Continuing our series about racing in Belgium, we had a chat with Tom Murray last week, who is back racing on the continent after the Plowman Craven Madison team ceased operations.
Tom, you’ve been splitting your racing between Belgium and the UK for a while now…
“Yes, for the last five years I’ve been back and forth between the two, even when I’ve been on a team in the UK for the season I’ve spent time in Belgium, : either riding a six day on the track or getting involved with the kermis events when there’s a break in the racing in the UK.”
When did you first race in “the heartland”?
“I first came out in 2005 and 2006 with the Kingsnorth International Wheelers, I was useless at first but in 2006 I started to get to grips with it, taking two wins and some good podiums that summer.
“I was planning on coming back out in 2007 but I got stuck into finishing University instead and stayed in the UK.
“I had a good season though and for 2008 I got picked up by the continental Pinarello CandiTV team, which gave me the chance to ride events like the Tour of Britain, so it made sense to stay home instead of taking off to Belgium again.
“Now with the Plowman Craven Madison team falling apart as a continental team earlier this year I decided to jump on the ferry back over to Belgium and try to finish what I started!”
Who are you racing for now?
I’m riding for the KW Heist Zuidenkempen team based near Leuven in the Vlamse Brabant region.
“It’s a small set up but has a good calendar of events with all the major Belgian Interclub events, some trips into France and Holland and stage races like the Tour of Vlamse Brabant and Tour of Antwerp.
“I’m enjoying been part of it even if I can’t understand the team talks from the legend that is team manager Albert (he likes a good string vest! And cigar!).
So it’s a very Flandrian setup?
“Everything about the team is Belgian, from the riders through to the management, but they’ve made me feel welcome and part of it.
“I had a bad crash last week and ended up having a trip to the hospital, the team manager drove two hours to visit me and helped cheer me up despite not knowing a word of English, it’s nice to just be a proper part of the team, a part time Belgian I suppose. “
You previously raced for the Kingsnorth International Wheelers?
“Yes, that came about when I spoke to Dean Downing about heading over to Belgium to race because I had nearly three months off from University one summer and not much to do.
“He put me in touch with Peter Murphy and Ian Whitehead of Kingsnorth, and the next week I was waving goodbye to white cliffs down at Dover!”
What had you done in your racing in the UK before giving Belgium a go?
“Nothing! I was happily a third cat club rider with Batley CC taking a couple of local wins here and there every now and again.
“I enjoyed racing and cycling but I wasn’t dreaming of Olympic success – more where we were going on the next night out at University.”
How many guys raced for the KIW when you were in it and where were they from?
“It changed all the time; people would turn up as quick as others disappeared.
“In the time I spent there the team had people from Australia, New Zealand, America, Isreal, Serbia, Mexico, Belgium South Africa and the UK, it created some interesting banter!.
“I remember my second year with the team in 2006 at one point there was probably a good 25 riders on the start line in Kingsnorth kit from all over the world, then just a couple of weeks later as we hit the middle of September there was just me an one kiwi left wondering where everyone went?!
“It’s the whole idea of Kingsnorth though, they offer a chance to get into European racing that other teams don’t. You don’t have to present a wonderful CV or make promises you can’t keep, you just get yourself there and get stuck in.
“People were always coming and going committing to it for different lengths of times but it never bothered anyone, it was a bit like a band of brothers and it kept things interesting.”
You stayed on the farm? Tell us a bit about that.
“Ah, the legendary Kingsnorth farm!: It was great, 10 guys from different countries, places, cultures and backgrounds all thrown together to live and race, I loved every moment of it.
“It’s not five star accommodation, but it’s not bad, and when I stayed there riders from South Africa, Australia, America, New Zealand and the UK were all there so it was a great experience, you soon learned not to fall asleep in the lounge if you didn’t fancy a haircut though – bloody Aussies!
“Once, we were set the task of teaching a Dutch girl some English in the summer of 2005, but after a few weeks of tuition from a collection of Aussies she went back home to Holland and rolled out so much abusive language to her family we never saw her again! To be fair though I’m not sure who’s idea’s that was but it had disaster written all over it from day one.
“Some of my best friends are from my time living there and it’s amazing how many you run into at races across the world all now riding for different teams in different countries – and at different levels, but with a connection to that one farm house in Ghent.
“I don’t know if there’s an actual list of people who have stayed in that farm house but you don’t meet many cyclists who haven’t set foot there at some point.”
Did you race the usual three or four times a week?
“Yes, wherever and whoever you ride for in Belgium, it follows the same format: three kermis events per week, : sometimes four.
“Whatever level you’re at the kermis events are the staple diet of racing out here. If you’re riding a stage race or interclub your week changes a bit, maybe you’ll ride only two kermis and focus on the interclub – which will be on Sunday.”
And transport to the races?
“When I was riding for Kingsnorth we’d have to ride out to the kermis events with the rucksack. It’s then that you realised what the coke machines were for on the side of the canal, we’d have maybe 25-30Kms in before the event a 120km event then be strugerling back home via the light of the coke machines in the dark afterwards, sometimes I’m not sure how we ever got back and there was usually a panic stop for frites along the way.
“It’s another example of the band of brothers idea really, most of the Belgians would be packed into the car with the parents and driven off home, we’d be Madison slinging each other down the road totally lost, looking for a canal path to ride home along then piling through the farm door ready to do it again the day after, what a laugh!
“For an interclub though, cars and vans were involved (thank goodness – : riding to France with a rucksack might have been the limit) but it was always an experience: how many bodies and bags can you fit in and all that. But great times, and you’d be talking all night after your day out to some random French town.”
Can you speak Flemish then?
“I can swear in a race, ask for a pancake or sandwich and pretend to read the newspaper, probably a bit more if I’m pushed!
“It’s a hard language to learn but I’m picking more of it up now that I’m on a team full of Belgian riders and riding for a manager who doesn’t speak a word of English.”
What are your best results over there?
“In my second year riding for Kingsnorth I gained some good results and won two elite kermis events against good riders.
“My first win in Belgium I dropped Nicky Cocqurt late on to solo to the line – it was a big scalp he’s, riding on the proffesional six day circuit now and no one had given me a chance against him.
“It’s not my biggest win but its maybe one of the most important because it proved I could win good races and opened some good doors in Belgium.
“I even won a model of a witch, it’s horrid but I’m not sure if I’ll be cursed if I get rid of it so it’s still hanging around looking creepy!”
Did you race with anyone that went on to ProTour fame?
“I raced with the first set of lads who came through the GB academy, the likes of Mark Cavendish, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas and Matt Brammier – who I now train with in Belgium where he rides for the Sean Kelly An Post team.
“Well I say raced, while they were clearing up the junior tittles in the UK I was probably already back in the headquarters eating biscuits and getting changed, but I made it look good.
“Out in Belgium I remember racing against a tall lanky bloke called Stijn Vandenbergh just a couple of years ago, in fact I dropped him a few times, : he couldn’t follow me round corners.
“He went onto win the Tour of Ireland in 2008 for Unibet and is now riding in the Tour de France for Katusha!”
Any funny memories?
“I shared a room for 3 months with an Australian called Grant Webster while living on the Kingsnorth farm in Gent, and we still laugh about random stuff we did.
“Grant used to stack his coins in neat piles based on their values and every morning for 3 months I knocked them over when I got up, before throwing “oh sorry mate didn’t see them there” at him, but he never cracked once and he always re-stacked them. Whatever happens you don’t crack when living with 10 other bike riders, but putting up with that for 3 months was impressive.
“Another trick was to completely un-build someone’s bike, take it down into the cellar (down a tight staircase) then re-build it. Then you’d get the pleasure of sitting and watching them figure out how to get it back out for the afternoon training run!”
What about the time you got into trouble with the police?
“Ahh! I also managed to get arrested for overloading a town bike on the way back from Aldi with shopping bags – apparently riding along no-handed with 10 shopping bags hanging off you isn’t strictly legal! It gave the lads a laugh when I was escorted back to the house though.”
Do you reckon youngsters on “the Plan” have it easier?
“I think it’s unfair to say they have it easier being on “the Plan” – : sure it’s a different thing to been out in Europe on your own, and : they have world class backup helping them along the way and I’m sure they’re not scratching around on their last 5 Euros in Aldi as much as I did, but they still have to achieve good results and deal with the pressure that comes with that world class support, maybe more pressure to be fair.
“I gave Jonny McEvoy a lift out to Belgium in 2007 before he was picked up by British Cycling and he stayed the whole winter training under the watch of Rodger De Vlamick for his cyclo-cross.
“Rodger had him running through the woods in the snow with a group of lads from Zimbabwae, and when I went to visit Jonny he was living in another converted barn with a Russian lad.
“I’m glad he got picked up by the British Cycling Academy, he deserved it and hopefully he’ll be one of the next batch of British riders to step up to a professional team, but knowing Jonny he wouldn’t think twice about heading back to a barn and doing it all again.
“Maybe they have it a bit easier but they put in the work to get there so you can’t knock them really.”
Plowman Craven Madison, The Girvan this year… what happend?
“Hmm. It just fell apart on the last rise of the race.
“I’d come out of the Cintron Tour in Majorca the week before where I’d won the sprints classification overall and was really up for the overall at the Girvan along with Evan Oliphant.
“I felt strong all race but on that last day I was hanging on really although after I’d made it to the top of the last King of the Mountains climb on that last day I thought I’d pulled it off.
“Unfortunately they sneaked a horrible non-classified climb in after that and Rapha Condor managed to crack me on that one, Evan Oliphant had told me about it the night before so I knew it was there but my legs just wouldn’t have it.
“Looking back, maybe Evan should have gone for the stage that day, despite dragging me round all day he was still looking strong going over that last climb but natural instinct is to protect the jersey and he stuck to his job and pulled me home.
“It was great to win that first stage and lead for two days but after all the work the team did for me it was a gutter to come out with nothing.
“It was a shame that Evan crashed and lost time during the Criterium, he had good form and it would of given us another card to play instead of me just been there to be shot at for two days running. Hopefully I’ll be back giving it another shot next season.”
Lastly Tom, any regrets?
“No regrets, maybe France or Italy would have suited me a bit more with more stage races, but you take the chances as they come and they’ve all been in Belgium…. so far.
“I want to get back onto a pro continental team again like the last couple of seasons and ride events at that level. With the Plowman Craven Madison team folding this year it feels a bit like I have unfinished business, taking the sprints classification in the Cintron Tour of Majorca and some good rides in races like the Girvan stage race have hopefully proved I can ride at a good level to teams for next season.
“Whether that’ll see me living in Belgium or back home in the UK or somewhere else I’ve no idea to be honest, but then I suppose that’s part of the fun!”
With thanks to Tom for the large amount of time he’s afforded us with this interview, and we wish him all the best for the rest of the season in the heartland.
Keep up with: Tom’s adventures at his blog.