently undulating course. With 15 miles to go I was alone, having attacked a seven rider group containing, amongst others, my team mate and former Milk race winner Chris Lillywhite, as well as Chris Newton, Rob Hayles and Roger Hammond. My attack was initially executed in order to force the others to chase and give Chris the chance to sit on and rest his legs, should it come down to a sprint. However, the gap opened to around 15 seconds and I was feeling incredibly strong.
I started to perhaps believe that I could actually win. Actually win. The National Bloody Championships. ‘The Stripes’ for Christ’s sake! As I churned my top gear of 53×12 on the long, flat, open sections of the course a new sensation started to emanate from my head, spreading down to my stomach and legs with the tingly warmth of an injection of anaesthetic. Paradoxically I knew my legs were hurting but I couldn’t feel the pain as such, I was pushing the pedals in a state of nervous euphoria, my stomach swirling with the combined fear of being caught and failing, mixed with the giddy belief that I could actually pull this off, forming a heady blend of feelings that appeared to only assist in propelling me forward.
Occasionally I glanced backwards: I could still see the chasers and they had me in their sights, their quarry. Most of the crowds that had been on the circuit earlier in the race had now gone, heading for the finish line, so the final few miles were a lonely affair. There were no cheers to drown the sounds of my solitary effort, in fact these were amplified to the extent they now form as much of a part of this memory as the sights and feelings. The pounding of my heart, my deep, rasping, almost desperate yet rhythmic breaths, the breeze whirling in my ears, the smooth, low mechanical whir of the chain punctuated by the frenzied parping of the horn of my team car. Whilst strangely attuned to this background din my only conscious thought was to simply keep forcing the pedals whilst hunching low on the bike, my hands in the centre of the bars, an unorthodox style but comfortable and aero.
…an unorthodox style but comfortable and aero
The gap fluctuated between 15 and 25 seconds for the entire run in, giving me no time to relax. I’d been told by Sid Barras in the team car behind me (my manager and himself National Road Champion in 1975) that there were two chasers, closing fast, including the formidable Roger Hammond. This information served both to frighten and to spur me, each pedal stroke becoming more desperate as I begged for the line to come. With 2 miles to go I still held around 20 seconds lead and for the first time I knew that taking the jersey was fast becoming a reality.
Going into the final few sharp corners I felt as if I was watching myself on a TV screen: I got that sharp stab of nerves in the stomach that you feel when watching riders navigate a dangerous, sketchy finale or descent, followed by the rush of relief when the hazard has passed without incident. Over the final roundabout I took my last look rearwards. The road for 300 metres contained only a quite wonderful and silent emptiness.
‘Matt, you’ve done it! You’ve done it! You’re going to wear the Stripes! Be National Champion!’ The last mile I rode as hard as I could, still. But all I could think about was pulling that jersey over my head. This dream like state of mind was then rudely interrupted by my Dad, running alongside on the pavement beside me with 500 metres to go, shouting in a choked croak, ‘You fucking beauty lad!’ whilst waving his fist. This resulted in a surge of emotion prickling up from the base of my spine before firing off my tear ducts. With 400 metres to go I began to ease, the uneasy peace of earlier replaced by a cacophony of cheers as I rolled up the finish straight. Just before the line I did what I had wanted to do my entire career. I lifted my arms and crossed the thin white painted strip to become National Road Champion..
My Mum and Nan stole the show though, both agilely scaling the barriers just past the finish line screaming manically, before being wrestled to a halt by concerned race officials… You’ve got to love Mums haven’t you…?
Standing on the podium and pulling on the jersey was…. well, I won’t do it justice by clumsily trying to describe it because I can’t. But what I do know and can say is that it was and still is an absolute honour to have carried them. C’mon, it’s the stripes…
Dave Millar, Me in the stripes then Charly Wegelius… Manx 1999
A young Brad Wiggins just in front of me 1999
All photo credits to Phil O'Conner, thanks for sharing them!