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Pioneer: Cherie Pridham interview, part 1

The Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother manager on her journey as a DS & team manager, re-building the Vitus team from scratch and her strengthened squad for 2019

Cherie Pridham is a pioneer in more ways than one. As an athlete, she was a world class bike rider, completing no less than 8 editions of the Tour de France Féminin. As the owner of Cherie Pridham Racing, she is now, as far we know, the only female manager of a men’s Continental bike team. And she’s also the longest-serving Continental team manager in the UK, having begun managing Team Raleigh at the end of 2010.

She begins the 2019 season at the head of refreshed and restrengthened squad, one that not only features world-class riders (think Ed Clancy and Scott Thwaites) but also benefits from increased sponsorship. Saint Vitus is considered to be the patron saint of entertainers. And after a challenging season of transition, the 2019 edition of the Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother squad is one that promises to beguile and enthrall. Indeed, it’s a set up that our British Conti Insider thinks will see the team “return to the winning ways of years gone by“.

When the Raleigh sponsorship finished on 31st of December 2017, we rebuilt, from scratch, a brand-new team which is now Vitus Pro Cycling powered by Brother

Last season was a challenging one for Pridham and Vitus Pro Cycling, with success on the road thin on the ground. Raleigh had stopped sponsorship at the end of 2017 and Pridham had to effectively start again from scratch. It was a scramble to get new sponsors in place, put together a squad and keep the Continental show on the road. But she now starts 2019 with headline sponsor, Vitus, and a diverse range of supporting sponsors that appear keen to grow with the team, including Brother UK who have agreed a three-year contract with the team.

Vitus Pro Cycling may have struggled for results last season, but Pridham is no stranger to success. Her Raleigh squad enjoyed road success both domestically and abroad, winning stages of the Tour de Normandie and enjoying success in the Tour Series and the Premier Calendar series. No doubt she’ll be hoping that winning races once again becomes a regular occurrence for her newly strengthened team this year.

Photo: Alex Duffill / Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother

I spoke to Pridham shortly before their opening race weekend, for which the team had a double-header of the Eddie Soens race on the Saturday before a trip to France for (weather-cancelled) GP de la Ville de Lillers (UCI 1.2) on the Sunday. She started off by highlighting that engaging with the media, in all its forms, is something that is becoming an increasingly important part of her job…

The way sponsors want representation is not purely through winning races, it’s social media. Particularly for my sponsors, it’s as crucial as getting podiums and race wins

First of all, thanks for agreeing to catch up with The British Continental, it’s great to be able to interview you…

I’m more than happy to chat. I think it’s good to get our story out there, I’ve been around a long time, supporting the British scene.

Is engaging with the media something that’s becoming more necessary for you nowadays?

Yes. I think the whole scene is changing now, and I guess that’s why I’m having this conversation with you as well. We recognise that over the last 18 months, the way the sponsors want representation is not purely through winning races, it’s social media. Particularly for my sponsors, it’s as crucial as getting podiums and race wins. As a DS you want to win bike races, that’s why we’re in the game, and the lads want to win bike races, but you’ve got to start listening to what the sponsors want for their return on investment.

How did you get to where you are now, as a sports director of the longest-running Continental team in the UK?

When my career finished as a professional bike rider, unfortunately through a hit-and-run, I went into management. I started with a junior development squad, called the Merlin Development Squad, back in 2006.

We started with four riders, went to six riders, and then we took those riders through to under-23. One of those riders actually was young Scott Thwaites at the time. Scott was 14, 15 years old when I first started working with him, so it’s nice to have Scott back again.

I’d been running an under-23 team and had DS’d in a lot of domestic races from 2007, 2008, and into 2009. And then, back in 2010, we were approached by Raleigh UK. They asked us to take the team on in September 2010 after the Tour of Britain.

Team Raleigh during 2014 Tour Series. Photo: Tour Series

We had a very successful time with the Raleigh team. 8 years at UCI Continental level. We raced everywhere. We won stages in Mexico, not just one stage, we won several stages. We went to Canada to the Tour de Beauce, and won stages there. We’ve got quite an international palmares, let alone what we’ve achieved in the UK: I think back-to-back wins in the Premier Calendar in both the Circuit Series and the Elites Road Series.

We took ownership of that team from the 1st of January 2014, and I’ve had the management company – Cherie Pridham Racing – running the team ever since. When the sponsorship finished on 31st of December 2017, we rebuilt, from scratch, a brand-new team which is now Vitus Pro Cycling powered by Brother.

2017 was quite a difficult year. It was … wrapping up the assets that we had, saying thank you to the guys at Raleigh and then literally waking up going, “Right, we’ve got nothing”

So when the Raleigh sponsorship ended, it must have been quite a challenge to build up a team from scratch again, to go out and search for new sponsors and re-build the squad?

That’s right. I think the one thing that I did when we established Cherie Pridham Racing, was to surround myself with the right people. Finding the right people takes some time. I’ve been in a great position where I’ve had a lot Derby support from local Derby businesses, who believed in what I wanted to achieve, and still want to achieve with the team, and who believed in me first and foremost as a team owner, but also as a DS. I guess I am one of the only female sports directors in Europe running a Continental team, but I haven’t checked!

Photo: Alex Duffill /Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother

2017 was quite a difficult year. It was almost sort of wrapping up the assets that we had, saying thank you to the guys at Raleigh and then literally waking up going, “Right, we’ve got nothing, what do we need to do to keep this team going? We’ve worked so hard, we’ve got a bloody good infrastructure, we’ve got a solid service course, we’ve got the vehicles, we’ve got everything in place. We just need the fundamentals.”

The main thing was cash and riders, of course. So, we had to take a very, very big step back in 2018 and rebuild. By the time we got all ducks aligned, it was, early December, before we actually felt right. We knew then we had an opportunity to keep this team at UCI-level, which isn’t easy I have to say. Most of your outlay is front-end loaded: your entries, your license, your UCI paperwork, everything. You need to have a fair bit money in the bank before you can start. We knew we had to take a step back, press the reset button if you like and push on again in 2019.

We’re looking to create stories, behind the scenes, rather than just stories about the team riding races, the standard kind of stories that you see traditionally in cycling

Was it important to have solid sponsorship agreements in place, knowing that you would have time to build on the first season and strengthen this year?

Yes, definitely. A key point, in highlighting the teams that are around now, is sustainability. And you can define that word sustainability narrowly, in terms of the length of the sponsorship contract, and more broadly; we’ve got hybrid cars, our kit is made out of recycled plastic, we try to be sustainable in every way. We have recyclable, plastic tins that the oils and sprays come in, we use a greener fuel, so it’s that kind of sustainability as well that we were looking at. We’re looking to create stories, behind the scenes, rather than just stories about the team riding races, the standard kind of stories that you see traditionally in cycling.

So presumably you were able to plan things a lot earlier this season, and sign riders a lot earlier?

Yes, I have an incredibly supportive board, who are very experienced and run very established business. To have their guidance and support behind the team is incredible really.

Ed Clancy was at the top of my list for 2019

They supported the fact we needed to strengthen and Ed Clancy was at the top of my list for 2019. We knew fairly early that signing Ed for this season was on. We signed ‘Brigga’ [Graham Briggs] early on – Brigga had a rough season with illness and other things, and I had worked with Brigga before, so it was great to have him back and to start attracting higher-profile riders.

Photo: Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother

And how did the signing of Scott Thwaites come about?

I’m in touch with all the rider agents, and we’ve obviously known Scott for a long time, since he was 14, 15 years old. So, I reached out to Scott early November. We were still hopeful that he may get a chance back to World Tour, and we supported that process. Naturally, we were delighted Scott put pen to paper and strengthen the team that bit more!

The domestic races are a very different style of races to the World Tour, aren’t they? But Scott’s been at that level before…

Yes. So that made the choice easier for Scott. He’s won the British Crit champs, rounds of the Tour Series, the Lincoln GP, to name a few. He knows the British scene and the riders, so he should adapt very quickly.

Part 2 of this interview will be published next week.

Featured photo: Alex Duffill / Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother