The other day, Jason Bailey posted a nice piece from his blog on my FaceBook page; an interview with former British professional, Chris Lillywhite.
It occurred to me that VeloVeritas had never spoken to the man who won the last edition of the famous Tour of Britain Milk Race back in 1993.
Lillywhite was a pro for a dozen years and whilst renowned as a ‘crit king’ his Milk Race and Tour of Lancashire wins proved there was more to the man than that.
On the international scene he won stages in the Settimana Lombarda in Italy, Niederosterreich Rundfahrt in Austria, Herald Sun Tour and Commonwealth Bank Classic in Australia, Boland Bank South Africa Tour, New Zealand Post Tour and Tour of Hawaii – all inviting the question of what he might have achieved had he taken the ‘EuroPlunge’ instead of staying in the UK?
A quick message to our friend Martyn Frank, who was on management with Chris on the late, lamented Wiggins team and we were in touch.
How did you get into cycling, Chris?
“When I was 14 years-old I was going off the rails a bit, nothing too serious but hanging about street corners and breaking some glass here and there, that sort of thing.
“My dad identified this, and remembering that his dad had been a clubman cyclist, dad and I joined the Wandsworth Cycling Club.
“It’s not around anymore but it was a good old fashioned club that you don’t see so many of anymore – club nights with tea and cakes, Sunday club runs, that sort of thing.
It all started from there.”
You were Junior Kilometre Champion and bronze medallist in the junior pursuit in 1983.
“I started racing locally on the Crystal Palace and Eastway circuits working my way up to the national junior track and road squads; I rode the junior Worlds in the road race and team pursuit.
“But the track was hard work, we’d travel up to Leicester at the weekend to train but if the track was damp you’d be sitting around waiting on it drying; it’s not like it is now, there were no indoor velodromes then.
“That was one of the reasons I gravitated to the road where I won the season-long Peter Buckley Trophy for junior riders.”
You rode the Nissan Tour of Ireland in ’86 before you turned professional in ’87; quite a leap from a domestic programme to riding against the likes of Sean Kelly and Phil Anderson?
“I’d actually ridden the Ràs in Ireland in ’85 but the Nissan was at a different level, riding against the guys you saw on the TV and on the magazine covers – I wasn’t overawed but it was a real privilege to be in the same race as men like that.”
You turned pro with ANC in 1987.
“In my first full year as a senior I’d adapted well, I’d won the Star Trophy in ’85 but ANC chucked me right in at the deep end, six weeks on the continent – the early season French races then Het Volk, Paris-Nice, De Panne, the Amstel, Ghent-Wevelgem.
“Looking back it was a heavy programme for a 19 year-old, most of it at what would be classed ‘World Tour’ now, I struggled but managed to get round most of them.
“Nowadays you’d never give a young rider a programme like that – well, maybe with Remco Evenepoel you might? – but back then there was no u23 category, no nurturing of young riders.
“Phil Griffiths asked me if I wanted to ride the Tour de France but I declined – by May I was knackered!”
Many of us know you best as a ‘Crit King,’ were they something you tailored your training around?
“Criteriums have always been part of the UK scene on those tight city centre circuits, I never really had a structure to my training, I actually hated training.
“We had maybe two mid-week crits and a road race at the weekend so I preferred to race rather than train and that got me in shape.”
You won stages in the Sun Tour and Commonwealth Bank Classic ‘down under,’ was Australia a regular feature of your winter?
“I won two stages in 1990 and my last race was there in 1999 riding in a composite team with Gary and Shane Sutton and Jon Clay – that was a team I was proud to be part of.
“The Sun Tour and Commonwealth Games Classic in Australia were a nice way to finish the season, ride the race then have a little end of and end of season break – I also raced in South Africa and New Zealand in the autumn; I won stages in the New Zealand Post Tour and Colonial Classic.”
You won a stage in the Settimana Lombarda in 1991, did you ever consider Italy – you had a big finish and could get over the hills which populate every Italian race?
“I thought about it, looking back I don’t think I really fulfilled my potential – but hindsight is a great thing and it was hard to break into the Italian race scene back then.
“As well as my stage win, Chris Walker won three stages in that race and Jon Clay won a stage too – it was a good field; Gianluca Bortolami who went on to win the Tour of Flanders won a stage and Lance Armstrong took the overall win.”
Your Milk Race stage win in 1992, did that foster the idea you could win overall in 1993?
“No, not at all, I never considered myself a GC contender but in ’93 I got in a break, got some time and then just chipped away at the time bonuses on the road and at the stage finishes.
“I was never a climber but I could get over the hills, it’s not like they were mountains like you’d get in a Grand Tour.
“That was a nice race to win, it was a big deal back then.”
You won the British criterium title in ’93 too, that must have been satisfying?
“It was but I never actually got to wear the jersey in anger, there were no criteriums to contest, it was just the way it worked out.
“The British pro scene was strong from ’84 to ’93 then we lost the Milk race and the city centre crits and it declined after that – I think there’s a similar situation just now.”
Is that why you had a few years single sponsored?
“I rode with Foremost Contract Furnishers and Karrimor supported me too – that was OK but the pro scene was in a dip in that era.”
You were fourth in the 1990 Commonwealth Games Road Race, could that have been a medal?
“Yes, there were four of us away in a break, two of them were Kiwis; I messed up, I did too much work and the New Zealand guys did the ‘one-two’ on us.
“I crossed the line third but I was frustrated and had obstructed the rider who crossed the line fourth so I was relegated to fourth – if truth be told I should have been declassed.
“I was fiery back then!”
You were with the ill-fated McCartney team?
“After a couple of years on smaller teams it was good to get back on to a proper team with ambitions to grow.
“Things got better every year, initially I rode with the team, that was ’99 and we had a good programme – France, Denmark, the USA, Canada – then I took a DS role.
“Sean Yates and I DS-ed at the Giro in 2000 where David McKenzie win a stage.
“The guy behind the team, Julian Clark was a good friend of mine with lots of ambition but unfortunately not the money to back it up.
“For the 2001 team launch we were all there at the hotel with a young Brad Wiggins set to join us; Cycling Weekly, the rest of the press and photographers all ready to go – but Julian didn’t turn up and that was that.”
And then you came back into the sport with Team Wiggins.
“I was with Wiggins for four seasons right up until last year.
“After McCartney I turned my back on the sport and lost interest but then Shane Sutton offered me some driving work with the GB team and I found it was good to be around the sport again.
“Simon Cope asked me if I’d like to get involved with Team Wiggins and that was the start of four good years with the team.”
With the dreaded hindsight?
“I made pretty good money on the UK scene but I guess really we were playing at being bike riders, not like the Sean Yates of this world who went over and were really outcasts on the continent in those days.
“So much has changed.
“I wish I’d had more ambition and been prepared to commit, I don’t think I really fulfilled my potential…”
Not a bad career though, Mr. Lillywhite – with thanks to Martyn for putting us in touch and to Chris for his time.