The somewhat nasal South Yorkshire accent on the end of the line is warm, lilting even, belying the rugged and weathered looks of its owner. Graham Briggs typifies the gritty, hard northern roadman lineage concentrated in and around the Sheffield catchment area, whose story is one of the school of hard knocks on the formidable ‘Donny Chaingangs’ and Dave Rayner funded solo forays into darkest France at a young age, "too young. possibly," Graham muses upon reflection. A Doncaster lad, winner of the National Crit Champ’s jersey in 2011, today Graham is calling from a café fifteen miles from home in rival town Barnsley (cue the sound of sniggers down the line over the words “Yes- unfortunately..” when I confirm that he is already in situ) a few hours before the 2015 National Crit Champs takes place.
Graham is open and friendly despite the imminent pinning on of numbers and lining up to finally kick his 2015 campaign out of its sickbed and onto the podium. Good showings in this Championship event and again, four days later, in the UCI Ride London Surrey Classic are essential if a Tour of Britain call up from JLT-Condor Manager John Herety is to follow. Over the next few hours and days I watch as Graham brawls his way onto the second step of the podium in Barnsley and then doggedly scraps his way into the top fifteen against World Tour and Pro Continental opposition in our capital city at the finale of a race he sums up as "Fast, hilly, awesome". These three words, chosen on the spot and after being told that three was all he was allowed, offer an insight into a mindset; one of a true racer. Below we look a little deeper..
Tim: There seems to be more UK pro riders within a few square miles of Yorkshire than from across the rest of the UK as a whole! What do you think that can be put down to? Is it the legendary culture of the Donny Chaingang, perhaps?
Graham: There's always an older generation to teach the new ones. When I first started riding someone put me in touch with Kev Dawson, so I started going out riding with Kev and John Tanner - and got my head kicked in for a year or two! I did a few youth hostel trips with them and just started getting better and better from there. This was early 2000's.. 1999 to early 2000 sort of times. It helps. When somebody in the area sees someone good, with potential, they'll take them under their wing and help them out a bit. Then in about 2002 I got on the Compensation Group team through those guys putting a good word in for me with the manager. That's when I started to get exposed to the Premier Calendar races. Training with those guys definitely paved the way for that.
I'm really lucky with where I live, with the chaingangs. If you find you're lacking a little bit of motivation to get out on the bike there's plenty of groups A Tuesday morning & Tuesday evening chaingang, a Thursday chaingang- a Saturday chaingang..it's bonkers! Anything from twenty to forty guys out, all wanting to have a bit of a race or a tear up. Or if I want an easier ride, can just sit on.
I always like going out with them- when you're away doing the Tour Series for 4 or 5 weeks and you can't get out on those chaingangs 'cos you're just doing steady rides, I do miss those rides- it's good to go and have a laugh on the chaingangs- trying to rip each other’s legs off and having a laugh..
Tim: Is there a race that is particularly close to your heart, one you'd love to do well in- maybe one you have unfinished business in and want to put things right?
Graham: I'd like to do well in the Tour of Yorkshire; To get in a break and do something from there maybe next year.. this year at Tour of Yorkshire, I was at the race but not really in the race. I'd love to be off the front of that race, going through the villages and towns I know so well whilst animating the race.
Tim: Are there any races you kick yourself about, knowing you could have perhaps taken the win but look back thinking 'I got mugged there..'?
Graham: Not any particular race- more maybe I wish I'd believed in myself when I was a bit younger. Believed that I could actually win sprints if I'd put myself in a better position, for example- I used to come from too far back. I've learnt a lot over the last few years, how positioning is key in those final few kilometres, whether it's a crit or a road race. It's all positioning- five kilometres out say, rather than one kilometre out and trying to make your effort then..
Tim: And tonight, the National Crit Champs..?
Graham: Tonight is quite a target, I've not had too good a start to the season with illness so I've been working at building up to this evening over the last four or five weeks. I've spent some time over in the Pyrenees training at altitude- and to see a bit of the Tour!- I'm hoping that will pay off tonight a little bit. I've been close the last couple of years after winning the jersey in 2011 so it would be nice to get up there on the podium.. or who knows?..I'd like to get a big win under my belt. I feel a good result tonight can spur me on for the rest of the season now. Hopefully I can start putting myself in the frame for selection to do the Tour of Britain..towards the end of August is when that squad will be getting finalised. It's a tricky time of the year- some people are finding their form is dipping, illness can play a part too- things like that. I've had that slow start to the year and so I'm still highly motivated now at this point in the season to get a big result. So I'd love to get a spot on the squad for Tour of Britain and do something there.. hunt out a break..
Tim: Let's talk about the early years. I know you spent some tough months over in France when you were funded by the Dave Rayner Fund; what are your memories and feelings looking back at those days?
Graham: I'd applied for the Brit Cycling U23 squad, as it was back then, when Cavendish and Brammeier were on it. I was shortlisted down to the penultimate eight that would then be chosen from for the final six to get on the squad- but I didn't get picked for the six. That was a disappointment, but I just kicked on. I'd applied for the Dave Rayner fund as something to fall back and I was lucky enough to get that funding in 2003. It started off really well, moving over to France- in my second race I got a big win. but I started struggling after that- I was missing home and my partner. Things fizzled out really towards the end of that first year. But I went back the next year, 2004, and tried to get things started again, but found things hadn't really changed for me. I don't know- was I too young? In the wrong environment? It didn't work. I didn't really follow the tour when I was younger, I was not a big one for the history- I was playing football and just wanted to do something a little more individual so started riding a bike and enjoyed that. I just went over there (France) as I figured if you wanted to be a pro then that's what was needing to happen- I'd seen Charlie Wegelius and David Millar go on from Dave Rayner funding. That was the pathway at that time, there wasn't the strength and depth in the UK scene at that time - if you wanted to get to ride the bigger races, that was what you had to do so that's what I did But it was a hell of a learning curve- learning to look after myself and what it takes to be a pro. It was like going away to university I suppose. A massive learning curve..with the language, having to learn French and at the same time living with a Moldovan and an Estonian that barely spoke English. But I'm so glad I did it for what I learned about life and looking after yourself, standing on your own two feet at nineteen or twenty years old.
In the end I came back home and started working a normal job for a couple of years, I was a gym instructor. But I missed the bike so much. I started riding again- cyclocross, the way I'd started out racing. I had the bug back again and started road racing from there. This'd be about 2007 under John Herety on Recycling. Things just went on from there, each year brought more results and the UK scene just got stronger and stronger- which meant you could actually begin to make a living out of bike racing over here. Especially if you can do both, crits and road racing, the UK teams like a rider who can do that. And now, the UK is on a real high, the level of racing at the Premier Calendar and the Elite Series compared to when they first started. There's a lot of big races now within an hour or so from my house now, Beverley, Sheffield- tonight at Barnsley- the crowds now are great and it's always an extra level of motivation to feel that local support.
Tim: You were on John Herety's squads for a few years, Recycling, Rapha- Condor, then there was the switch to Raleigh. Now you seem to be back home again at JLT-Condor and working with John- what is it that you like about John's approach?
Graham: You just know what you're going get with John, he's really straightforward. If he says we're going to do something- we do it. I moved on from John to Raleigh as he didn't really have the budget at the time; I'd just become National Champion and Raleigh were re-building their brand and wanted to show off the Jersey. I had two years with Raleigh but things didn't work out there. Then John offered me a place again, he knew what sort of rider I was. I went back and had my best year to date, 2014.
Tim: What are your favourite roads to ride on? Where is good for your soul?
Graham: I love the roads out in the Peak District, I have a loop over to Hathersage; through Wentworth, past Hillsborough, out to Lady Bower Reservoir and around there. It's a route I've done since I was riding with John Tanner and Kev Dawson- something I've kept on doing, for the scenery and the roads. It's about a four and a hour or five hour loop.
Tim: Winnats Pass, perhaps? I always find myself back there and wonder what the hell I am doing on such a thing..
Graham: Sometimes I'll park nearer to Sheffield and do a few more hills.. though I don't do Winnats that often..
Tim: Coming back to the guys from the chaingangs, how does it work in races when you find yourself away in a break with mates from back home? Are there any subtle combines going on or is it dog eat dog?
Graham:It's good knowing when you get in a break, knowing the type of rider that they are, whether they'll graft and that they're not just there for an easy ride. I might not always be the strongest but I'm quite smart about how to use my effort- it's good to get in the breaks with the local guys so you know what you're up against. We always used to have a laugh when I got away with John Tanner and Matt Stephens- that happened a few times- you knew it was a case of 'we're going to stay away here', riding with two of the strongest guys in the UK. I'd just ride off the back of that pair!
Tim: We've seen a lot of stuff written over the last few weeks during the Tour de France, a bit of a media frenzy surrounding numbers and watts and power etc, etc- is it a good thing or has it gotten out of hand in your opinion?
Graham: Personally, I think it's gone too far. Every-time somebody does a good ride it's questioned. Journalists saying 'Is it a believable ride?' or 'such and such is doing too much power'. Half of them don't really know what it means anyway!
Tim: Talking about power etc, is it something you train to or are you old school and ride on feel?
Graham: I've started training to power, I haven't always done that but the last two to three years I've started doing tests and things looking at numbers. I don't race to it though. I'll look at the numbers afterwards just to see what you produce. I don't really even have to train specifically to do the crits- they just suit me; I'm fast and punchy so I can do well in the crits and ride the road races, that appeals to UK teams. But it definitely does help. The training can be more specific when using power and I find I can manage my condition better rather than when I used to just go out and ride and ride and ride, with no real goal in mind or focus. Now I go out with specific sessions to do- but I still find it interesting.
Tim: So- looking ahead, what's on the horizon?
Graham: I have another year on my contract with JLT-Condor so I'm looking to get some wins under my belt and get another contract so I can stay in professional cycling- so I don't have to get a proper Job!