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Back in mid-September, British Continental team JLT-Condor announced it would be closing its doors at season’s end. It’s not the only team to have called it a day in recent months, but for British cycling, the news of JLT-Condor’s closure is significant.
More than a decade old, JLT-Condor is Britain’s longest-running UCI team and a setup as well known for its much-loved manager John Herety as it is for its racing success. British freelancer Richard Abraham caught up with Herety to reminisce about the team’s greatest moments and reflect on the significance of its closure.
Barry Chuckle passed away in August. You probably haven’t heard of Barry Chuckle, unless you’re a British reader of a certain generation. If you are, he needs no introduction. If you’re not, it’s difficult to explain the significance of his death. Barry and his brother Paul, plus their TV show ChuckleVision, were part of the furniture. Kind of just always there.
The similarities between the Chuckle Brothers and pro cycling don’t go far, you’ll be relieved to hear. But in September, JLT-Condor announced that 2018 would be their last year too.
Maybe you hadn’t heard of JLT-Condor. Maybe you know the name but not much more. Maybe the news got swamped by post-Vuelta, pre-Worlds chit-chat. But this was a big deal. Those that know, know.
The British Continental team had existed since 2008 when the Rapha-Condor club squad merged with the Recycling.co.uk team, then managed by John Herety. Over the years Rapha were replaced by JLT and that iconic pink and black kit turned to navy and maroon, but a John Herety team on Condor bikes became part of the furniture. Kind of just always there.
“Hang on a minute, I’ve not died, no-one’s died, life’s gonna go on!” John Herety says, half-agreeing that seeing the news in print was like reading his own obituary and half laughing at the very concept. “It’s not as bad as you think. A well-established team that’s been around for a few years in your eyes has suddenly gone, but not in our eyes.”
Herety and the team saw it coming; the clock had been ticking on a three-year deal with insurance brokers JLT since it was signed in 2015 and the realisation slowly dawned that they would fail to find a replacement sponsor to provide the six-figure annual sum needed to keep the show on the road.
Herety was a sprinter by trade. A good one at that. Emerging from the cycling hotbed of England’s northwest in the late ‘70s, he became national champion in 1982 and spent three years with Coop-Mercier.
Although negotiating a bunch kick has little in common with threading a line through company marketing departments, corporate takeovers, the spectre of Brexit, plus UCI and national federation rules, losing still hurts.
“It’s not like football, where managers can leave a team and turn up at another one,” he says. “That’s not gonna happen.
“There’s certainly a failure element to it … But you know, I’m 60, I’ve done this for longer than I rode a bike for, by far.”
JLT-Condor was the most enduringly successful British Continental team of the last decade. The team counted four overall titles in the Tour Series, the UK’s televised town-centre criterium race series, and countless wins on the domestic scene. It picked up UCI victories in Asia, Oceania, Europe, North America and Africa.
But something else seemed more important than just chalking up the biggest wins or signing the biggest winners. Anyone who ever had their hat knocked off their head at the dinner table in Herety’s presence, or got handed a pair of fresh white socks when they turned up to race in black ones, could testify to that.
To those on the outside, there was a certain feel about the team: a way of doing things, a style of man management, a top-to-tail philosophy of running of a team in a certain way that perhaps couldn’t happen in the WorldTour.
“So old school … it’s ridiculous,” Herety laughs at himself again. “If I’d done that at a WorldTour level, I couldn’t get away with it! But it cracks me, those guys earning that sort of money, still wearing baseball caps at the table.
“Why does that bug me!? I’m an old codger.”
The answer is that it bugs him because the team was his obsession. Herety has been at the helm of a cycling team since the late 1980s, managing the British national team until 2005 when Charly Wegelius and Tom Southam’s antics at the Madrid World Championships prompted his resignation (Wegelius and Southam were tasked with riding to protect teammate Roger Hammond, but rode for themselves instead).
“All I know is that the phone doesn’t ring very often in the months of September to November anyway, and for me psychologically that wasn’t good, I didn’t like that,” he says. “I didn’t handle that well at all, even with the knowledge that there would be a team the year afterwards.”
Herety’s other obsession is music; glance at his social media channels and you’d think you were looking at a record store manager with a passing interest in bikes. He can’t sing, can’t dance, and “won’t now go and suddenly start a country and western band”, but pro cycling does have its parallels. The highs, the lows, the travelling show, and the life on the road.
“I can see if a gig has gone well and you’re travelling to the next one, you’re much more able to deal with something that happens if you’ve had a good day,” he says. “That’s the same with us. No question. The mind, the psychology of it all is so, so strong. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last 15 years. When you’ve won, and you’re driving back, it doesn’t matter how bad the traffic is … no-one gives a shit. You’ve won.
“If you haven’t won – or worse if you’ve come second and you should have won – then all those little things that go wrong are magnified, and you’re out of control. I have to try really hard now to keep that thing in check … which almost makes it worse.”
We wouldn’t be the first to ask Herety for JLT-Condor’s greatest hits. That particular compilation box set would likely include the Tour of Normandy, two Tours of Korea, the Rás, and a stage of the Herald Sun Tour. There are riders, too: Zak Dempster, Kristian House, Hugh Carthy, Chris Lawless, Luke Rowe, Harry Tanfield, Conor Dunne, Steve Williams, not to mention Olympic medallists Ed Clancy and Chris Newton, plus WorldTour DS Tom Southam and coach Tim Kennaugh.
“Some people have asked me for the highlights, and I say something glib like ‘there are many’. You don’t want to upset anybody — you end up trying to sanitise an answer,” Herety says. “In all honesty, I’ve not thought properly. The ones that spring to mind are fairly obvious.”
Instead, Herety likes to remember the ones that made him laugh (too many to write down) and the one that made him cry: when Kristian House won the 2009 British national championships from a three-man break that chased down Chris Froome on the line.
“Even reciting it to you, I can feel those emotions coming back up, which is quite weird,” Herety says. “It’s always the same on race radio, ‘200m to go, sprint is launched’ and then it goes silent. You think, ‘well who the hell has won?’ We knew that if we wound the window down we could hear Hugh Porter on the PA system commentating.
“I remember listening, desperate that we’d get bronze, thinking, ‘he’s got to beat one of them in the break’. And then bloody hell, he ends up winning it.
“I got straight on the phone to Grant [Young] at Condor — it went to voicemail. Then I phoned [Rapha founder] Simon Mottram — same thing, voicemail. And I realised after sending those two messages that I was blubbering, I was actually crying, just saying ‘we won, we won, we won!’ And then it was like, ‘bloody hell John, get a grip of yerself, mate’.”
Reinvention is nothing new to the former chef – “people ask me whether I’ll go back to catering… that was 45 years ago! I wouldn’t know how to turn on half the modern equipment!” – even if he won’t rule out running a smaller club team next season.
Nevertheless he’ll miss driving up and down the M6 from town centre criterium to town centre criterium, and rue the slow dispersal of the bikes, the campervan, the turbos, the spares, the drinks coolers and all the ‘stuff’ that makes up the physical trace of a cycling team.
Above all, the biggest loss is the human capital: the relationships, the camaraderie, the good name, and those special moments that make up the real beating heart of a cycling team.
“How will I take it? I don’t know to be honest. It’s too early to say,” he says. “The knowledge that we’ve built up over the years — it won’t disappear if we get another team, but all that knowledge, it’s going to go to waste now.
“That’s pretty heartbreaking, that. That’s what I’m most disappointed about. That’s what’s gonna hurt the most.”
About the author
Richard Abraham is a freelance writer who previous worked as an editor at Rouleur magazine and features editor at Cycling Weekly. He has reported on major professional races and covered two Olympic Games. Off the bike he enjoys brewing his own coffee, baking his own bread, growing his own food, and travelling whenever possible.
You can follow him at Twitter.