British cycling has changed immeasurably in the 37 years since the country last hosted the world championships. Grand tour wins, Team Sky, a shower of Olympic medals, and rainbow jerseys for both men and women—Britain is now established as a major force in professional cycling, and Yorkshire is perceived as the beating heart of that strength, akin to Brittany or Tuscany. Of course, other regions may beg to differ, and cynics might call it all a marketing trick, but long before anyone had heard of Bradley Wiggins, Yorkshire was turning out tough road racers. Take a ride on the roads around Harrogate and you’ll soon see why.
Mandy Jones wasn’t from Yorkshire (that would just be too neat). But the 1982 world champion did grow up in Rochdale, less than 50 miles away. Hers was a traditional British cycling upbringing, a way of life that often gets obscured by the shiny imagery of cycling in the modern era. Her family were deeply involved in cycling, and that revolved around the local club. Every Sunday morning, there were club runs out into the hills around Rochdale. In the summer there were cycle-touring and camping trips. For those with the competitive bug, there were club time-trials, the local track league, and road races. The heart of British cycling isn’t Yorkshire—it isn’t any specific region—it is the cycling club. The sport has always been run on the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers, and the social element is important too. Cycling clubs bring people together. In Britain, and particularly in the North, cycling has been a working-class sport, an escape from the factory or coal-mine. The early 1980s were a time of huge change for the communities of Yorkshire and Lancashire, as coal mining and other heavy industries shut down. If cycling functioned as an escape from work, it also functioned as an escape from the grind of unemployment.
Not that Mandy Jones would have been thinking about Margaret Thatcher’s industrial policies on the last lap of the 1982 world-championship road race. Jones had been racing for her local club ABC Centreville since she was 12, with a diet of time-trials, track, and road racing. Women’s road racing hardly existed in its own right in Britain at the time, with very few standalone women’s events, so Jones and others had to race with the men. But it was probably the intensity of her training, along with a hefty dose of natural talent thrown in, that elevated her to world level. Jones’ boyfriend and coach at the time was a professional, Ian Greenhalgh, and his approach for her was simple–she came out on the bike with him and she kept up.
At 18 in Sallanches, France, on one of the toughest circuits in living memory, Jones took a surprise bronze medal in the women’s road race in the same time as winner Beth Heiden. Two years later, the world-championship circus came to the Goodwood motor-racing track in Sussex. At that time, there were no time-trials at the worlds, but the track championships were incorporated. Jones wanted to focus on the individual pursuit and trained hard for it, with motor-pacing sessions every day in the run-up. She trained too hard. By the day of the event, she was over-trained and performed well below her expectations. Devastated by this failure she barely touched her bike in the week before the road race, and ironically this was the perfect way to taper her form.
Present at the front throughout the road race, Jones’ race-winning attack was deceptive. With a lap to go, she went through a descending corner in first place, put her head down and, when she looked around, found she had a gap. The partisan crowd roared her up the final climb, and she gave everything over those last few miles, eventually finishing ten seconds clear of Italian legend Maria Canins.
Britain had a rainbow jersey, unexpected and glorious. Jones’ journey from club runs and local races illuminates the bedrock of British cycling. It’s not about money or fame. It’s about a sheer love for the sport. A week after the elite men’s road race in Harrogate, the town will be back to normal, the surrounding hills won’t be on television, and the country lanes will be empty. Well, empty save for the convivial chatter of a local cycling club heading out towards a café stop.