Colin Sturgess exploded on to the UK cycling scene in the 80’s – within a couple of seasons he was World Professional Pursuit Champion. But his enormous potential was never full realised. As part of our series to celebrate the London Olympics, we’re talking to Olympians past and present, and bring you now Part One of ‘The Colin Sturgess Story.’
Where are you originally from, Colin?
“I was born in Great Britain, just outside of Wakefield, West Yorkshire in a small village called Ossett.
“Both of my parents are Londoners, so I have a claim to being the best (and worst!) of both worlds.
“The reason why so many people believe I’m South African is that my parents and I moved to Johannesburg when I was six years old.”
You had good results as a youngster in South Africa.
“I was very fortunate to have been a talented rider from a young age. My first race was when I was eight years old, racing in a mixed category of older riders.
“My parents never really ‘pushed’ me to be a bike rider, but once they realized I had a certain flair, they did all they could to help.
“I won numerous juvenile and junior National Titles in South Africa ranging from the 500m TT to 3000m individual pursuit. I even managed a bronze medal in the junior sprint!
“When I started to break senior records, and riding world-class times Mum & Dad looked into getting me back to the UK. They pretty much gave up a very comfortable lifestyle for my future career.”
You exploded on to the UK scene.
“My first season back in the UK was 1985 as a ‘fresh-faced’ 15 or 16 year old. My aunt lived in Leicester so my Mum and I left Dad in South Africa until the house had been sold and we moved in with my aunt.
“The track Nationals in those days were at Saffron Lane Velodrome so it was perfect. I joined a local club (Zenith CC) and I think I shocked quite a few people with my immediate results.
“I won the British junior individual pursuit and the kilometre, and was third in the points race. I broke national records in both individual events too.
“I think I also finished second to Chris Boardman in the junior 25 mile time trial that year, too. The BCF wanted to send me to the senior World Champs, but my parents and I declined.”
It was unusual for a junior to ride at the ’86 Commonwealth Games too?
“Wow – the 1986 Commy Games in Edinburgh, what an amazing experience! There were two 17 year olds on the squad – myself, and Chris Boardman.
“I was actually selected to ride the Kilometre Time Trial for some bizarre reason. I rode a decent time but came nowhere; the Australian riders smashed us.
“As an aside the selectors gave me a ride in the individual pursuit; I don’t think they had any real faith in my pursuiting but I knew I was always a better pursuiter than Kilo rider. I broke a national record in my qualifier, then went faster and faster.
“Come the final against Dean Woods I was absolutely ‘baked’! I was always a very good pedaller, so I rode an 87 inch gear the entire series.
“I should have geared up for the final, but I was so tired and to be honest, quite overwhelmed! Here was Dean Woods (one of my heroes) chasing me down – I got caught…
“Standing on the podium that night I swore to myself I would eventually wear a rainbow jersey, and not get caught ever again!
Tell us about the ’10’ record.
“The ’18 minute 10′ – one of my better rides!
“I guess I had form on the day and used it. I had ridden the course earlier and thought I’d go sub-20 minute without too much difficulty, I had a 19:30 in mind.
“There was an overpass bridge-thing with a mile to go and I reasoned that if I gave it full-gas from there I should be ok for a 19.
“During the ride my dad was at the side of the road near there and was hopping up and down like a loon, so I knew I was going OK.
“So I totally floored it – when I got back to the finish line people were shaking their heads in disbelief. Then my mum came over and said that I may have actually just gone under 19 minutes!
“When the time was officially announced as 18.48 (I think!) I was pretty chuffed – 18.48 on a standard 753 road-bike with 53×13 and 28 spoke wheels!
“OK, I took my bottle cages off and wore an aero helmet – but as far as I know it’s the fastest ever 10 on a road-bike.
“I nearly missed the bloody start because I was still on the rollers… here’s a bit of trivia for the train-spotters: the skinsuit I wore that day was actually a ‘hand-me-down’ from Martin Vinnicombe.”
Fourth in the 1988 Olympic pursuit as a teenager…
“One of the hardest moments of my life – if it wasn’t for the seeding from 1987 I would have met someone else in the semi-finals.
“I came up against Umaras I was quietly confident that I could win a medal, and given the seeding make the gold/silver ride off.
“I qualified well and rode within myself in the next couple of rounds but then came up against the eventual winner. No one was going to beat Guintatas Umaras that year – he was invincible!
“My dad suggested that I go out hard against him in the semi-final and see if I could get him rattled, so that was the game plan. If I had him within one to one and a half seconds with two laps to go I knew I could beat him.
“No go! He held his cool, and reeled me back.
“I backed off to save the legs for the bronze. Dittert raced Deano Woods; same result.
“He knew he couldn’t get Deano and relaxed. So that was it, Dittert and I riding for bronze.
“I went out hard, settled into the ride and then lifted it. I nearly got him!
“Given another 50m I would have an Olympic medal – but that’s why it’s called the 4000 metre not the 4050 metre individual pursuit! I had him scared, I had Heiko (then German and now Russian coach, Heiko Salzwedel) scared, but at the end of the day I came away fourth.
“I was gutted, but it did harden my resolve. I wanted to ride the points race and prove my worth.
“I knew I could have medalled; one thing about me was/is that I used my anger, my disappointment to my benefit.
“Had I been allowed to ride I think GB would have had their medal.”
You turned professional whilst still young – with ADR, the rumour was that the team was a front for money laundering ?
“I turned pro at 19, which is not that young these days but in 1988/1989 it was pretty unheard of.
“I was approached by a guy called Marc who was a mechanic for ADR – I had lived with him as a junior in Belgium after I had won a couple of stages of the Ronde van Wes-Vlaanderen in 1988.
“He’d phoned the DS, Jose De Cauwer, to say ‘keep an eye on this kid’ and De Cauwer did. I caught the Belgian national champ in the 20km TT and won the stage by a couple of minutes, so they were pretty keen!
“In fact they wanted to sign me prior to the Olympics, but I said no.
“Then just before the Olympics I was riding a local track meeting at Leicester and De Cauwer and Marc turned up, watched me race, came back to my parents’ house and I signed a letter of agreement to begin post Olympics. My first pro contract!
“Two years with riders like Lemond, Planckaert, Van Holen, De Wolf, Museeuw, Kuum, Lammerts amazing!
“After the Games I was scouted by La Vie Claire but I went with ADR as I’d signed an agreement them and also because I loved racing in Belgium – and I spoke the lingo [Vlaams].”
What do you recall about the ADR years?
“There are further rumours I’ve heard since, but as they are unsubstantiated it’s probably best to glaze over them…
“This much we can publish:
“All Drive Renting (ADR) was a set up initiated by business-man Francois Lambert in Bruges. He’d been in small time cycling sponsorship for a while, then upped the ante in 87/88/89.
“I’d not really heard much about the team when they first approached me, other than they were looking to expanded on successes by Planckaert, Dirk de Mol, and a few others.
“They approached me with a very good offer (for the time, and for a relative ‘unknown’ neo-pro) and during discussions it came out that they were securing other financial backing to get Lemond’s signature, and have a combined ADR/Coors Lite set-up.
“I didn’t really know much more than that when I signed, but I do recall a ‘shipment’ of Columbian coffee that was being talked about. Hence “W-Cup” coffee on the jerseys – the coffee ‘brand’ never existed, and we the riders joked about it being a front for something a little more famous being shipped from Columbia!
“To this day I have no idea what was what, only to say that an awful lot of money went Greg’s way when the team folded at the end of 1989. I’m still owed contract and bonuses and prize-money from both 1989 and 1990 season.
“As for the money laundering rumours, again, as riders we were kept very much in the dark, but I did hear things from time to time that got my ears pricked. I know some of the more ‘famous’ riders were more clued in than a naive 20 year old Englishman neo-pro!”
Is it correct your first pro race was Paris-Nice?
“Yep, my first European race was indeed Paris-Nice!
“I was sent to Tour of Americas but due to the combination of Coors-Lite and ADR I didn’t get a start, so I spent a shitty two weeks training, and racing minor crits and things in Florida and Venezuela.
“Then after the US experience it was Paris-Nice!
“What an induction into pro racing – I suffered every day except the prologue. I thought I could easily ride a top 10 placing; nope, 18th was as high as I could get.
“Olano was 17th and I finished the highest placed ADR rider by a mile. I was leading before the course hit a nasty little climb with about two kilometres to go and I messed up a gear change badly – a totally amateur mistake to make. I was throwing that bike around through corners like a BMX rider – the poor disc wheel was never the same again.
“And then came reality; I thought I was a decent amateur road sprinter (and in hindsight, I was!) but this was another level. First bunch sprint: Sturgess nowhere to be seen.
“It was all about positioning, all about lead-outs, and all about who you were. I had a few top 20 finishes but I was utterly outclassed. God, what a baptism of fire.
“I eventually climbed off with Eddy Planckaert on the penultimate stage after we both got nailed on a savage climb. We were in good company though.
“I learned the rules of the ‘gruppetto’ early in my career!”
Then you were World Professional Pursuit Champion, in 1989.
“The ’89 Worlds – where to start?
“I guess all the Kermis racing in Belgium helped my speed and endurance more than I cared to admit. I had signed with ADR on the proviso that I needed to come back to the UK a few weeks prior to the Worlds to train behind the motorbike and get a couple of track sessions in.
“They were cool with this; I wasn’t ever going to be in the Tour line-up, so no loss to either party. I trained well, got the necessary speed and power under the belt, and went to Lyon knowing that it was going to take someone extra special to beat me that year.
“I knew the final four would include myself, Woods, Umaras, and ‘A.N.Other’ but once there, we found out Umaras wasn’t starting. To this day no-one really knows why.
“The series went to plan, Woodsy and I always riding well within ourselves, knocking out reasonable times, but always holding a bit back for the final.
“My father and I had a game plan for the gold ride-off: go out fast, hold it, back off then launch the final couple of laps.
“I started with a 1:11, got a comfortable lead, held it, relaxed, and then with about 500m to go let rip. In the video you can actually see me look across the track, and kick.
“I knew I had Deano.
“As much as he’s a mate and I respect him as one of the best ever pursuiters, there was no way he was going to beat me in that ride. I pulled back the deficit and had time to throw an arm in the air!
“World Pro Champ at 20 years-old; to this day I still get people saying it was one of the best ever pursuits they’ve seen, and I still get a buzz from it.
“The feeling of elation is not easily matched.”
Your style was very ‘physical’ – and what about those sprint finishes?
“In hindsight, I could and should have ‘smoothed’ my style out and I could probably have ridden a lot faster. I have no real answer as to why I was almost ‘sprinter-like’ on the bike at times, just my style I guess.
“My famous kick came more from a desire not only to win but to do it with ‘panache’ – spectators pay good money to watch us race so why not play to the crowd a bit?”
Keep in tuned to VeloVeritas for Part Two of The Colin Sturgess Story, soon!