I don’t think I had a lot of talent, but I made up for it with tenacity,” is Chris Lillywhite’s characteristic assessment of his racing career. He was one of the best racers in the UK, turning pro at a time when you could earn good money by racing here.
He won his fair share too, but refuses to dwell on the past. Lillywhite is a realist. “Winning the Milk Race,” he classes as his proudest achievement, but adds: “I’ve got more regrets about what I didn’t do than pride in what I did. I didn’t win the national road race, I didn’t go to the Olympics and I should have won Commonwealth gold in ’94, but I let it slip away. I didn’t see it then, because I was earning and enjoying it, but I never really fulfilled my potential.”
Now he’s helping others to fulfil theirs. He shoehorns working with British Cycling teams around his day job as a man-plus-apprentice heating engineer, and has just returned from the Under-23 European Championships. Being busy cuts his own riding, but he says: “I get out on Sundays, and maybe once in the week if I’ve got time. My job keeps me active and I’ve been doing a bit of swimming.
“I did a 4km race in the Thames the other week. I can’t be bad because I rode with Lizzie Armitstead the day before the Olympic test race and she said I half wheeled her.”
Ibbo’s training ground
The Olympics are weaving our meeting place into UK cycling legend. We’re sipping Earl Grey outside the National Trust cafe on Box Hill, watching hundreds of Saturday morning bikies conquer the climb. Lillywhite is going to ride a bit of the Ibbo Cake Quest sportive route, and although Box Hill isn’t on the route, it’s not far away.
John Ibbotson lived in the area, and rode occasionally with Lillywhite when still a junior, when a small group of pros used to meet at Cycles Dauphin for midweek rides.
He was a good rider with race time in Belgium and Italy, and was an even better coach. He’d just started a coaching business when he suffered a fatal heart attack caused by a congenital heart defect for which he never had any symptoms.
His Surrey riding mates set up a fund in his name to help young racers, which they’ve linked to the CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) charity, which campaigns to get all young sportspeople screened for heart defects. The sportive raises funds for the charity and helps send selected youngsters abroad to race. Sigma Sport pro Tom Copeland is an Ibbotson graduate.
The sportive is called Cake Quest because Ibbotson loved cycling and all that went with it. Cafe stops and cake were high on his priorities, and the sportive on September 25 this year is split into four distances: the 30km Fairy Cake, the 60km Jaffa Cake, the 110km Carrot Cake and the 150km Fruit Cake. All are based on Surrey lanes, and the longer distances take in some formidable hills.
Lillywhite is going for the Jaffa – he’s already ridden an hour from his home near Kingston, so 60km will be enough, with an hour to ride home too. Anyway, Chelsea FC are at home today, and he’s a lifelong supporter. “I never miss one, but it’s a bit expensive nowadays. Success is great but it has to be paid for. To be honest, I liked it more when we won nothing. You went for the atmosphere and to feel part of something. A fan was a real fan in those days,” he says.
From Box Hill, this ride joins the Jaffa route not far from the sportive’s start in Tadworth. It heads south, then east past Gatwick airport and over the M23. “This is where I used to train, although I was more of a racer than a trainer. I never went well in the early season, but got going by May. The Tour of Lancashire was when my fitness came, and the best races were after that,” Lillywhite says.
The whole British racing scene has become front-loaded. Races start in February and the high point of the Tour series and national title races is in June. Even the Premier Calendar doesn’t go beyond September 4. It’s a strange situation for a northern European country that tends to have a warm, dry autumn and a cold, wet spring.
“We had races all through the year really, and the Nissan Tour of Ireland, which was when we got a chance to go up against some top European pro teams, was late in the year,” Lillywhite recalls.
He made his first mark as a pro in the Nissan, winning the King of the Mountains as a 20-year-old new pro. It also offered him the chance to race against Sean Kelly. “He was definitely the bike racer I admired most,” Lillywhite says.
Keith Lambert was another, “Keith was my best manager and he still is one of the best, but he’s sometimes overlooked. They say Brian Clough was the best England manager never to manage England. Well, Keith’s the same in cycling. They’ve got the best man now, though, in Shane Sutton. Shane surprises me. We are mates and were close when we raced, but I’m really surprised how he gets his head round all the science that BC use. His feet are on the floor, just as they always were, but he understands that stuff and puts it across really well.
“It’s a pleasure working with British Cycling. Dave Brailsford and Shane are perfect together, when you think about what they’ve done, but they are still on the shop floor. It explains why the whole thing is still going forwards. Add role models like Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton to the group, then the support staff who are all so dedicated, and the meticulous planning. It’s so professional but at the same time everyone looks out for each other and if someone is stressed they all help.”
Lillywhite is so impressed that he’s thinking of ways to get more involved. “I had nothing to do with cycling for 10 years. Now though, I want to get back in, but to do coaching and management I’d have to spend a year getting up to date with all the new ideas.” That may be, but there’s no doubt Chris Lillywhite has the practical exam cracked.
Head north-east from Box Hill National Trust car park and turn right to descend the B2032. Cross the A25 and turn right to Brockham. Turn left towards Parkgate but take the second right, then left to Newdigate. Turn right and ride through Parkgate and Norwood Hill to take the left to Horley. Continue east over the M23 and turn left in Smallfield to Bletchingley. Turn left on the A25 and first right to cross the M23 to Merstham, where you join the A242 to Reigate. Turn right onto the A25 to the bottom of the hill you descended on the B2032. Turn right and climb the hill (the steepest, on what is a flat to rolling route) then turn left to Box Hill.
Your guide: Chris Lillywhite
Lives: Hampton Court
Finest hour: Winning the 1993 Milk Race
Philosophy: “I like people who give 100 per cent”