... and we all pulled the trigger. Except that we couldn’t. Before the internet, you had to wait until Tuesday morning for the Daily Telegraph to print the results of major races. It was August 1989 and my triathlon hero, Glenn Cook, had just finished second in the first World Short Course Championships in Avignon, France.
In the next issue of Triathlete Magazine there was a double page spread of Cook running toe to toe with third place finisher Rick Wells. Cook had cut his Ron Hill vest navel high and felt-tipped GBR across his chest. Both athletes had their moustaches pinned back from the speed and the sweat. I picked the staples out of the middle of the poster, put it on my bedroom wall and drew nightly inspiration before dropping off to sleep.
As Glenn was riding himself into medal contention he was doing it on a Dave Russell bike. Dave was the British team mechanic for the Avignon trip and his kids swam at my swimming club. I bumped into him at the pool on his return. He regaled me with tales from Avignon and we discussed the progress he was making with the bike I’d ordered: a fluo-green and white Reynolds 501 Russell Frame specced with a Shimano 105 groupset.
I’d finished my first triathlon just six months earlier. I’d been a runner since the early 80’s inspired by British marathoners like Geoff Smith, Charlie Spedding, John Graham, Mike Grattan, Tony Milovsorov and Steve Jones. In the Spring of 1989 I bought the book Dave Scott’s Triathlon Training, joined Berkshire Tri Squad and started training for the May 1989 Wokingham TRY-A-TRI.
My ride back then was a powder-blue Peugeot Elan with the seat right down and my running shoe shod feet loosely slotted into chrome toe clips. When bent into my drop bar aero position I imagined that the two looping lengths of brake cable formed my windscreen and I was Joey Dunlop negotiating the deadly Isle of Man TT course at great speed.
Despite having to switch to breaststroke during the 500m pool swim, I comfortably maintained thousands of RPMs on the bike and my transition practices on Cippenham Green allowed me to finish with a strong run. I think I was second overall and first under 18 by a solid margin. At 16 I’d already made the decision that I wanted to be a professional triathlete.
I imagined the sport developing along the golf model, allowing the journeyman pro to make a respectable living but remain relatively anonymous to the general public. There would be multiple circuits like the US, European and Asian tours in golf. Athletes would have to race at all distances while attempting to be on peak form for “the majors”.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Carlsberg Grand Prix Series provided pocket money for a small group of UK-based pros. These included Rick Kiddle, Ken Maclaren, Mark Marabini, Rick Morris, Alan Ingarfield, Tracy Harris, Richard Hobson, Bernie Shrosbree and Jon Ashby. To make more serious money you had to race regularly on the continent.
I’d read that Glenn Cook had perfected the logistics of this. Leaving at dawn on Friday from his Devonshire home, he’d fly from Heathrow into Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands or France. He’d check out the race course on Saturday before racing on Sunday. After collecting his cheque for winning or placing he’d make his way home on Monday.
The golf thing obviously never happened but Brett Sutton did come up with an imaginative way of keeping triathlon draft free at the highest level that was published in an early issue of 220 Magazine. The idea was to make the World Championships and eventually the Olympics into a two day, short distance slash long distance combo.
Day 1: Sprint Distance Individual Time Trial. Day Two: Long Distance non-drafting race for the top 24 qualifiers. It would be a 4km swim, 120km bike and 30km run. However, the swim would take place in a rowing lake. A typical rowing facility is 2000m long with eight, 13m wide lanes. Three athletes per lane. Get this... no drafting on the swim! Nobody listened.
I progressed steadily through the early 1990’s thanks to swim sessions at Windsor Swimming Club, turbo training in my parents’ garage and serious Cross Country seasons. I raced all over the UK and in Holland and France on family holidays. After winning the national universities’ title in Halesowen and a GB elite team cap at the World Long Distance Championships in Nice, I negotiated a place on a French team at the end of 1995.
After some frustrating faxes and awkward telephone calls I made plans to move over to race for GT Vesoul 70 in April 1996. After a winter of HARD training, including some brutal nights at Palmer Park velodrome, my dad dropped me at St. Pancras Station.
This was pre-Eurostar so I had to haul my massive bike bag and bulging green suitcase from train to cross channel ferry to train, between two stations in Paris and then back onto another train. My baggage contained parts to repair various improbable bike mechanical incidents and clothes for every social and sporting occasion.
My train eventually pulled out of the Gare de l’Est laden with hundreds of soldiers heading back to their barracks in the east of France. About an hour out of Paris I got out my phrase book. I was tired from carrying the outsize luggage and greetings such as “bonjour, enchanteé de vous faire connaissance,” were getting harder and harder to memorise.
At least 2 hours; no towns, no stops, no street lights. Then some brief stops in small dark towns. Then finally Vesoul, a basic station building and a tiny platform. I was met by the club president. I learnt later that he’d battled for my inclusion in the team. I was first the athlete from outside the region to be invited into this rapidly improving group.
That year I raced every weekend, learnt French, won a race and stepped onto the podium with the team at a French Grand Prix event. The beginning of my pro career also proved to be the end. I’d spent far too much time crossing France every week in the back of a Peugeot 806 and I realised that I lacked the killer instinct needed to make a living in triathlon.
I worked in Germany for 2 years before moving back to France in 1999. Racing for Rouen Triathlon I won a regional title (photo above) and the team gained promotion to the FGP Division 1. I worked part-time and trained a lot; alongside some of the biggest names in French triathlon back then. Christophe Bouquet, Frankie Batallier, Stephane Becue and Florian Balluais.
ASPTT Strasbourg was a big city club. 150+ members some years with daily training sessions and plenty going on. I was member for 12 years, racing loads some years and hardly at all other years. I made occasional appearances for the elite team and did a bit of coaching. Eventually my own kids became members of the well-organised junior section.
Now we're in Munich and triathlon has become just my way of keeping fit. For life. Short, snappy, daily workouts. Some lifting. Racing short, local and hard. Against guys like me. Turning up with what I've got. Priorities now are helping my three boys enjoy the sport. And other sports. With weekly family adventures: canoeing, hiking, biking, camping and climbing.
I want to start doing some interviews on this blog. Maybe with audio. I want the first one to be Glenn Cook. I'm going to email him. We'll talk about 1989 and the lead up to Avignon. Race day. The aftermath. That bike. The Southport Triathlon. The San-Diego era. Racing on the continent. The European Long Distance title in Finland. I'll keep you informed.