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John Hughes – Top amateur in the ’90s; “winning the National Road Race was nice but it’s not like racing in Europe”

"The Peace Race was horrific, I remember getting my backside kicked every day but I was determined to finish."

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He was 1991 British Amateur Champion, won the Franco-Belge against top opposition and took the major French Classic, Paris-Chauny – but was out of the sport by the age of 25 with his best years yet to come. His name; John Hughes.

We thought he’d have a good tale to tell…

John Hughes
John Hughes, 1991 British Champion leading Mark Gornall (Manchester Wheelers) in the Merseyside Wheel Race around the Newsham Park Circuit in Liverpool, 14th September 1991. John was outsprinted for the win by Manchester Wheeler Glen Sword. Photo©Paul Wright

How did you get into the bike, John?

“The usual, there were lads I was at school with into racing so I started when I was 14 years-old.

“I joined the Liverpool Century; there were experienced lads like Dave Grindley in the club and they offered a lot of advice.”

How did the Century fit into the Kirkby v. Liverpool Mercury blood feud?

“The Mercury didn’t like us but I ended up joining them, I rode for them in the Nationals.

“As I developed I won the Merseyside schoolboy then junior championships.”

John Hughes
John holding the trophy for the Merseyside Division Junior Road Race Championships on the tough Delamere Circuit. 10th June 1984. Kirkby CC’s Glen Sword was second and Nigel Soens, Weaver Valley CC was third. Photo©Paul Wright

And you rode the Peace Race in 1990?

“Yes but I only had a couple of weeks’ notice.

“I rode some criteriums for GB in Germany at the end of 1989, then in the spring of 1990 Doug Dailey selected me for a race in the Ardennes.

“Chris Boardman and the team pursuit lads rode the Peace Race too but their preparation race was the Tour of Texas.

“The Peace Race was horrific, I remember getting my backside kicked every day but I was determined to finish. There was a time trial in it and that was what Boardman was targeting but he didn’t get as far as that.

“I recovered from it well though; I just rode local races for the next few weeks but it didn’t cause me any problems.”

John Hughes
John after being presented as the winner of the Merseyside Division Schoolboy Championship around the Wavertree Playground Circuit. 24th April 1982. Photo©Paul Wright

And you made the podium in the National Road Race Title that year…

“Yes, I was second behind Simeon Hempsall. I was in the break all day and coming into the last lap there were just four of us left – then a rare thing happened; Wayne Randle cracked!

“On the last lap it was just me and Gethin Butler who wasn’t a sprinter so I was fancying my chances…

“Then Simeon bridged up to us and my fate was sealed!”

You rode the Commonwealth Bank Classic in Australia at the end of the season?

“I did, loved it; a nice trip to Australia at the end of the season; and I won the stage into Newcastle.

“I had a good winter and fancied going to try living abroad, I’d gone for three or four week trips but not long term.

“Simeon and Dave Spencer were going to race with UVCA Troyes so I joined them.”

John Hughes
John, now riding for the Liverpool Mercury, winner of the Merseyside Division Senior RR Championships on the Delamere Circuit. Andy Wilkinson, Port Sunlight Wheelers (left) was in second and Liverpool Mercury team mate Nigel “Max” Simpson in third. Photo©Paul Wright

Then in 1991 you won the Franco-Belge…

“It was pro-am, the week before Paris-Roubaix with the final stage ending on the Roubaix velodrome before the pros finished in Paris-Roubaix.

“Laurent Brochard won the final stage but was busted for doping and lost it – he’d already signed with Castorama but despite the bust they still honoured the contract!

“It was a selection race for the Milk Race and I was motivated to do well, I knew I had to do a good ride to gain selection.

“We’d been training with the Simon brothers and they absolutely destroyed us – I’d lost weight, I had good form and was confident going in to it.”

And you won the Paris-Chauny Classic the following week?

“That was a big race, run since 1922 – it was seven or 10 days after the Franco-Belge, I clipped off with 10 miles to go and held on.

“I got my Milk Race selection too, but the race was decided on day one, 25 guys went up the road and I wasn’t one of them, albeit I got third on a stage.”

Then you moved up a step to win the National?

“That was the end of June and I was confident; it was on the same course as the year before and was very selective, so I knew it and it suited me.

“I was one of the favourites and was heavily marked but I got away with Dave Spencer and won; Simeon was third so it was a UVCA Troyes one-two-three!”

John Hughes
John wins the National RR Championships at Dudley (Birmingham) on 30th June 1991. Dave Spencer (Alpha RC), who is obscured behind the Police outrider, was second, with the previous year’s winner Simeon Hempsall (GS Strada) back in third. Photo©Paul Wright

 Did you head back to France after that?

“I started to prepare for the Worlds, which were in Stuttgart on a course which suited me but I broke my wrist and missed out on going.

“I had six weeks out but went back to Australia in the winter and won two stages in the Commonwealth Bank Classic.”

How did you end up in the USA for season 1992?

“I got an offer to race for IME-Bolla; Dave Mann rode for them.

“It sounded exciting, living and racing in the USA but I had a bad crash in a criterium in Florida, I landed hard, on my back.

“I rode the Dupont Tour though, against Lemond, Bugno, Fignon and the rest.

“It was an eye opener, you dream about riding against the pros then you encounter the reality of what racing against them is really like.”

John Hughes
John riding through the snowy conditions during the early season Liverpool Mercury – Rockford Crit N°1 on the Newsham Park Circuit in Liverpool on 7th March 1987. Photo©Paul Wright

Did you ever think of turning pro in the UK?

“It was different back then, it never really occurred to me. I never prepared a CV or went looking for a ride.

“I had no coach and sought improvement through training with better riders; I’ve already mentioned Dave Grindley but I trained with Phil Thomas and Joey McLoughlin – they were quality riders.

“Then in France I trained with the Simon brothers, that was torture, the hardest training I ever did in my life – I remember one day we went out for four hours and covered 94 miles!”

John Hughes
John tops the podium at Paris – Chauny in April 1991. Second was Paul Newberry (USA) and third Paul Shane (Ireland). Photo©supplied

Your finest hour?

“The Franco-Belge for sure, winning the National Road Race was nice but it’s not like racing in Europe.

“The last stage of the Franco-Belge covered the same parcours as Paris-Roubaix for the final 30 kilometres, we did the Carrefour de L’Arbre and all of that.

“To win the GC I had to find five seconds, I forced the break and coming into the famous velodrome I knew I had it won overall – it was a fabulous feeling.

“About as close as you can get to winning Paris-Roubaix without actually doing so!”

John Hughes
John in the peloton at the Tour of the Peaks based around Buxton (Derbyshire), 10th September 1989. Photo©Paul Wright

Any regrets John?

“None. I stopped in 1992 and financially life was difficult; I was 25 years-old, no job, no money…

“I went to college, trained to be a teacher, got married – my wife raced too when she was younger – and we have three children now.

“I’ve no regrets, I have a good life.”

John Hughes
John (on the right) with, from left, Simon Lillestone, Simeon Hempsall, Ian Gilkes and Andrew Perks. Photo©supplied

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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