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Tom Barras interview: a man for all seasons

Transitions: how former rider and NFTO DS Tom Barras built a new career after he left domestic road racing

What happens to riders, team managers and staff when they end their careers in the domestic sport? How tricky is their transition to another role or even another profession altogether?The Road at the End of the Road’ is a series of interviews brought to you in partnership with The Gear Changer Career Academy, a bespoke career mentoring service for cyclists.

The son of “Super Sid” Barras, one of the most successful British pros of the 1970s, Tom certainly had cycling in his blood. For most people, that would be a hard act to follow but Tom’s racing career includes over 100 race wins with some of the most iconic domestic teams.

Tom has a degree in Industrial Design from Loughborough University and runs his own coaching business, Training-Pro, alongside his innovative, extreme weather cycling gear company Spatzwear. But how did he achieve this?

After finishing a degree at Loughborough University he made a name for himself racing in Belgium. Coming home to Yorkshire after six years in Belgium, Tom expected to go into web design and coaching. But he found that as he kept racing for the fun of it, his riding would start paying alongside more typical work. 

“I wasn’t the best bike rider in the world, I eeked a career out of it. I lived in Belgium for six years, but by the end of 2006, I thought cycling was over. I came back to the UK and started working as a web designer. I kept on racing [for team Merlin in 2007] and to my surprise, I just started winning bike races. I didn’t get paid to ride a bike, I funded myself.”

2015 Tour de Yorkshire: Stage 1, Bridlington to Scarborough – NFTO’s Tom Barras in action. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Tom would spend the next eight years at the sharp end of the domestic scene, riding for elite and continental teams. As he prepared for another year riding for NFTO his next job came out of the blue…

“The decision was made for me when John Wood offered me the DS role for the following year. All my energy went from riding, web design, and coaching, to being a full-time DS. I went from a bike rider just focusing on my cycling, to being at the helm of a 30-person organisation.

Being a DS is like playing a game of chess.You have to do everything right, at the right time, or it won’t work

Previously I wouldn’t have been able to explain what exactly a DS does. I was booking every hotel, every ferry, entering a 10-man team into foreign UCI races. I had to learn all that pretty quickly. 

Being a DS is like playing a game of chess. You have to do everything right, at the right time, or it won’t work. An example of that is the last stage of the Tour of Britain. You have to be on The Mall in London between 6 and 6:30 AM with all your staff and vehicles or the police won’t let you in. If you don’t do that, and the car doesn’t have diesel in, you aren’t going to do the last stage of the Tour of Britain. 

It was hugely stressful but also absolutely fantastic. It’s high octane stuff; I got a massive buzz from it.”

On identity change 

“I was still in the exact same environment, with the same people. What was a challenge was going from being a rider who liked a laugh and was fairly relaxed, to being a figure of responsibility. I had to lay down the rules.

I would be a rider who turned up with the wrong trainers or sunglasses on, and got a bollocking because of it. Suddenly I had to be the guy giving the bollocking

I would be a rider who turned up with the wrong trainers or sunglasses on and got a bollocking because of it. Suddenly I had to be the guy giving the bollocking. I had to pull riders aside and say to them you can’t wear those trainers because they’re not what the sponsors gave us, and here’s a £50 fine because I warned you last week. Whereas a year ago, that would’ve been me because I thought my trainers were cooler.

I didn’t lose my identity because I don’t want my time as a bike rider to define me. I’m very proud of what I’ve done. But it’s not like I won the Tour de France. I wouldn’t change my time as a rider, not for a minute. It was incredibly hard in Belgium. I worked exceedingly hard on an engine with limited talent. The performances I got were great. But I don’t want to bang on about them in 30 years because then they would define me as a person.”

Tom coaching. Photo: provided by Tom Barras

After NFTO folded at the end of 2016, Tom resumed his coaching business before starting a new cycling clothing company in January. The ideas for their first unique products came to him whilst riding his bike.

What advice would you give a full time rider transitioning to a career off the bike?

“Find a side game. If you’re a pro bike rider there’s only so much time you can ride a bike, you also have to have your feet up too. After training, you still have the whole afternoon and evening. Most lads spend all of it playing on the Xbox or PlayStation, or something else just to pass the time and relax. 

Whilst my teammates were playing video games, I was sat there with a book, building a website

Whilst my teammates were playing video games, I was sat there with a book, building a website. At the end of that month, I’d have a website live for which I might have been paid a grand or two, and they’d have levelled-up a few times on Gran Tourismo. I’d found an income that worked well with my cycling. 

In our old house, I had an office in the attic. I had it set up so that my feet were up in front of me, behind the screen. The feet were quite literally up, whilst I was working. So I was recovering from training whilst I was running a business. I could do four hours in the [Yorkshire] Dales in the morning, but I was working all afternoon in a position that allowed me to recover.

You’re blessed if you’re able to pay the bills and the mortgage through cycling. That’s the dream. But even if you are, you’re still going to have to work afterward. Find a way of earning money whilst you’re still cycling. Even if it fails, try something for the experience. 

As a bonus it keeps you occupied, but more importantly, helps you relate to the normal world. Cycling is a bubble and that lifestyle is a bubble. As much as I love it, and would like it back sometimes, when it stops you’re going to have to be a part of the “normal” world.”

Tom designing for his spatzwear brand. Photo: provided by Tom Barras

What are you doing now?

“I have my own training company (training-pro.co.uk), so some of my income comes through coaching riders of all abilities. I’m also the founder of spatzwear.com, an extreme weather cycle clothing company that I founded in 2017.”

What can we learn from Tom’s story… 

  • As a professional rider, Tom made the most of the spare time he had. Instead of following his peers, he swapped video games for web design and started making money with his feet up. He found work that harmonized with his training routine.
  • This gave him a direct source of income when he returned to the UK. He then found success as he continued racing, perhaps in part due to the lack of pressure or expectation from himself.
  • Tom took advantage of a new role at NFTO and continued to develop other businesses after the team stopped. He is a real entrepreneur and grafter.
  • Not everyone is cut out for starting their own business, but there is nothing to be lost from exploring side-hustles and part-time work which fits with your current lifestyle.

Featured photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com. 2016 Manx International Grand Prix – Isle of Man, Tom Barras speaks with Ian Bibby of NFTO.