I didn’t expect cycling to define my life. I just wanted to escape and it snowballed…quite a lot.
I learnt to ride a bike aged 7ish. It wasn’t an Earth shattering moment, but I liked it. I rode bikes, like kids do, until I got a paper round.
Getting up at 6am to deliver papers in the snow sharpens the mind of alas teenager. I didn’t want to get up. It was cold. It was cold when Winters were cold. Before softshell, fleece and thermal gear were a thing. So when I got up, I got cracking, and I dashed from door to door, keeping warm, getting it done.
I liked the speed. The effort. The quiet (I’ve always been fastidious about oiling bikes) whirr of my drivetrain. My thoughts, alone amongst the orange street lights. And the FREEDOM.
Everyone who cycles talks about the freedom. When you’re 13, stuck in a place that doesn’t understand you, stuck in a school you can’t wait to leave, with dreams of a life yet to live, freedom is vital. The bike gave me it, and it became my drug, my shrink, my shoulder to cry on, my imagined victories and my life coach.
So, aged 13, my Dad arrived and took me to Tamworth (I have no idea why Tamworth, 50 miles away) to buy a Peugeot Tourmalet, red, with 14 speeds, clips, straps and my loving arms wrapped around it.
The monkey who sold it said that I’d grow into a 24” bike. I was 5’5” then, now I’m 5’11” and I STILL have to grow another 5 inches to grow into it! But I didn’t know, or care. I began my explorations of the East Midlands, and myself…
After school, many times a week, I’d ride in my tiny flapping running shorts and sole-destroying trainers. I’d find new rolling hills, challenges and chaffed thighs. I learnt that cycling can be delightfully easy, and horribly hard. I learnt that you could give up, or carry on. I started giving up less.
Then the Tour De France came to Channel 4, or rather I came to the Tour, in 1987. Roche and Delgado. Fizz. Something blew inside my soul. That was the moment something bad died, and a new Nick rose. No joke. I Was A Cyclist. This was what I should be. This made sense to me. I was made this way.
I was skinny. Very skinny. I had French family (this was somehow relevant to me) and cycling was French (it seemed). I was really really bad at football. I couldn’t catch a ball. I had had my head kicked in for years because of it. Now, I had an unknown sport that I could practice in secret and be good at. That I was pre-disposed to. I could and would show them.
As luck would have it, and though I believe we make our own luck, luck is always present, the East Midlands Championship course was round the corner from me. There was a fairly hilly evening time trial of 5.4 miles held around it each Wednesday in Summer.
It really really hurt.
After years of avoiding sport, I discovered I was actually a masochist. The harder, the better. First there was the dark, gasping near vomit horror. Never again… Then, two minutes proceeding, transcendence. Joy. Victory over one’s weakness. I was hooked. Hooked on endorphins, on the culture, on beating myself.
Time triallists are weirdos. Hell, racing cyclists are pretty weird, with the insane number of hours dedicated to training, the suffering, the leg shaving, the fiddling with shiny bits. But TT riders were loners, up before dawn, twunting up and down dual carriageways for a cup of tea and a flapjack. Pain was your master. I knew it was stupid, but I was NOT CRAP at it.
The Tour had infected me, then Paris Roubaix, Liege, Vuelta, Giro. New words. Millar (my son’s name), Yates, LeMond, Longo, Breukink, Van Hooydonk, Criquellion. More words. Escape, fantasy, pain, triumph and really skinny people like me. I needed to be road racer, if I was going to win the Tour de France. Which I was.
I was really crap at road racing. I was fit, but tiny, a junior up against big men. Racers in my area were hard, muscular, scary, shouty. I was tiny, inexperienced, scared, desperate to please. There were so many rules.
The Velominati Rules are a joke that’s gone too far. They do exist, but in a more prosaic, less style-based setting back in the Eighties. There was a lot of judgement and it was hard to be accepted. I wasn’t ALLOWED to have a disc wheel until I could do 25 miles in an hour on a road bike. Because otherwise I was a show off. I couldn’t afford one anyway, but this made me angry. Surely I could just ride as I wished? My huge red crappy Peugeot wasn’t good enough for club runs, and certainly not for racing. I never heard the end of it. It was just sheer bloody minded desperation to ride that kept me coming, getting tough, learning The Rules.
Back to my abortive road racing. I was a wee man amongst big men, scared on descents, in the wrong position for climbs, and I had to ride to all my events. But I found the right club, Trent Valley CRC, they helped me, I got a half decent bike that fitted me, I got lifts and I got strong. In a weak way…Less weak.
I learnt not to give up. I learnt that you can ALWAYS try harder. That your mind is in charge. Cycling changed me from a sad mewling child into a determined child with heathy self respect. I could do things that I never thought possible. I was in charge of my own destiny. Work = results. I had scars, muscles and respect, amongst many shaved-legged peers at least. I liked myself and I had something to grip onto. Cycling got me through childhood, it made the teen years tolerable and it equipped me to face life, knowing it was up to me. There are no favours. Give up, or keep going. The determined win. Etc etc blah blah. I’d need these new discoveries later. I didn’t know then that I’d become an entrepreneur.
To précis a busy early life cycling, I concentrated on time trials, where my fitness counted over skill. My Mum went crazy trying to get me to study, and I bombed my exams, pottering through them in a Champs d’Elysees daydream. Poor Mum.
I went Liverpool to Study Sports Science & Physiology, just so I could become a better cyclist. I persuaded the local legend Ken Matthews of deadly serious Kirkby CC to accept me, and trained every hour that university lends you, which is a lot.
I trained so hard I broke myself in two ways. My immune system crashed and I got glandular fever, losing all my minimal muscle, dropping from 62kg to 50kg (I’m 84kg now, for context). I also started suffering serious back pain, and ruptured the first of many discs as a young man. I’d been so obsessed with cycling and over-training, I’d knackered my body. Idiot.
I was told my spine was degenerating, and I would never ride again. In fact, I may not walk into my Thirties.
So, for my twenties, I loved the Tour as I always had. I grieved for my cycling, met my wife, moved on, then got angry. I wasn’t going to be beaten. I recovered through yoga, pilates, weights, swimming, posture, memory foam mattresses, obscene amounts of osteopathy and physio. And I was back on a bike.
Welcome to a new millennium and a new me:
Every bike ride was a pleasure. Every picnic with Emmalou was as good as an MTB smash up in the trees, or a commuter to Soho. My outlook had totally changed in the many years I’d fought to get back on a bike.
I’d taken it all too seriously. Idiotically, I wanted to win the Tour de France. I damaged myself in trying. I realised I had never really enjoyed cycling on my own terms. And now, as a grown up, I could. I’d do it however I wished. That was the philosophy that became Vulpine. No judgement. Fast, slow, expensive bike, trash bike, it didn’t matter. All are welcome. Every ride is important.
I filled my new cycling life with treats, travelling, sportives, races, mountain bike trips, lots of bikes, track rides, clothes, whatever I could. Every ride. Every single ride, whatever the weather, was pure joy. But there was a hole.
Cycling was so important me that my working life felt like hell. I was well payed to do an outwardly glamorous job as an executive producer in film. Long hours, lots of stress, lots of parties I had no interest in. Plenty of opportunity to buy bikes, but no time to ride them. Cycling and my wife were my obsessions, and I was greedy. I wanted more of the real joy, not the shiny crap that came with me crushing lifestyle. I dreamt. You can spare the violins.
I commuted to work most days. The only days I didn’t, I couldn’t because I had to dress smartly, or had no time to traipse to the gym to shower and change. I would either arrive at work in full racing kit, looking like a loon, stinking, or I’d arrive in my work clothes, looking like a loon, soaked, and stinking in a few hours.
I loved cycling. I wanted to cycle everywhere. But my clothes stopped me. My racing gear was inappropriate for business and socialising. My work clothes were uncomfortable for the 12-15 mile commute. Surely there was another way?…LIGHTBULB.
Eventually, my idea became a plan, and my wife told me to leave and make it come true. I knew the risks. Most businesses fail. I knew it would be harder than anything I’d done before, but the masochist determination racing cycling had given me made me want that. I run on passion, and I can’t run without it. My job was slowly turning me into a person I didn’t respect. I couldn’t live with never knowing if I could do it. So I did. I turned my lifelong passion into a business. If I’d known how hard it was then, I doubt I’d have tried. One foot in front of the other….
Now, I have fewer bikes, but I’m happier. I don’t have time for big rides, with Vulpine and two small kids. But my soul only yearns to discover what I’m capable of. There isn’t a hole. I ride to work, and occasionally, I do awesome stuff like ride with Sir Chris Hoy in Mallorca, or with new industry friends up mountains, or around amazing cities. I’ve met childhood heroes like Robert Millar and Greg Lemond. I was barely sane with joy. That 16 year old in my pushed the grown up out the way.
I’m often last on rides, gasping. I don’t care. I ride on my terms, for myself. In the clothes I designed, for the company I love. I just have really baggy eyes.
That suits me nicely.
Become your passion.