This is the first in what I hope will be a series of conversations, either via a volley of emails, face to face chats or recorded voices and film – the stories that shape the cyclist and individual and link them to a place.
I first met Josh, a sparky and charismatic young man with a healthy crooked smile and a penchant for Dr Martens boots, at the Tri Store promoted and sponsored Rollapaluza party in early 2011 – between races we chatted and instantly became friends (Josh managed to come 4th or 3rd if memory serves me correctly – the less said about my own result the better). Josh is an aspiring professional road cyclist based in Zottegem, Belgium who grew up in and around Rother in East Sussex before moving to the big smoke of Eastbourne aged 10.
I watch Josh’s career with close interest, deep respect and admiration. For 2012 Josh is riding for Viasport-Publieled Cycling Team, a Belgian amateur team competing in the Top Competition + Beker Van Belgie, with some wildcard entries in UCI Professional races. He submits regular ‘Letters Home’ for Cyclosport.org, a blog for Morvélo as a member of the Morvélo test team and updates his own blog ‘Bike Racing/Dream chasing www.joshuacunningham.com
I wanted to get to the heart of what it is that makes Josh tick as a racing cyclist so we began a series of emails, between June and August 2012, where I would bat questions at him and he would respond in his own profound and inimitable style.
This article marks part 1 of 2. Part 2 is available here In Conversation with Josh Part 2
1. What was it that sparked the decision that becoming a professional cyclist was something you could do/would like to do? What were the first steps that you took in order to fulfill this dream having served brief apprenticeships with local teams here in Sussex (Bayeux Landscapes and then In-Gear)?
My earliest memory of professional cycling was when I was very young as my Dad watched the tour. I can remember Jan Ullrich winning in 97, the ‘Festina Affair’ in 98, and idolising the glamour and panache of the Polka Dot Jersey. So I knew about pro cycling from very early on, but all I wanted to do was play football. As I got better at football, and started to play at a higher level, I lost interest in it as quickly as I developed an interest in cycling. I would have been 16 or 17, and got an old steel bike with down-tube shifters to smash about on, and inquired at Phoenix Cycles in Eastbourne about joining the club they sponsored at the time, Bayeux Landscapes. Sunday club runs became my highlight of the week, and apart from to and from college on a MTB was the only riding I did. I was often severely hung over or worse during most club rides, still being quite young, but loved smashing it round the lanes of Sussex. A lot of the guys at Bayeux were extraordinarily kind and helpful in the year I spent with them, taking me to races, giving me bits of kit, and generally teaching me the basics of road cycling. I owe a lot to them for that, and I’m sure I’ll stay friends with the guys for years to come.
I decided during college that I didn’t want to go to Uni, and was enjoying cycling so much, with some degree of success, that I may as well “have a go”. The Markowski brothers from Bayeux had both been to France to try their luck, and I knew of another local lad Tom Copeland doing the same, so at some point during my second year at college it must have clicked that my ambition was to become a full time rider on the continent.
Despite how enjoyable being ‘one of the lads’ at Bayeux was, I knew deep down that in order to progress I needed to move on, so for the next year I made the decision to move to the In-Gear development squad, now called the Vo2 Development Team and under new management. It was a pretty tough year for me, as when I signed up I wasn’t ready to give up the teenage lifestyle I had been enjoying. At Bayeux I could do what I like; now I had rules to live by. I know I drove the management crazy, but have to thank them for sticking by me, helping develop as a rider, and getting me as prepared as they could have done for moving abroad. I spent the year working for Bayeux Landscapes (the Landscaping company, based in Hastings, that gives its name to the local cycling team – ed) full time, training when I got in after a hard day’s graft, and racing at the weekend. There wasn’t time for anything else. I had to work to pay for moving abroad, I had to train to get better. Everything was dedicated to being a cyclist, and moving to Belgium could not come soon enough.
2. Can you describe what happened and the feeling you had when you took part in your first ever race? Can describe what happened in the race where you got your first win and how that felt?
The first ever race I did was a 10mile TT, on the East Hoathly-Horsebridge course. I had been out the night before until 4am, and the TT started at 6 or something stupid like they always do, so I was a bit fragile when I got on my bike to say the least. I did it on my down tube shifter bike, with hairy legs, an MTB helmet, and a bacon sandwich in my back pocket to have at the half way point (unfortunately I’m not even making this up). I posted a 23 minute 10, and the event was won by my science teacher from school Pete Tadros. 5 years of being taught by the guy, and all of a sudden I find out he is an absolute hammer on a bike. I completely destroyed myself, was sick when I finished, and despite thoroughly enjoying myself, decided that time-trialling wasn’t for me, and immediately set about getting a BC license so I could compete in road races.
My first road race was a Surrey League Handicap for 3rd and 4th cats around the Alfold circuit. I had been looking forward to it for a long time, and was quite in awe of the rest of the guys signing on in the car park with their carbon wheels and shaved legs. “THEY MUST BE REALLY GOOD!!!” I went off with the 4ths, and did through and off until we got caught by the third cats. I was flabbergasted at how fast they came past, but I managed to hang on in there for the remainder of the race and roll over in 11th place. Again, I was sick after the finish, but absolutely loved the adrenaline, the speed, the danger, and being part of something as cool as a bicycle race.
My first win came a few weeks later at another Surrey League Handicap, this time on one of the Thursday night ones. I went off with the 4ths, and we stayed away until the last lap. As the bunch came into view behind us, my Bayeux team mate Jason attacked out of it and came straight past us. I latched onto his wheel, and we were dangling off the front for a while. With about 4k still to go Jas told me to go again, so I went solo and managed to hold on, by just a couple of meters. There were 4 or 5 of us Bayeux riders there to celebrate with, and the feeling was like I had never felt before. It is quite an indescribable emotion, and one that in the few wins I have picked up over the years has never become diluted. It’s been a long time since I last won, but I won’t ever forget what it feels like.
3. I am a great believer in the influence and experience of landscape, especially for cycling – in Sussex there’s a strong sense of anarchic freedom that I feel emanates from the soil, the sea and the air here which I am especially drawn to – I guess you could have gone anywhere, France, maybe Italy but in Belgium I imagine that the romance and history of cycle racing is very strong, to what extent is your decision to develop your career in Belgium inspired by that and what are the main differences you perceive between developing a career on the continental circuit vs the emerging domestic scene? Since you are still very young how long did it take you to settle down into the discipline and routine of training and racing at an elite level?
I’ve always appreciated living in/around the south coast and south downs. A lot of people don’t appreciate how lucky they are to live in such a nice area. Next to the sea, and National Trust grounds, the riding where we live is superb.
I chose to go to Belgium because it is where I got channeled into going by the people around me. Personally I preferred the idea of living in France. The romanticism of cycling seemed to be lodged in France in my mind. The language, the riders, quaint French towns and countryside, and the Tour obviously. But from the type of rider that I am, and the mental character that I probably am, Belgium was always a better choice. Hard, fast, powerful, attacking racing. That is what I’m all about as a rider so that’s where the decision was made to go. After 2 and a bit years here I definitely made the right choice.
There was never even the slightest bit of contemplation about staying in the UK. If you’re going to give it a shot, you may as well go all out and try to make it into the real upper echelons of the sport, rather than the goldfish pond of the british scene. It’s getting better in the UK with teams like Endura, but even they have their main base and majority of their calendar in Europe. There are a lot of bloody good riders in the UK…but what are they doing? where are they going? It all just seems like a bit of a dead end in a lot of respects. Regardless of racing, where’s the sense of adventure? I’m living in a foreign country and developing life skills I never would have done at home.
When I first started racing I took it very casually and on a very casual basis. The whole time I was at Bayeux I didn’t sacrifice anything for cycling, and Im glad I didn’t because I would have missed out on a hell of a lot at that age. When I was at In Gear I stopped messing around and started to focus on moving abroad, but with all my friends at Uni, and having to hold down a full time job as well as training, I didn’t have time for anything else. The guys at In Gear did their best to teach me how to go about being a serious bike rider, but there was only one way I was going to learn and that was to do it myself. I am still here today, still progressing, still learning, but also with a lot of experience under my belt. Not because of what people told me at home, but because I experienced it myself!(ground rule for life right there). I’ve been 100% committed to being a cyclist since I left Bayeux and joined In Gear, but Ive just learnt ways to intensify that commitment along the way.
4. Unless you are lucky enough to be employed in a job you absolutely love the reality and routine of the morning alarm, the day job and domestic life (bills, insurance payments and taxation) can be a grind. It is often what you experience between which is where the light shines and the brighter side of life can be found. These times should outweigh, for the most part, the weight of responsibility and where work pays off in the end. It’s not all romance for a racing cyclist of course – grueling training routines, paying careful attention to the diet, the worry and anxiety of picking up an infection, or worse an injury – What is the pay off for you and what is it that keeps you sane during these times? Do you plan your down times, how often do you make the journey home to Sussex and how often do those down times include riding bicycles?
The thing that keeps me going is the desire to progress. It’s all about making steps forward until you get to the best you can be. I’ve always said I’ll keep going until I stop progressing, no matter what level that might be. I’m still progressing so I’m still cracking on. When it gets tough, it’s thinking about the bigger picture that keeps me going. At the base of it all it is the desire for challenge and self fulfillment that keeps me going. When I stop I hope I will be able to walk away feeling fulfilled, no matter what level I bow out during. As for the challenge, well that takes care of itself. That will never go away, there’s always something else to conquer. Without meaning to sound pompous, taking an interest in philosophy and literature has also helped put things in perspective, work out what’s important to me, and how to best relieve that suffering you speak of which we all find ourselves in.
You do need to have a certain degree of masochism in you I think. No pain, no gain etc etc. I am a firm believer in that, and that most things worth having need to be fought for.
This year I will have come back to my home in Sussex 3 times – one for the National Championships in June, once in mid July to see my girlfriend in the 4 days she was at home for in between traveling adventures, and I’m coming home next week as I’ve got tickets for the Women’s Diving Final at the Olympics. Throughout the season when I come home it’s not a break from being a racing cyclist, as I still train and live my normal athlete’s life. If anything it’s more stressful being at home actually, as there are too many distractions. When Im in Belgium it’s 100% cycling. It is nice to know that should anything happen, home is only 6 hours away though. I had a bit of a mid season break a couple of weeks ago when I was going really badly, but it was only a few days long, and I carried on riding during that time, just not with any specific training.
The only time of year I can live completely stress free is during the off season, which for me is usually mid-late September through to the end of October. It is a crucial time of the year, as without it the rest of the season would be impossible to tackle. I enjoy riding bikes, so I still do some riding during the off season, but it’s all on my own watch. For example last year in my first “week off the bike” when I came home, I ended up going on a 4 day cycling tour up to Loughborough with a mate for the start of his freshers week at uni, which is something I couldn’t begin to consider during the racing period. The off season is about a mental release as much as a physical one, so I go along with whatever I want to do, regardless of whether it involves a bike or not.