Rewind to the summer of 2016. Damien Clayton had just graduated as an architect and had little concept of road racing. In fact, he hadn’t ridden more than 10 miles in one go on a bicycle. Full stop. He was very far from the fast-improving, UCI race-winning, road racer he is now.
That summer, though, a company bike ride from London to Brighton ignited his interest in road cycling. He may have done it in gym shorts on a single-speed bike, with next to no experience, but he still found himself first to the top of all the hills. Afterwards, he was encouraged to buy himself a ‘proper’ road bike, which he duly did. He then found himself falling headlong into a love affair with the bicycle.
I couldn’t leave cycling alone really. I just fell in love with it
Now, just three and a half years later, he is arguably the breakthrough domestic rider of 2019. This year, not only did he signed his first contract with a Continental team, Ribble Pro Cycling, he also won his first UCI road race (the Grand Prix des Marbriers), his first National A road race (the Bourne CiCLE Classic) and grabbed some eye-catching results in pro kermesses in Belgium, regularly mixing it with (and finishing ahead of) World Tour riders.
It’s an astonishing transformation, one we were keen to find out more about. In this first part of a multi-part interview, we trace Clayton’s journey into road racing, including that first, fabled, ride from London to Brighton. We follow his first full year as a road racer, including going head-to-head with his now-coach, Rory Townsend, and his mad challenge to ride from London to Edinburgh in 24 hours. Clayton also talks eloquently about his love for bike riding and why it’s a great leveller.
I understand until recently you were working in London as a qualified architect. Is that right?
Yes. Up until February of this year, I was in London working as an architect. Then I moved home to help my father out with the family business as a building contractor. So I’m still in the construction industry but not an architect as such. It’s more like labouring work though, so, unfortunately, it’s more intensive on the legs.
So you’re juggling that now whilst cycling, is that right?
That’s correct yeah. I’ve been working with him part-time since February. I try not to take the mickey too much – it’s a really good relationship we’ve got, a good two-way street really. I help him out as much as I can and likewise, he gives me a few days off here and there to either rest up or do a good days’ training or whatever. So it works quite well really. And I’m still living at home with my parents; that’s basically how I’m able to make this season work.
I never really touched a road bike or a racer or anything like that when I was growing up
And to go back to the beginning, how did you get into cycling?
I’ve always been on a bike of some sort. I think I started out with BMX as a kid and then my Dad kept on pestering to get a motocross bike. So eventually I began riding motocross when I was about 13. I picked up the skills through riding on off-road disused land and then I started to ride on proper tracks and then started to race motocross. And racing motocross and riding the BMX kind of goes hand in hand so I did that. I never really touched a road bike or a racer or anything like that when I was growing up. And then I stopped motocross to study architecture when I was 18.
I went to university and then pretty much left the bike alone. I started going to the gym, so I got a bit bigger. Then I moved to London, finished my Masters degree in architecture and qualified as an architect.
It was in London where I got a single speed steel commuter bike. I just commuted from where I used to live in London to university during my two years of study. Then I got involved in a good office and quickly came to realise how common the link between architecture and cycling is, especially road cycling.
They had just finished a project in Brighton. My colleagues suggested that after we finished this job, we should cycle down to Brighton to visit the project, as a company outing. Me being me, I was like “Yeah, brilliant, I’d love to do that.” But a lot of my colleagues were saying, “But you’ve only got that single speed commuter bike.” But I insisted I’d be fine on it, not knowing how far it was or anything like that. They kind of rejected me going. They said, “No, you’ve got to find a proper, geared bike.” So I just lied and said, “Yeah yeah I’ve got a bike sorted out, no worries.”
I had no idea what I was doing or anything like that, I just pushed the pedals
So I just turned up on my single speed bike with a spare pair of clothes in my backpack, a lock on the frame. I had no water bottle and only a little bit of food. I had a helmet on, but that was literally about it. In was in gym shorts, no bibs or anything, no clip-in pedals. But basically I ended up being the first one up Ditchling Beacon, beating everyone up all the hills, down all the hills and I ended up rolling into Brighton with this other guy, Paul Blackmore, who was quite keen at the time.
So at that stage, presumably, you’d barely ridden over 10 miles or so before then?
Exactly that, yeah. Basically I’d done no long-distance whatsoever. I had no idea what I was doing or anything like that, I just pushed the pedals.
So that was 2016 and you were 24-years-old. Where did it go from there?
I became really good friends with Paul Blackmore after the Brighton ride and he pretty much told me instantly, “You have to buy a proper road bike with proper gears.” That’s how I got into it. It was through him and his motivation. He just said, “You have to pick this up because to be able to do that on that bike is something else.” He knew a lot more than me, he had a good bike and knew the sport quite well and was quite well known in London, so I just listened to him. I’m quite single -rack minded so just got it, and ever since I couldn’t leave cycling alone really. I just fell in love with it.
I bought a racing bike, then got introduced to the parks in London. So I did a few laps of Richmond Park and then rode to Box Hill. I got involved with London Dynamo and Mono CC in London. I was a regular member of Mono CC and just turned up to the London Dynamo chain gangs and park rides and learned how to ride in a group, through and off, et cetera.
I rode pretty much every morning in Regents Park and then most evenings in Regents Park too. It was in November or December of 2016 when Paul said, “I’ll take you to your first race, we’ll go watch one.” It was a winter series at Lee Valley in London and he tried to tell me that it was quite violent, quick racing, quite shouty and so on.
We watched and I just thought it was a walk in the park. Compared to motocross, this was tame. So, having spent just a couple of months on the bike, I signed up to my first 3rd/4th category race at the Lee Valley winter series. I attacked with five laps to go and won that race. Then I did the same the week after, in exactly the same fashion, attacking with five laps to go and winning.
How did things progress in 2017, your first full year on the bike?
I basically just progressed on from there. I joined the Regent’s Park Roulers and met a lot of invaluable friends there. We would meet for training every day at half past five in the morning in London, in Regent’s Park. The sessions involved riding as hard as you can for an hour and then just continuing to ride until it was time to go to work. And then I’d leave work and ride in Regent’s Park again in the evening.
In my first year I did nearly 1200 hours … and a lot of that was in this one park just doing circles with the friends
It was literally just riding around in circles around Regent’s Park. It does sound daft but I just loved it so much. I think in my first year I did nearly 1200 hours whilst working full time, and a lot of that was in this one park just doing circles with friends. But I learned a hell of a lot from them.
I pretty much did all of the regional C+ road races down in London, Surrey League races, and then crits here and there when they were on in the summer. Then my friend asked me if I wanted to do my first National B race and I just said yes. That was the South East Regional Road Race Championships (E/1/2/3) road race championship. I had no idea about it but my friend, who was a lot more clued up than me, just pointed at this guy in a blue jersey and said, “That’s Rory Townsend, make sure you just stick with him.” That was some pretty solid advice! I did that and we both found ourselves both in the breakaway of the day. I ended up finishing third in that race, my first National B. Rory won and Alex Richardson was second.
And then that year you also did a video with the clothing brand Albion. A challenge ride from London to Edinburgh. Tell me about that…
I became friends with one of the founders of Albion, Charlie Stewart, through riding in Regent’s Park. We used to go out to Surrey sometimes and ride around. We were just having a laugh one day and he said, “I know you’re crazy and you’re stupid, so do you want to do something daft for Albion?”. I was like “Yeah, sounds good, that’s fine. If it doesn’t clash with what I’m trying to do at the time I’m all for it.”
He was in contact with some guys at Neil Pryde bikes and at the time they were based in Edinburgh. And Albion is a London based brand. So Charlie asked me if I wanted to ride from London to Edinburgh. I said yes but I wanted to make something of it. So I suggested we put a timeframe to it, that I try to do it in 24 hours. That’s basically where the challenge of riding from London to Edinburgh in 24 hours on a Neil Pryde bike came from.
And how was it?
It was hard! It’s really hard to think about it as one cumulative experience, as it feels like it was several rides put into one. We set off at night, so we rode all the way through the night. Then the first time I properly stopped was in the morning near Rotherham. I had to get changed because I was completely soaked, so that felt like one ride. Then the other ride felt like from there to Skipton because I went through Sheffield, through Barnsley where I was born and grew up, through Wakefield where I went to school and then Leeds where I used to go out. And then we stopped at Skipton.
So up until this point, I felt really good. Again, I wasn’t really aware of what you’re supposed to do as an endurance athlete, so I was just doing what felt right. I was hitting hard through certain roads and then I’d come into a town so I’d just chill out, so I’d essentially use that to recover. At the time I didn’t really know what I was doing but looking back I was obviously recovering through the little villages and towns and enjoying what was around me and then going hard in the exposed areas.
We then stopped off again, I can’t remember whereabouts we stopped off, but this was ‘the KFC stop’. We only had 100 miles to go and the boys were laughing at me saying, “Oh you’ve only got 100 miles to go, you’ve done this before work most days.” So at this point, I was thinking it would be a walk in the park. It was anything but though. I think the last 60 km was just agony. It was really really hard because it had just been so miserable. It wasn’t cold, but it was raining all the time. But the last 20 miles, I must have just gotten something from somewhere and just felt this sense of, “I’ve just got to get this done now”. I felt really good as we came into Edinburgh.
I think the total moving time, in the end, was 22 hours. I did what I had set to achieve but I think the overall elapsed time was 26.
So you went from buying a bike in 2016, starting racing (and winning) bike races within two months and then racking up 1200 hours on the bike the following year, accompanied by some very impressive results. What was it about cycling that made you just go headlong into it? What were you getting out of it? What do you still get out of it?
I think it’s changed over time. I think originally it was purely that euphoria and freedom of being on the bike that I used to get as a kid on the BMX. Essentially that sense of freedom and alone time that I didn’t know I needed but I definitely required.
I was basically addicted to that euphoria of finishing a ride and feeling like you’ve completed something
Once I was made aware of the social side of it, like riding with friends and making friends through the bike, I think that became a massive thing for me. It just became my social life, and it still is. I’m quite obsessive, so whatever I’m interested in, I obsess about it. I had five really close friends, and at least one of them was riding at any one time, so I’d just go out all the time. I just had to. I was basically addicted to that euphoria of finishing a ride and feeling like you’ve completed something, you’ve done something.
When you’re sat in an office in London and it’s just so mundane and it’s the same boring thing going on and on and on – which I felt my job was – you need that release. I’d get up around 5 o’clock every morning, ride 120 km in the park, come to work and some people had only just woken up. It was that sense of achievement, like “I’ve achieved something already with my day”. I’d be doing my day in the office thinking, “I can’t wait to go back on my bike.” Some days I’d be that obsessive I’d go out on my bike at lunch. I’d just do an hour really quickly and then get back. So yeah, I think it became, especially in London, it was that whole social scene, it was that social tool that the bike became to have more people that are like-minded around me.
The most interesting thing about the bike for me, is the equality that it brings to life
I feel like the bike, the most interesting thing about the bike for me is the equality that it brings to life. Essentially when you’re on your bike, you could be riding next to, I don’t know, a World Tour pro, you could be riding next to someone who owns Apple, or you could be riding next to someone who’s been riding for like a month and is on a ten-year-old bike. But everyone is the same. Everyone’s treated as equal. I really enjoyed that, it’s that sense of acceptance from everyone. Everyone’s got your best interests at heart. When you go on a group ride, everyone rides to the slowest rider. It’s that no matter who you are, you’re on a level playing field once you’re on that bike and you start chatting. You talk about the weather and what’s coming up next and whatever Grand Tour’s on at the same time.
I think for me that last thing, that sense of equality that I felt on the bike was really welcoming really.
So at that stage, it was really about that social side, the sense of being out on your bike and being free. You were doing well in the races but it wasn’t about getting better as a cyclist necessarily, by the sounds of it? It doesn’t sound like you were doing interval training and thinking about your training particularly; it was just about enjoying yourself?
Yeah, it was literally just about getting on a bike and riding until it was dark!
Feature photo: James Huntly