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The accidental pro: Edmund Bradbury interview

A fascinating retrospective on the 27-year-old's career, featuring his unusual path into cycle racing, Eddie Dunbar's pick 'n mix obsession, JLT Condor's legacy, his unique self-sponsorship model, epic solo efforts in the Atlas Mountains and his retirement rationale

Edmund Bradbury didn’t really mean to become a full-time cyclist. A rower to begin with, he started racing bikes at Cambridge University for fun. But before he knew it he was excelling at time trialling, talent-spotted by Luke Rowe’s Dad and offered a contract at John Wood’s big-budget NFTO team.

I’ve always said I’m following someone else’s dream because I never expected to be a pro cyclist

A five-year racing career ensued, involving two years with NFTO, two at JLT Condor and then a season with the Swedish-registered Memil – CCN Pro Cycling team last year. Early career highlights included second in the national time trial championships in his first season (2015) and a win in the Chorley Grand Prix in 2016. In 2017, he was close to pulling off a top GC result at the Tour de Taiwan, until he cruelly crashed out. Last season he nearly made amends, finishing seventh overall in the same race. He also picked up second overall at the Tour du Maroc, a result secured after an epic solo ride for 110 kilometres in the Atlas Mountains.

Now, after five years of racing at the Continental level, 27-year-old Bradbury has decided to take a different path. A brand ambassador for Pearson Cycles, he has retired from full-time racing but will continue to race casually in the UK, and has his sights on the 2020 cyclocross season.

We caught up with him at the end of 2019 to look back on his career and discuss his future plans. From his roundabout path into cycle racing, anecdotes about Eddie Dunbar’s love for pick ‘n mix and his thoughts on JLT Condor’s legacy, to being half-wheeled by Colin Sturgess for four hours, his unique self-sponsorship approach, and his reasons for retiring, Bradbury provided a fascinating retrospective.

Tell us how you got into cycling Edmund?

I started cycling at Cambridge University. Before that, I was a rower. I liked the freedom that cycling gave you as a university-type sport because you could do it in your own time. You didn’t need to be tied down to a team as much, so I started racing.

I was doing a lot of time trials at that point. I was seventh in the National 10 in 2014, with a short 18:10, which was fast in those days. It’s not so fast anymore. And yeah, I got picked up by Courtney Rowe, Luke Rowe’s Dad.

And when you say picked up…?

I was down at Newport Velodrome doing some aero testing. And he was just looking at the times I was doing and said, “actually your times are better than most of our NFTO pro riders at the moment.” He phoned me up a week later and said we’ve got a contract for you. So that was that. I’ve always said I’m following someone else’s dream because I never expected to be a pro cyclist. But I’ve been doing it for five years now.

2015 Wiltshire Grand Prix – Spring Cup British Cycling Elite Road Series. Edmund Bradbury attacks. Photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com

Had you done much road racing at that stage?

No, I hadn’t. My fourth road race was the Wiltshire GP for NFTO, where I got fourth. I think that’s when I lost my second cat licence! So I started pretty much at the top of the UK scene in terms of road racing. So it was a very, very steep learning curve in the first year or year at NFTO.

Instead of sitting there hoping you get selected for something, you’re better off picking something you can showcase your ability at

And that year you came second in the national time trial championships…

Yes. And that would be my advice to people joining the Continental ranks. When you first join a professional team, you’re not going to go to the Tour of Britain, you’re not going to go to the Tour de Yorkshire. And to be honest, you’re probably going to be the last option or the reserve rider for every Premier Calendar [Ed: now called the National Road Series] race. So instead of sitting there hoping you get selected for something, you’re better off picking something you can showcase your ability at. And that’s what I did that year. I really focused on the time trial. Because I knew if I got that, I’d get a contract for next year. So that was my sole priority of the year.

So that was your plan from the outset?

Yeah. I think often you find people who get given the golden ticket by a Continental team, who don’t do anything in their first year, and then they don’t get signed or picked up by anyone else. So you have to prove yourself straight away.

Is that, not easier, but is it more straightforward to do when your speciality is time trialling?

Back then it was. I think it’s actually a much more difficult thing to achieve now because there’s so much aero testing, there’s so much technology going into it. At that point, it was probably just at the end of the era where you could get away with just a big engine. And also time trialling was great because I was still doing a full-time university degree. It was much easier to train for a one-hour race than a five-hour race when you’re working 45, 50 hours a week.

So when did you finish your degree?

So that was the end of 2015. So I did my first year at NFTO as a full-time student at Cambridge, and my second year at the team I was a full-time bike rider.

2015 British Cycling National Road Championships – Time Trial – Cadwell Park, Lincoln, England – Edmund Bradbury of NFTO competes in the Men’s Time Trial. Photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com

And since then, if you don’t mind me saying, you haven’t had so much success in time trialling. Is that fair to say?

Yes. I decided to step away from it when it became so competitive on the aerodynamic front. Partly, or indeed, largely, because as a Continental rider, I found you’re often tied to sponsors. Which is great, but it means you have limited choice with your equipment. It’s incredibly expensive to get aero testing unless you’ve got some good sponsorship relationship with a testing-type company like HUUB-Wattbike has. You can see the success they’ve had through Dan Bigham and his business.

So without that, it’s very hard to compete with that. I decided at that point that I enjoyed road racing, it was very fun, involved less technology, so it might be the place for me. So I stepped away.

So you felt you couldn’t be competitive in time trialling on the bikes and the kit you had?

I mean, I think you could have been, but it would have taken a huge amount of focus to do that. And I enjoyed road racing. Why not just focus on that?

Is that a weakness of the Continental scene in general – that time triallists on Conti teams can’t thrive in that way?

I think it’s just that time trialling has moved forward and the individual pursuit has moved forward. As you see the speed of the riders now compared to even five years ago, it’s mind-blowing. It’s just a much more expensive version of the sport than we used to have. I used to joke that it’s become a race of you and your wallet against the clock. And that’s not to take away from people’s achievements. It’s very, very impressive. But in terms of entry costs, it’s now a very high-cost sport.

Looking back … in terms of the budgets and salaries, it was actually quite a golden era for domestic cycling

Arguably you came into the sport when it was really on the crest of a wave, domestically anyway. There was a set of very well-funded Continental teams. It was only five years ago, but in some ways, it seems very far from the domestic scene we have now?

Absolutely. It’s a boom-bust market. So that was just right on the edge of the boom. And that crashed quite dramatically when John Wood [Ed: NFTO’s team owner] decided to move out of the sport and NFTO collapsed. And as a result, there were more riders than places on teams and everyone’s value started to drop. And that was the moment when we started losing teams. I think NFTO was the first to go [Ed: in 2016], One Pro dropped down to Continental level a year later. And then JLT Condor and One Pro disappeared the year after that. That was the end of the brief period of the ‘luxury scene’ in the UK.

Did you realise quite what a unique situation the scene was in at that point?

No, I definitely didn’t. I mean, when you come into anything you sort of expect that to be the level it’s always been at. So now, looking back, you see that, at least in terms of the budgets and salaries, it was actually quite a golden era for domestic cycling. But I’m sure we’ll go back at some point. It’s just taking a while to do so. And I don’t think Brexit’s helping, I don’t think economic uncertainty with sponsors is helping. But it will come back eventually because more and more people are riding bikes.

What do you make of the criticism that this high-salary era held riders back from developing themselves and potentially moving up to Pro Continental, or even World Tour, level?

I actually think the riders who have the focus on moving up will still be pushing to move up. You definitely get people who are happy to stay in the UK on a decent salary. Which was never really what I wanted to do. The people who end up getting to the top of the sport are driven that way anyway right from the start. I don’t think they’re going to be held back by the fact there are good salaries here.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 04/04/2015 – British Cycling – Spring Cup Elite Series – Chorley Grand Prix, Chorley, England – NFTO’s Eddie Dunbar.

You rode with Eddie Dunbar. What do you recall about that?

I actually lived with him briefly in a team house in Hereford. And what a great character. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so just positive all the time. He ate more sweets than I’ve ever seen anyone eat. He used to call it morale for rest days. Had would have a massive bag of pick ‘n mix and just work his way through it. Which is great, because he was a great climber. And it’s something that’s worried me a lot in the last few years, is when you look at junior riders who want to be climbers, who feel that what they need to do is starve themselves and reduce sugar and all sorts of very negative behaviours.

Here was Eddie Dunbar, putting out more power than you could possibly imagine, with a massive bag of sweets and happy with life

And here was Eddie Dunbar, putting out more power than you could possibly imagine, with a massive bag of sweets and happy with life. So I actually thought that was a fantastic example of someone who’s just got some great talent. And good on him, he’s now doing really well at Ineos.

His talent was quite apparent even back then wasn’t it?

I think everyone was talking about it, maybe too much. Because it sort of held him back; everyone watched him like a hawk in every race. So he didn’t actually win any Premier Calendar races in the UK when he was here. And he had a nasty crash in Tour of Yorkshire, which set him back for a while. I think he broke his collarbone on that wet day in 2016. It took him a while to get back from that. But now we are actually seeing his talent come through. Which is brilliant.

So looking back at those first two years NFTO, how would you describe them?

I think they were very formative. We had fantastic sponsors for those two years. It was a good introduction to cycling but it was very UK-based, we didn’t do anything abroad. The only UCI races we did were Velothon Wales, Yorkshire, Tour of Britain and the Beaumont Trophy. Which is fine. But I think if you want to make an impact, not just in the UK, you need to start racing more UCI races. Which was when I moved to JLT, and I definitely saw that and experienced that. And I think that’s what all UK Conti teams need to aspire to. The JLT model of getting more people to move up than any other team did, because we raced abroad, because we showcased talent.

When you talk to foreign teams and you say, I won an elite road race in the UK, they don’t really care

When you talk to foreign teams and you say, I won an elite road race in the UK, they don’t really care. It’s a good result for you and it’s a good result for your team. But what they want is UCI points, and they want you to be doing UCI races. So that definitely was a change at JLT.

HSBC UK British Cycling Spring Cup Road Series – Chorley Grand Prix 2018 – Chorley, England – JLT Condor’s Edmund Bradbury. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

How else did things change when you moved to JLT?

It was a very different setup. So we started the season in Australia for the Sun Tour in 2017. I had a terrible year of crashing in every race. Which is a funny one, isn’t it? You start crashing and then you can’t stop crashing, and then you have a reputation for it. And I basically hadn’t crashed in a bike race before 2017. I spent the first six months of 2017 in an ambulance. I ended up breaking my hip in the Tour of Taiwan, which was probably one of my biggest regrets because I think I would have won the GC in that race. I made the right move and I was the highest-placed GC rider in the move that had gone on the final GC day. But from that, I went from a high to a massive low, with the top of your femur detached.

I seem to remember you came second on stage two behind James Gullen, your teammate? And then you were in a really good position from there…

Yes. And then on the final mountain of stage 4 to Sun Moon Lake, there was a climb with 20 km to go. I got away in a group of eight and I was by far the highest-placed GC rider. We had a minute gap or so and someone hit one of those cat eyes in the middle of the road. And in Taiwan, they’re not just cat eyes, they’re like a tennis ball-shaped glass globe. And it took half of our group down. I actually finished the stage but in a lot of pain. I think Bibby tried to pace me back onto the peloton, but I wasn’t really having it. I finished the stage and said, “I think I’ve broken my hip.” And our swanny said, “Oh, there’s no way you’ve broken your hip.” And I ended up going through Singapore airport in a wheelchair two days later.

I think professional sport is a lot about building yourself up to the place you want to be, and then getting knocked down again and having to start again

So you didn’t find out that it was a broken hip until…

Until I got home. And then because you’re an athlete and you want to push on and you think, oh, it’s probably just tissue damage. So I went for an x-ray, went home, got on my bike, went out for a spin. And got a phone call saying, “you won’t be able to cycle for a while, your hip’s broken.” And then I broke it again two months later because I came back from it far too quickly. I raced the nationals still with it broken and crashed in a race out in Portugal and just broke the top of the femur off again. So it was a long year of fighting back.

So that was a tough year. I think professional sport is a lot about building yourself up to the place you want to be, and then getting knocked down again and having to start again. It definitely teaches you a bit of resilience.

HSBC UK British Cycling Spring Cup Road Series – Chorley Grand Prix 2018 – JLT Condor, Edmund Bradbury checks his bike over. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

What was your role at JLT? I believe John Herety saw you as a GC rider. Is that what you were aiming to be?

Yes, I think that there were four of us who had very good GC talents. Well probably more, but the main four were Ian Bibby, obviously, Steve Lampier who has proven himself time and time again, me, and James Gullen.

Ian Bibby is one of those guys who has an unbelievable amount of talent but he either is on form or not on form. And that can change from week to week. So it was sometimes hard to commit to riding for him because there’d be a week where he’s not on it, and the next week he’s one of the most talented bike riders you’ve ever seen. By contrast, I would think I was probably the most steady, if not the most talented.

2018 looked more positive on paper; you got 17th in the Tour of Yorkshire

A much better year. I love the Tour of Yorkshire. I think it’s the best event. I would actually rate it higher than the Tour of Britain. The crowds are just phenomenal. It’s one of the biggest memories I’m going to take from cycling. Riding up some of the big climbs in the Tour of Yorkshire. What a brilliant race, it’s a real showcase for British cycling.

And how do you look back on your time at JLT now?

As well as John Herety, of course, one thing that was influential in its own way was when we started working with an NLP group called ProNoctis that still works with Ed Clancy. And actually now I’m looking at doing a career after cycling, and I’m looking down the management consultancy, corporate coaching, mentoring side. Which is linked to NLP. I think that few days we spent with the NLP guys at JLT was very interesting. If only for making you be aware of the psychological side of the sport. Since then, it’s something I’ve been really interested in. So that’s been quite formative, and something that’s definitely going to be with me for my next career. Whatever that may be.

OVO Energy Tour of Britain 2018 Launch – Glaziers Hall, London, England – JLT Condor’s team manager John Herety. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

And in terms of John Herety and the team as a whole disappearing out of the sport, what impacts do you think that’s had on the scene?

I think it’s been huge. John, he was a hard taskmaster. But very professional and very fair with the riders. He ran one of the few teams that definitely had no aspirations of moving to up to Pro Conti or above. It was very specifically, in his eyes, about generating results to let the riders move up. And I think he took a lot of pride in getting people up to Pro Conti or above. When I was there, Alex Frame moved up, Matt Gibson went to Burgos, Brenton Jones moved up. So it was a fantastic team for that, which I think maybe some of the other UK Conti teams aren’t focused enough on. So losing pathway I think has had an impact on the development side of the scene.

And with John’s development approach, how much was the focus on the domestic calendar versus racing abroad?

I think John’s philosophy, without wanting to speak out of turn, was more that we needed to do enough on the domestic scene in the UK to qualify for the Tour of Britain. I think that was his aim with that. But the results he really cared about, other than that, were the UCI races. So we did have to send our strongest riders to Premier Calendar races because it’s very hard to win them and we needed the points for the Tour of Britain. I think without the Tour of Britain qualification system he’d have focused even more on the UCI races.

It’s not the best preparation for the biggest race of your season to be told, “have a good week, it’s your last week. You’re redundant.”

How much of it was a surprise when JLT Condor announced it was closing down?

I think we’d seen it coming for a while. I’d been working a bit with the team at that point. I was doing the team’s social media for the last year. I worked quite a lot in the last four or five months trying to find new sponsors, with varying success, but we never got enough budget to actually run a whole team off it. After that, I realised that I could use the ‘finding-a-sponsor-skill’ to get my own salary really. Which is what I did at Memil.

So I knew it was coming, even though it was a bit of a shock the day before the Tour of Britain to be told it actually was closing down. You have to tell the riders in that situation, but it’s not the best preparation for the biggest race of your season to be told, “have a good week, it’s your last week. You’re redundant.” So that was quite a tough Tour of Britain, actually.

And then I retired for two months afterwards, in my mind. I actually went for a ride with Colin Sturgess in Mallorca, and he half-wheeled me for four hours and then cracked in the last half hour and said, “right, let’s find you a team.” And Memil came along.

HSBC UK British Cycling Spring Cup Road Series – Chorley Grand Prix 2018 – Edmund Bradbury. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

He cracked or you cracked?

He cracked, eventually. I mean, it nearly killed me doing it. The guy’s unbelievably strong, it was good fun. And then he just started pinging messages off to contacts. And that’s how I ended up at Memil.

I’m interested in this model you mentioned, where you said you raised your own sponsorship to fund your career. How did that work?

Networking is the key to it, instead of offering exposure and social media. I’m very cynical about social media actually working to sell. It might work to sell bikes but I don’t think it works to sell insurance. I don’t think anyone sees a JLT rider winning and decides to go in and for buying whatever product their sponsor’s selling.

I think you’re much better off talking to companies about getting them involved in your story, finding like-minded people, and people who want to give back to sport. Some people have given me money just because they’re really keen to support someone trying to achieve something and to be part of that journey. You’ve got to connect to the right people. And you’ve got to put a lot of effort into that and provide some value back to them. Otherwise, they’re not going to stay with you.

So that’s funded you for the last two or three years?

Yes, even at JLT I had funded myself partly through self-sponsorship, partly through a small amount from the team as well. And then when I was riding at Memil, I was all on my own, completely self-supported.

And is that a sustainable model for riders, do you think?

I think it depends who the rider is. I think if you are a personable guy and you enjoy that side of trying to raise some money, then it’s probably a safer way of doing it than relying on teams to do it for you. I’m sure teams would like that as well, wouldn’t they, if the riders stopped asking for salaries?! I don’t know how sustainable that would be for the number of professional riders who are in the UK. But it’s certainly worked for me.

2019 HSBC UK National Road Series – Lancaster GP – Edmund Bradbury of Memil Pro Cycling, John Archibald of Ribble Pro Cycling and Cameron Jeffers of Saint Piran ride in the break. Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

And tell us about last season, with Memil Pro Cycling…

It was an interesting year. I really enjoyed the first half of the year. I really wanted to win Taiwan because that was such a big regret of mine after crashing out. I was seventh this year and it all came down to sprint time bonuses. But I was attacking every day, off the front on the GC days, and then got caught before the line and ended up in little groups each day. So that was frustrating but enjoyable. I was second overall in the Tour du Maroc, which was a good result.

It was brutal. It was one of the hardest days. I was in a solo chase for 110 kilometres

Yes, I saw that you came second on the queen stage, where there were enormous time gaps. 52 minutes, I think, was the distance between the stage winner and the last rider to come in…

It was brutal. It was one of the hardest days. I was in a solo chase for 110 kilometres behind the guy that eventually won the tour. I finished three minutes behind him, with another minute and a half to the next rider. It was just brutal. We had 4,800 metres to climb in about 190 kilometres or something. But that’s my kind of day, really. I always say I like slow bike races when everyone’s so tired that they can barely lift a finger by the end. Because I can’t win sprints, otherwise.

It sounded like a real ‘wild west’ type of race...

It was. It was hard and it was raced savagely. The first four days of the race were probably the hardest four days of racing I have done anywhere. It was crosswinds for the first two days and then big mountains for the next two, as we went along the coast of the Mediterranean, then into the Atlas Mountains. It was a really hard race but it was fun because it was raced hard and it had absolutely no control, because not all single team brought a sprinter. So every day involved GC attacks from the gun. I really enjoyed that side of racing with Memil. But I’d say racing in China was not for me.

Why is that?

I think the rider welfare in China is pretty poor. The number of hours we spend on buses for huge, huge transfers. The food quality is pretty poor. It’s not as good as the European scene in terms of looking after the riders. And to be honest, I thought we the racing was boring. It’s good for sprinters, but it’s not good for everyone else. We’d do 10 hours in a bus to turn up to a stage where we’d race 70 kilometres around a little circuit at an average of 120 watts. It was just mad. And then we’d get back in the bus and we’d do another 10 hours. It wasn’t for me.

So, the first half of the year was good and then it all went downhill. Rob Orr, who used to ride for Metaltek, he was a kind of rider-manager. And he somehow got dismissed from the team, which I don’t think was handled well by the senior management of the team. And after he left, there was a significant decrease in the communication between the riders and the staff, and some of the professionalism within the team. By the end, I thought it probably wasn’t the right environment for me to be in.

So that pushed me a bit more towards what I’d been thinking for a year anyway: that this was my last year of making or breaking. Which is why now I’ve decided to pull out, do something different and move on to the next chapter.

Photo: Pearson Cycles

You said earlier, off tape, you felt like you’ve given it a good run…

Yes, I think it’s very hard for people to move up a level after the age of 25. Before that, Pro Conti and World Tour teams are going to take a punt on. After 25 it’s very hard, it does happen, but it’s very rare. And I have always thought that I’m not going to become a ‘career Continental’ rider. I’m going to try and make it to a level above that, and if I don’t, I’m going to move on.

Will we still see you racing domestically at all?

Yes. I’m linked up with Pearson Cycles now, which has just launched a new clothing brand called Pearson 1860. It’s a really cool competitor to some of those niche brands, with really good quality kit with lifestyle-type branding, for gravel riding, urban riding, and road racing. So I’m going to be with them in 2020. They’re going to look after me a bit and I’m going to be racing under Pearson Cycles. It feels like I’m going back about 10 years to the style of racing I used to do, but it’s actually quite exciting.

I love racing still. I don’t think that leaves you when you stop being full-time

I love racing still. I don’t think that leaves you when you stop being full time. And I don’t think you need to be full-time to race one-day races in the UK. I think you just need good time management, and there were many very impressive results coming out of people with full-time jobs last year. I think sometimes when, as full-time riders, we overvalue the fact that we don’t have another job. Which is great for training for stage races. But I don’t think it’s necessary to most of the National Road Series races. Who knows, I might be eating my words at the end of the season, getting spat out at every race, but hopefully not!