Author: Cherie Pridham
Location: United Kingdom
Occupation: Sports Director
When and how did you get into cycling?
I was about 11 years old at the time and we were living in Cape Town, South Africa. Basically, I started riding BMX’s around the streets with the local lads. In fact, I used to go out riding with one of my best mates that I grew up with, Doug Ryder, who is now the owner of another cycling team (Team Qhuebeka Assos). We trained and competed as a duo and actually ended up doing our first race together- the Argus Cycle Tour. It had just over 4500 entrants and I think to this day the race is still going on and is the world's biggest timed event with 30-40,000 starters.
That’s where it all started and it wasn’t long until I realised I was fairly handy on a bike. I soon wanted to get back to the UK (where I was born) to get racing. I left home when I was 18 (1989) and it wasn’t long until I was a member of the GB national team.
Were you full time when you came to the UK?
No, I didn’t know what full time was! I had a little part time job whilst I was living down in a small town in Devon called Budleigh Salterton. However, it wasn’t long until I realised the weekly trip up to Leicester for national squad training wasn’t really sustainable. I ended up moving up there within a year and lodged with Colin Sturgess’ parents (former World IP Champion and Madison Genesis DS). Colin had just turned professional and we trained together whenever he was home.
You first turned professional in 1992 for an Italian Team?
At that stage, it wasn’t strictly classed as professional as there were not any UCI female teams. That only first came about around 1999, which was when I officially became ‘professional’. However, the ‘elite squads’ I was part of before that time were pretty well drilled. I was also fortunate enough to get onto a squad that was sponsored by Mapei and actually lived above a small pizzeria that was owned by Marco Pantani. The pizzas were amazing!
You rode as a professional for around 15 years. How would you say the female professional cycling scene changed throughout the lifespan of your career?
I think my generation was pretty fortunate simply due to the fact that we had so many races. We had grand tours and 10-12 day stage races like; the Giro d’Italia, Tour Feminine and GP Swiss. The team’s organisation and structure were just starting to develop. Although I knew I wasn’t as good as some of the greats from that era, I had a great career. I was team mates with Jeannie Longo for a period and when I shared a room with her I was scared to even put my head on the pillow and go to sleep because I was terrified I might snore!
I think nowadays a lot of women’s teams are extremely professional, and perhaps even more so than most men’s continental teams. It’s great to see how much the sport has progressed, the tactics are spot on and women’s racing is great to watch.. Even salaries are starting to replicate those on the men’s side of the sport. I trained just as hard as my male counterparts, so it’s fantastic to see that progression.
What made you first want to take on a role managing a team and how did that first opportunity first come about?
It started 4-5 years before my first role as a manager. Eddie, my partner, was the manager of the GB Junior Team and I got to see a lot of the stuff he was doing. I went with him to a lot of the races and rode shotgun in the team car. This really gave me a feel for the convoy and also I got to witness the older school way of doing things.
Being a sports director wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about becoming. It just happened. When I was still racing, I was involved in quite a serious hit and run accident and as much as I tried to come back from my injuries, I had completely lost my nerve to even ride in the peloton. From here, I transitioned to running a small junior men’s team called the Merlin Development Squad. So even then I wasn’t involved with the girls or women, I was straight into managing male teams. During this role I aspired to manage one of the bigger teams in the UK but still had no idea that it would be the direction my career would take.
As things progressed with Team Merlin, we started racing abroad and eventually in 2010 we were approached by Raleigh UK - I guess this was my first time being a sports director in the “real world” and even then, I never really considered the fact that I was the first female in a men’s convoy, it’s just what I did and I didn’t consider myself any different to any of the other sports directors.
I took ownership of the team in June 2013, followed by full ownership in January 2014. That was my first time owning a team and being a sports director.
Did owning the team make a big difference in terms of the job you were doing?
Absolutely. You become a lot more aware of spending money. When you’re employed to be a sports director you simply turn up to the race, do your job and go home. As a team owner you’re living with all of the issues, so you never really have time to switch off - the year is 13 months long, 8 days a week and the days are 25 hours long! You spend a lot of time doing things like- sorting out contracts, ensuring riders and staff are being paid, organising the team vehicle wraps, designing kits, chasing nutrition companies, etc and before you know it, it’s the 1st of January and riders are asking when their bikes are available.
If you asked me now if I ever wanted to own a team I’d probably say no thanks, but it taught me to have a lot of respect for what it takes to put a successful team on the road.
I can imagine you learned a lot about the other side of the sport?
In the commercial world for sure, especially in the early days when I had a budget in the region of £500,000. A few years ago, you had the capabilities and budget to have a squad racing internationally and still have a full squad racing domestically in the Tour Series. Now, you have to decide on one or the other. There’s not many teams now in the UK that can support dual race programmes.
The same goes for race organisers that are struggling for commercial sponsorships and I think as I’ve matured I’ve learned to appreciate the amount of work they put in to allow us to race - and that was prior to having BREXIT and Covid to contend with.
You’ve just started your new role with Israel-Start Up Nation. What challenges do you foresee moving from managing a team at a Continental level to World Tour level?
I think first and foremost the biggest challenge will be my own pressure to perform my job well. I think specifically, the first challenge will be trying to understand the flow of the World Tour. For example, learning the tactics used in these bigger races and figuring out who to look out for on the start sheets - understanding who the sprinters and climbers are that we need to look out for.
I’ll be learning the flow in the pre season races, seeing how the riders use these races to prepare for the later races, making sure riders get chances that will be domestiques later on and just getting used to how the GC riders prepare for the Grand Tours.
As far as challenges are concerned- a convoy is a convoy and a bike rider is a bike rider. We’re arriving in a big bus now, as opposed to a camper van, but World Tour teams still face the same challenges as smaller teams.
You’ve been involved in the cycling industry pretty much your whole life. The sport has progressed massively in popularity over the past 10 years. Do you think the upwards trend will continue and what do you see for cycling in the future?
I’d like to think so. If we’re talking about the UK scene, I think one positive that’s come from the pandemic is how the bike scene has grown. There’s been a huge surge in people buying bikes and cycling equipment. With regards to racing, I think things will definitely start to pick-up again.
Cycling in the UK has taken a dip in the past few years but it could be similar to what happened in the 70-80’s, when cycling hit rock bottom and then gradually began to climb again. I think our sport will be back up where it deserves to be in the future. Race organisers will get what they truly deserve and have the opportunity to run more brilliant races. There are truly some great people in the UK scene, like Phil Jones from Brother UK. He supports the race scene and the UK teams 100%, and with support like that, things can only get better.
Globally, I think cycling will continue to grow and will become a sport that everybody loves.