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.
Graham Briggs was a star of the domestic scene for over a decade. A rider with a fast finish, he was a regular winner in criteriums and road races throughout his career.
There were too many highlights to do justice to here, but they included victory in the first-ever round of the Tour series in 2009, becoming British National Circuit Race Champion in 2011, winning a stage and the overall of the Tour du Loir et Cher in 2014, and finishing second on a stage of the Tour of Britain in 2016 against an unstoppable Ian Stannard.
He rode for some of the biggest domestic teams around, including hefty spells with John Herety’s Rapha Condor and JLT Condor squads, as well as Cherie Pridham’s Team Raleigh and Vitus Pro Cycling outfits. Although he admits he was fortunate to be riding at the “boom time” in the sport, Graham’s success certainly wasn’t down to chance. A tenacious competitor on the bike, Graham is quietly spoken off it and yet his drive and determination to succeed in his career beyond racing bikes is clear to see.
The teachers used to say “you’ll never make anything of yourself Briggs”
We spoke to “Brigga” about where cycling has taken him, from ambitious schoolboy to schooling the next generation.
GC: What were your school years like?
I did a year at sixth form but within a year I knew that wasn’t for me. I started working in a bike shop and fitted my training around that.
GC: I read that you told your headmaster that you’d be representing GB when you left school, and you did that within a year.
I would say I’m not a very confident person, but the teachers used to say “you’ll never make anything of yourself Briggs”. I’m quite stubborn in proving people wrong.
After narrowly missing out on the GB U23 academy as he left school, Graham joined a team in France.
GC: When did cycling start to become a career?
I had Dave Rayner funding for two years out in France, but came back to the UK and started working full time. Then I got the bug again. I remembered how much I missed cycling. 2007 was the first year I started getting paid to ride. Luckily cycling was on the up from then onwards, I was hitting it at the boom time really.
From maybe 2011 I earned good money; it was my living. I won the National Crit Champs and got a wage increase. From then on, until 2018, I was living the dream really.
GC: What were the main challenges of racing full time for you?
I always used to struggle with my weight. Diet was the biggest part of it really, I never used to struggle with motivation to get out training. Where we live ‘round Doncaster, there’s always somebody to ride your bike with. You could just go out for half an hour and you’d meet a group. There’s a massive pool of talent around here. That made it a lot easier.
GC: Did you ever think about what you might do when the time came to stop riding at that level?
When I was out in Australia with Ed [Clancy] in 2015, we had a plan that we might want to set up a kids’ academy. Something where we could give back to the kids. So that’s been on our radar for six years.
It was always in the back of my mind, that when I retired, I could give something back. It was only a pipe dream but it’s moved on a lot since then.
It’s just a different life as an athlete to a normal life with a job. I was living in a bubble all the time, but life’s different now.
GC: Did you find that change in identity hard? I know a lot of sportspeople feel anxious about this period of transition.
I didn’t. Not straight away. I tend to take every day as it comes and not look too far ahead. But there have been times that I struggled mentally. It’s just a different life as an athlete to a normal life with a job. I was living in a bubble all the time, but life’s different now.
GC: When did the academy become a reality?
I broke my foot in August 2019 so then I had plenty of time to plan it. We got it running that October, doing tasters with schools with a vision to start running it in January 2020. That’s when the first classes started.
We had some funding from sponsors with the hope to race to promote the academy. But obviously that didn’t happen so hopefully we can get some racing towards the end of this year. [I’m] still as hungry as ever.
I was speaking to my coach the other day on how training is different now. There’s not as much pressure but I still want to do it. I absolutely love it, the numbers… I do a lot of my thinking on the bike as well, getting out and clearing your head. It gives me time to think about how to make the academy better.
The bikes and the van have to look nice. That’s something I learnt from John Herety, all the vehicles looking tip-top and kit looking sharp.
GC: Were there any skills that you could transfer from cycling to running the academy?
Time keeping. I always wanted to be one of the first ones there at a race and that’s definitely transferred over. I want to be there early to prepare for the classes.
I’m very anal with the stuff looking perfect. The bikes and the van have to look nice. That’s something I learnt from John Herety, all the vehicles looking tip-top and kit looking sharp. The same with the kit for the coaches, everything has to be matching.
Just dealing with the kids as well. When you’re on a cycling team you’re all a bunch of mates and you want to get along with everybody. It just makes life easier. It’s the same with the kids [at the academy]. A lot of them say I’m on the kids’ level!
GC: Is this what pays the bills now?
Yep. My wife is a massive part of it. She’s the big one with the business. In the next couple of months we’re going to open another franchise. The vision is to franchise it across the UK. Lockdown has helped for that.
At Clancy Briggs it’s not all about the young kids, it’s about developing the race talent as well. So we do a race class for them on a Saturday. Obviously, that’s stopped now so on Monday and Tuesday evenings we do online classes for the kids who are racing. We’ve done a different topic each week: nutrition, training, testing etc. We’ve had John Herety come on as a guest speaker, and Ed [Clancy] pops in with words of wisdom. We’ve got kids signed up from all over the UK now, so that shows that there is scope for it. On Tuesday night we do a Zwift session for the kids, where we talk through it on Zoom as well. That’s been a product of COVID. We’ve had to change the business and it’s got it out nationwide as well.
The concept with the academy was that it’s not just for racers, just to get kids more active. Get them on bikes and see how much actual fun you can have. The whole idea wasn’t to get them all racing, it’s for them to carry it on to later in life, whether they take their children out or even commute on the bike.
GC: Do you still miss racing at the top level?
I always used to find the racing really nervous. Watching it on TV I think I want to be back there. But when you actually get in the thick of it, seeing crashes and things like that, you think do I really miss it that much? I just really enjoy the training aspect of it. Building towards a goal, even if that’s building towards a Strava time or a personal power best.
GC: What advice would you give to riders who are reaching that transition in their careers?
Learn to enjoy riding the bike after cycling [competitively], for the love of the sport. I see a lot of people quit. Riders go straight into a full-time job but it’s their choice if they want to keep on riding the bike afterwards. I just still love riding my bike and think I always will do until my dying day.
What can we learn from Graham’s story?
- Find the environment where you can thrive. In Doncaster Graham was surrounded with the people he needed to help him perform at his best.
- Have fun exploring interests and making plans early in your career, even if it is just the seed of an idea. You will then be able to refine and develop the idea over time.
- Use your downtime to your advantage, even if it is through injury. Having a plan B could actually add more years on your riding career by creating a release valve for your mind and taking some of the pressure off performance.
- Time on the bike can be useful thinking time and is good for wellbeing.
- Patience pays off. Cultivating a passion for riding a bike can open many doors and can build a future that goes beyond racing your bike competitively.
- Teaming up with a colleague helps to not only make the process more enjoyable but also increases the chances of success through the additional skills and experience they bring.
- Hard work pays off, but often not in the ways you expect. Briggs’ work ethic gave him excellent racing results, but has now given him technical expertise and a network to start a new business within the sport.
Featured photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com. 2017 Tour of the Reservoir – Edmundbyers, England – Graham Briggs.