VIDEO: The Most Successful British Family in Cycling; What's their Secret?
February 3rd, 2017
February 3rd, 2017
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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Imagine if your Aunty was an Olympic mountain biker, and your grandfather was the first British rider to win a stage at the Tour de France, and your sister is on one of the most successful women's cycling teams in Britain. Would it be nature or nurture that leads you to a professional road racing career? We talk to Jake Womersley, of BIKE Channel Canyon, and his Grandfather Brian Robinson to find out. Brian is a warm and inviting host with those grandfatherly qualities that make you feel right at home. This Grandfather, however, is arguably the Grandfather of British road racing. He was the first British rider to complete the Tour de France, let alone win a stage, of which he did twice in 1955, and he also represented Great Britain on the road at the Olympics twice. Brian’s brother also went to the Olympics for road racing, and Brian’s daughter, Louise, went to the Olympics for mountain biking. Between them all, they have a whole heap of medals and achievements, but is the family’s success a coincidence?
Keeping It In the Family
"I feel there is a bit of pressure, 'cos there's obviously Louise, my Aunty, and my Granddad, and now my sister, so there's pressure to keep it going, but not too much pressure, 'cos if I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't do it" says Jake. “Three of us have gone to the Olympics now, so that's not a bad record!” says Brian, but he also explains that he’s just proud that they’re doing something, it doesn’t matter that it’s cycling. “Yes, lots of the family cycle, but no-one is expected to follow in their footsteps” says Jake. Most of the family are sporty, but there is clearly something about cycling that eventually draws them in. Louise Robinson started cross-country running when she was a teen and only decided to ride cyclocross at the age of 25. Three years later she was taking the silver medal at the World Cyclocross Championships, despite being deemed 'too old' for support by British Cycling, and then went on to represent GB at the Olympics for mountain biking. "Becky started really late, and I think me and Louise kinda forced her into it" says Jake about his sister, "she worked her way up and now she's on the best women's continental team in Britain. It's great”. Though no-one is expected to get into cycling, having such great role models is a good starting point, and the passion is clearly infectious when you are around it all the time.
As I hear stories of Christmas dinners being delayed for family members to peak for certain races, it's clear they are no ordinary family, but to them, it is normal. "I don't really talk about cycling, to be honest!" Brian laughs. "Obviously cycling is there, so you might have a story to tell about cycling, but it's not the main topic of conversation” says Jake. Brian started his family whilst he was still racing, and had two children by the time he was racing abroad and in the Tour de France. The family followed in the caravan, but they went home when he started racing. "You have to be selfish" says Brian "you need to be responsible for yourself and focus on that". Thankfully Brian's wife and two kids were accommodating of this, and seemingly enjoyed the lifestyle too. "I went to watch my Aunty race”, Jake recalls from the receiving end of the race scene, "I remember not wanting to go to school because I wanted to go and watch a World Championship of some sort, but I couldn't go, and I was really disappointed. I've never been dragged to it. I was interested in it, and my Nanna was interested in it, so we went”.
“When you're five or six, you don't think 'I want to race', but I was always riding around on my bike when we went to races" says Jake, “I think my first race was Peel Park [cyclocross] when I was 12 or 13, and from then on I knew I wanted to race". After getting into cyclocross as a youth, Jake progressed to road racing as he got older. Then, once his sister got into road racing, he started coaching her; "we're not competitive with each other, 'cos we don't race together and we didn't start at the same time. We're closer now though, 'cos I coach her". "For my Nana, I think it's nice, 'cos she gets to relive her life again by taking me and Becky to races. Sometimes it's nice, sometimes it's too nice! Sometimes you just want to get on with it and not have questions asked by your family!” laughs Jake, “It's nice having the encouragement, obviously, especially if you're doing well, and it makes your family happy as well, but if you're not going well then... errr..." he laughs, looking at his Grandad, who's also chuckling.
Nature vs Nurture
“I've gotta say, it's in the blood. The genes are there and you can always build around that” says Brian, “The proof is in Jake and Becky, because no-one has pushed them into that, you've got to want to do it. It must be built in". I'm not sure if you can have a cycling gene or not, but one thing for sure is that every member of the family seems predisposed, somehow, to be able to focus on a goal and achieve it. "You've got to have determination to get anywhere in life, of course you need that. You've got to have staying-power too. You've got to be selfish" says Brian, which is interesting, as Brian is anything but selfish in character, and neither is Jake. By selfish, I think Brian means that you've got to want it, and do anything to get it, and with a family as loving and as supportive of such a demanding sport, it's clear that the cyclists amongst them haven't had to battle or sacrifice much to get where they wanted to go. Without that support, I guess they would have to be very selfish. And there lies the reason a sportsperson will often thank their family and coaches for their support. Would they have succeeded without them? It's hard to blanket answer that question, but without them, it would certainly be a different story, and one with more struggle no doubt.
Brian’s Father cycled, as it was seen as a normal mode of transport back then, and his older brother joined a cycling club, so Brian tagged along. The whole family cycled for transport and for fun and no one thought anything of it. It was Brian’s desire to succeed at something that made him a brilliant cyclist, and having a family, including his wife and kids, that enabled him to continue helped keep the wheels greased for success. Now, the younger generation are surrounded by family role models, which obviously helps, but it seems the gentle nudges, the encouragement and the sheer passion for cycling are just accelerators for what is already in their blood; a thirst for doing the best you can at something. "When I was a young lad I was footloose and fancy-free, but the sacrifices really came with family life" says Brian, "but I ended up with satisfaction that I'd done all I could do, and if you can do that in life, both in your sporting life and your family life, that would be a pretty solid achievement". Jake nods and agrees strongly with his Grandfather. Of course, Jake might not be a professional cyclist by now if his Aunty hadn't given him his first race bike, but he probably would have tried his best at something else. There is obviously something about cycling that appeals to the nature of this family, but the nurturing that occurs within and the freedom to be ones own person, is obviously a great way to blossom the existing talents too. So, can we learn anything from this? Well, it's clear that enabling talents and nurturing them, as opposed to pushing and pressuring each other, has worked here, but it's also clear that there's an underlying talent within each of them that makes the enabling work. All I can say for sure is that these guys have got what it takes to make themselves a success, it’s in their blood and in their attitudes, and if they could bottle it, I'd buy it.