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Cherie Pridham interview: the road at the end of the road

Transitions: Cherie Pridham's journey from elite rider to men's team manager to WorldTour sports director

If you hadn’t noticed, we’re fanatical about the people who animate the domestic peloton and ride their hearts out in the country’s hardest races. They have just as much passion for the sport as their WorldTour peers, albeit showcased in rather less glamorous settings. But what happens to these people – riders, team managers, etc – when they end their careers in the the domestic sport? How tricky is their transition to another role or even another profession altogether?

This interview is the first in a new series here on The British Continental. We’ve got in touch with some faces you’re sure to recognise, people who are no longer agitators on the domestic racing scene. We hear about where those people are now; how they found the transition out of the domestic sport. These are the stories of their next chapter in life. 

The Road at the End of the Road is brought to you in partnership with The Gear Changer Career Academy, a bespoke career mentoring service for cyclists. Explore your own options and opportunities here.

First up is Cherie Pridham, currently the only female Sports Director on the WorldTour. Cherie raced for 15 years at an elite level. She rode the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France – the Grande Boucle Féminine (which no longer takes place) – eight times amongst many other female professional races, including the Giro Rosa. 

In the UK, she is perhaps best known for her career after racing; managing some of the country’s top male cycling teams for the past 14 years. With the closure of the last of these, Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK, at the end of last season, she has now stepped up onto the global stage. 

With her managerial experience soon to surpass the length of her riding career, we wanted to find out about Cherie’s transition out of riding into a different role in the sport. We spoke to her just the day before she started her new job directing at the World Tour team Israel Start-Up Nation.

When did you start thinking about a career outside of racing a bike?

I never did really. As a bike rider you think you’re invincible. And that you’re always going to be a bike rider. 

I was unfortunate. I was involved in a hit-and-run whilst out training. I had quite severe injuries, but even once the bones were fixed I was still adamant I was going to be a bike rider. But the problem you get, assuming you recover properly, is finding the will to ride at that level. 

I was in an induced coma for 30 days. I had to learn to walk again. That’s when it was apparent to me that cycling wasn’t the be-all and end-all

I look back now and know I was just going through the motions. I still believed [in the racing dream], but after a year of about five surgeries, I was unlucky enough to get meningitis. I was in an induced coma for 30 days. I had to learn to walk again. That’s when it was apparent to me that cycling wasn’t the be-all and end-all. 

I was very fortunate that the sponsors I had at the time were still supportive of me. They couldn’t support me as a bike rider, but suggested I start a small development team. At the time my partner Eddie was junior national road coach for British Cycling. So I was fortunate to learn the craft of managing and coaching from him over the transition. I never in my wildest dreams thought I was going to be a team manager, it just appeared that I could do it.

So the move from rider to manager wasn’t planned? You didn’t have a path laid out in front of you?

At the back end of my career I was already coaching three or four junior riders, so it was almost a natural transition from coaching. One of my main projects at the time was a young guy called Simon Holt [Ed: current DS for Canyon dhb SunGod]. I coached all the riders on the Merlin Development squad, and we then took them and the team through to U23. It’s just something that I enjoyed doing. 

Presentation was always important to me. As a rider my bikes were always pristine and I was always taught as a young girl that I was to look after anything my dad bought me. It’s always been ingrained in me. 

I had to do a lot of presentations the old fashioned way by printing documents and having a folder. I always sold myself well, and that enabled me to carry that presentation style across to the teams I was involved in. 

Cherie’s first UCI podium as a DS, at the 2012 Vuelta Mexico Telmex with Daniel Holloway and Tobyn Horton. Photo: supplied by Cherie

Did it take a while to get used to this change of identity? A common theme amongst sportspeople is that when they stop competing, it can be hard to realise who they are.

Definitely. I didn’t realise that transition at the time. It’s far more spoken about, and ok to be spoken about nowadays. You never spoke about depression. I’m not saying I was depressed, but I can recognise some of that. That competitiveness and eagerness to continue training I can recognise now. But in my day we didn’t have the internet, and nobody spoke about it. 

Cherie then progressed to managing several UCI continental teams; Plowman Craven-Madison, and then Raleigh. The latter evolved into Vitus Pro Cycling. In total, she ran UCI level teams for 11 years, and since 2014 the team was also owned by Cherie through her own company: Cherie Pridham Racing.

How did it come about to owning your own team? 

The company Raleigh was going to be bought out, and the team was no longer a priority. So the Managing Director gave us the opportunity to take over full ownership of the team. 

I thought we had such a good thing with [the] Raleigh UK [team], so I agreed. So it was a very very quick learning curve on how to manage a company. I remember coming home from the meeting thinking “oh sh*t, I need to create a company!” 

There’s a hell of a lot of crossover from a professional athlete to sports director or team owner

Did you find that there were skills or experiences that you took from your riding days that you found useful in your new career?

I put as much effort into running the team as I did training [as a rider]. There’s a hell of a lot of crossover from a professional athlete to sports director or team owner that’s for sure. 

In the team car at the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire. Photo: supplied by Cherie

Is there any preparation or training you could’ve done as a rider?

No. You can’t teach it. Although I learned a lot from Eddie, you have to find your own style. In the early days, Eddie could take a team away or I could take a team away. Ultimately Eddie would manage in a completely different way to me, but we’d end up with the same result. I think it’s just down to how you manage things and how you manage people.

That changed massively in the last five years. Managing riders nowadays is completely different from how we managed riders 15 years ago with the whole concept of data, analysis, performance coaching, power meters, and aerodynamics.

I learn every day and the day I stop learning is the day I pack it in

If you’re not moving with the times, then an old school DS will struggle. You have to have that analytic and logistic knowledge to transfer to riders who spend all day on their phones or computers analysing their own data. You have to be able to adapt very quickly to change. I learn every day and the day I stop learning is the day I pack it in. 

How would you describe your managing style?

From a logistics side my instructions and tactics are always presented well. Just being knowledgeable about the parcours, the type of rider, and the job I’m expecting from the riders. 

I always say as long as we go out there with a plan and try [to execute it], all I can ask of the lads is that they give that objective a try. We can then come back, have a debrief, and go over the things we may not have got right or what we could improve on. 

I always make it clear that I’m not a genius. I make the same mistakes as any other DS

I always make it clear that I’m not a genius. I make the same mistakes as any other DS. But as long as we can come together and talk about it, discuss it, and then move on.

Cherie with Phil Jones, MD of sponsor Brother UK. Photo: unknown (supplied by Cherie)

How has it been shutting down the team?

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster really. I knew what direction we might need to take, potentially dropping down to elite. Even until September I was still convinced I could drag it through at elite level. 

We lost another small sponsor and reality dawned on me that I have a house, I have a family. I need to pay the bills somehow. I need to pay riders and staff until the end of the year. I started applying to real life jobs like the police force and army. I didn’t get any response. But I thought I know I’m good enough, so why not message some of the bigger teams. 

The first team to reach out to me was ISN. The general manager Kjell Carlström had obviously done his homework on me at the time. He was more interested in what my ambitions were personally, what I wanted to achieve as a DS, and what I felt I could bring to the team. After that it all went a bit quiet. 

I carried on looking for jobs. Then in the first week in November we had a board meeting with Cherie Pridham Racing, and I made my mind up then. I wanted to be able to deliver a good standard like I’d always done but realised I wouldn’t be able to with minimal budget. And would I be happy with it?

I decided I wanted to finish the team on my terms, not halfway through April still struggling with Covid

I decided I wanted to finish the team on my terms, not halfway through April still struggling with Covid. I didn’t want the team to collapse having struggled with upfront costs and unable to put any more cash towards it. It was my decision at the end of the day.

I rang the riders straight away [although Cherie had always been open to them about the team’s financial situation, and had told them for months to search for other teams if they wished to stay at Continental level]. We started the process of wrapping things up. About an hour later I got an email with a contract offer [from ISN].

Well you’ve certainly had some ups and downs…

Yes. I would certainly say more downs than ups in the past three years. But persistence, passion, desire and confidence [have carried me through].

Photo: Noa Arnon

So what can we learn from Cherie’s story?

  • When she had her riding career cut short, the future must have looked bleak. She’d invested her entire adult life into becoming the best cyclist she could be, and now racing was not going to be an option. When fate started to close the door on her racing dream, she seized a new opportunity and channelled the work ethic of an elite athlete into it.
  • She was able to embrace goals as a team manager, instead of a rider.
  • Her ability to learn and upskill in a changing environment led to longevity in management.
  • Her hard work and self-belief has contributed to her success. From learning to walk again, adapting to a new role in cycling, and pushing her managerial career, she is now world class in her field. 

Featured photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com. Chorley Grand Prix 2018 – Cherie Pridham.