Big-time cycling took joy away

Last updated 15:02 26/07/2012
Paul Jennings
SPEED FIEND: Paul Jennings races on the track back in the day.

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The Tour de France, Tasman cycle trail and the Olympics have all been in the news lately.

Richmond’s Paul Jennings is one person who has good knowledge of all three. Paul is a member of the Tasman Great Taste Cycle Trail Trust and has competed for Great Britain in track cycling at the Olympics.

Paul also rode against many of the big names from the Tour de France including Lance Armstrong and then followed the Tour for a number of years as a marketing manager for cycle helmet manufacturer Giro.

The Leader  talked to Paul this week about bikes, tours, Olympics and cycle trails.

How did you become interested in cycling?
It started when I was about 14 in Preston in England with the usual cycling to school with your mates and then I started to do the odd race with Ribble Valley Cycle Club back in the late 80s with pink and yellow day-glo stripes on our tops. I got quite good, quite quick, which kept me interested, which made me think ‘this must be my thing’. I went to the Junior Worlds in 1990 and 1991.
They were in Colorado in 1991 so we were training at altitude and when I came back to England I won about four national titles and got selected for the team pursuit Olympics the following year. I was only 19 when I went to the Olympics in Barcelona.

That’s young.
Yes, I was probably too young to get what was going on.
We finished fifth and got a new British record. It was fun to start with and then about a week before it got really scary. I suddenly realised we were at the Olympics and the whole world was watching. I remember one day we were sitting having dinner in the Olympic Village and the Dream Team came in and there was Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and the reality of it all dawned on me – it was quite intimidating.

What happened after the Olympics?
After that I was on the national squad and we got to do a lot of the tours in the spring and early summer. We used to travel around a lot with the US team which had Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie who went on to have fantastic careers. Then we’d go back to the track once the championships started so it was interesting.

How did you go on the tours?
No good. I was too big and I couldn’t climb. We did a lot of races in Belgium and Holland where it was windy and flat which suited me but once we got into the big hills with hour long climbs I battled.

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Any highlights apart from the Olympics?
Yes. I trained with Chris Boardman for the world hour record in 1993 which is how many laps you can do in an hour. Chris raced against a guy called Graeme Obree – there was a film made about him The Flying Scotsman – and he got the record. That was a lot of fun. I also did the 100km team time trial at the Commonwealth Games in Canada and got a silver medal.

And after that?
I had a car crash four weeks before the Olympics in Atlanta and hurt my back so had to pull out. I think I was already losing a bit of interest anyway so that was the end of my cycling. To start with you get into cycling because you are with your mates and it’s fun but the better you get the fewer of your mates want to ride with you and in the end you are riding for six hours on your own looking at a heart rate monitor and you think ‘this is not why I got into it’. Unless you have a real drive to succeed you can’t keep going. So I got into mountainbiking big time and started working for Giro in a sports marketing role. I lived in the South of France and did all the professional contracts handing out helmets to all the riders. I knew a lot of them so it helped. It was fun because I got to go to all the races and didn’t have to train and race. But then they moved all the production out to China and the office to Santa Cruz so I left.

Do you still ride?
Yes, I love cycling now as much as I used to, especially here in Nelson where there are so many opportunities. In England there’s so much pressure on green space that there’s always conflict between walkers, farmers, horse riders and mountainbikers. There’s always someone telling you that you shouldn’t be here.

What’s your favourite track?
The Codgers network in Nelson. That’s partly because you can be there in half an hour and they are world class trails. If they were on top of the French Alps people would be raving about them but because they are so local you lose sight of how well made they are and how well they link. If you have an hour and half there’s probably nowhere in the world that’s a better place to go riding. The Coppermine is great too if you have three hours.

Who is your favourite cyclist?
At the moment it’s Brad Wiggins, without a doubt. Of all time, it would be one of the old guys like Eddy Merckx. Those guys raced everything to win, rode hard and rode in woolly shorts in the snow. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to cycling and they came from an era when it was man-on-man and riding as hard as you can with no thought for tomorrow. Today it’s all team’s racing and very scientific.

If you weren’t a cyclist, what sport would you like to do?
Basketball but I didn’t grow tall enough. I played at school and university and we were pretty good until we started to play the men’s teams and the players were six-eight and six-nine. I like motorsport too but don’t have the money. I love the MotoGP and Formula 1.

Sounds like you’re a speed fiend? Track cycling, motor sport.
I am to a degree. Speed’s alright as long as you don’t think about it. It’s like when you are mountainbiking and you are ripping down a hill. It’s fine until you think ‘if I came off here that’d hurt’ and then you slow down.

Any other pastimes?
Sadly it’s either Sky Sport or PlayStation. We have a team of 12 of us who play GT online every Thursday. I have the steering wheel and everything. It’s super realistic. My wife just shakes her head and says ‘what are you doing?’
Hmmm, I’m with her on that. Finally, do you think the Tasman Cycle Trail will be a success especially with so many of them coming on stream?
Yes, I think there will be 19 of the trails around the country so that’s a lot but there are only a limited number of the Great Rides that are completely focused on recreation like Tasman. And then when you look at what the Tasman trail has got – the sea, the mountains, Spooners Tunnel and it goes from Nelson Airport to the Abel Tasman Park – it has a lot of unique features that really make it special. It’s also a loop, which not many of them are, so you don’t have issues with shuttles and getting back to Nelson. The economic, cultural and social benefits for everyone will be great.

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