Mid Devon Cycling Club enjoys a proud history of uncovering talent
IT ALL STARTED one Sunday morning in 1930, when three young cyclists were tackling the climb out of Chudleigh and over Haldon. They were on their way, as usual, to join a run organised by the Exeter Wheelers.
"Why can't we form a club in Newton Abbot and save us from this hill every week?" asked one of the straining riders.
It's the height of irony that the Mid-Devon CC, which continues to produce more talented climbers than almost any club in the country, was founded to avoid going over a hill.
When the Tour of Britain recently finished a week of spectacular action, watched by millions along the road and on TV, the 'Mid-Devon' had three riders among the 76 survivors.
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Veteran Team Sky pro Jeremy Hunt had worked in his trusted 'domestique' role to help then-world champion Mark Cavendish to three stage victories.
Ianto Barker of Team UK Youth finished in 21st place after a typically gutsy effort against some of the best riders in the world.
Oh, and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke won the whole shebang.
A week later Locke astonished the cycling world by finishing only five seconds behind Belgian star Philippe Gilbert, when he lifted the world road race championship in Holland over a distance 25 miles further than Locke had ever raced before.
He had already agreed terms for a lucrative two-year contract with Team Sky.
Hunt will soon retire after a distinguished 18-year international career.
Yet the Mid-Devon club will still have at least six of its graduates riding professionally in 2013. It may be more.
It is an extraordinary achievement by any standards, far outstripping clubs, nationally and in the South-West, which have bigger memberships and larger catchment areas.
Perhaps more remarkably, it is also carrying on a proud tradition which has lasted, in the gold-red-and-black colours, for more than 50 of its 82-year history.
The Mid-Devon was producing top-class riders on a regular basis long before the National Lottery started pumping millions into GB Cycling or Rupert Murdoch did the same for Team Sky.
Even at regional, senior and junior levels, 2012 has proved to be one of the best years in its history.
And all the signs are that another generation of highly-talented young riders is about to 'follow the wheels' of their predecessors.
So what is it about the Mid-Devon?
Andrew Perkins, who 'retired' more than 20 years ago but has now returned to ride as well as ever and become club chairman, believes he knows some of the answers.
"There is such a wealth of experience, and there are so many good people around, especially on club training runs, that being good isn't an aspirational thing – it's normal," he said.
"It means that, when you go out on the racing circuit, you're not fazed by it.
"And it's been like that for as long as anyone can remember.
"A few of us had dinner the other night with Jeremy Hunt, who's ridden for some of the biggest teams and in all the best races in the world, and he remembered training with the club as a teenager.
"He said 'As a junior, your race on a Sunday was usually easier than the chain-gang ride in the week'
"We used to call it the 'Colin Lewis School Of Hard Knocks'."
The name of Lewis, who joined the club as a cigarette-smoking lad in 1960 and went on to ride in the Olympic Games, two Tours de France and win two National Senior road race titles, has become almost synonymous with the name 'Mid-Devon'.
Lewis, who turned pro, and quarry worker Roy Hopkins, who never did, carried the flag for the club during extraordinarily long and successful careers.
They also set standards, especially in training, that inspired scores of riders to try and imitate them.
Lewis is now 70, but still rides like a man 30 years younger. Hopkins is 80 – he can still turn a pedal, and only a series of painful accidents prevents him from doing it as often as he would like.
It was Lewis, more than anyone, who would act as 'headmaster' of the all-important weekend training runs, looking out for budding talents and then testing them, physically and mentally.
"You either had the mettle, or you didn't – or at least that's how it felt," said Perkins, who reached GB international standard as a junior.
The testing would come, of course, over some of the toughest terrain in the country.
Training rides could last for a hundred miles, Dartmoor was always waiting at some stage and every run would end with a sprint finish, aimed at well-known '30mph' signs around the area.
It was undeniably hard, but it produced hard riders, scores of them.
And behind the riders was a team of officials, led by Ken Robertson, who organised more races and more time-trials than any club in the region.
Robertson was, and still is, a one-man organising committee.
Although he still rides competitively at the age of 74, having shrugged off a heart operation he regarded as an annoying interruption to his busy life, Robertson's greatest contribution to the Mid-Devon club has been off the bike.
He has filled almost every post worth the name, right up to national level, and few events have taken place around the South-West over the last half-century, organised by the Mid-Devon or not, without his participation or his hand upon them.
In 2007, at an age when most people would be thinking of winding things down a little, Robertson threw himself into organising the Dartmoor Classic cyclo-sportive, a marathon allcomers' ride which has become one of the biggest and best events of its kind in the UK.
In June 2013 it will have a record field of 3,000 riders, supported by a small army of Robertson-inspired 'volunteers', and it now generates income which allows the Mid-Devon club to tackle projects and back its best riders as never before.
Ron Keegan, Liverpool-born-and-bred, raced for years in the North of England before moving to Torquay in the 1970s, joining the Mid-Devon and serving as a multi-race promoter.
He's on the Classic committee and says: "When Jon Locke was riding (UK elite) Premier Calendar races as an amateur a few years ago, we were able to give him £1,000 to help with entry fees, travelling and accommodation expenses.
"Who knows what might have happened to Jon if he hadn't had that kind of backing at the right time?"
Keegan points out: "Long before I was involved, there seems to have been a spirit of survival around the club.
"It brought it through the last war, when most of the men were away fighting and a group of school-kids basically kept the club going.
"It's always been down to the passion of the personalities involved.
"Fortunately, down the years the club has had men like Bill Best, Harold Broom, Bert Northway, Charlie Crosscombe, Ken Robertson, Richard Larkin and many more – all dynamic in their own way.
"Strong people who have been prepared to step up to the plate – it always comes down to that in the end.
"And now we have people like Andy Perkins and Tony Watson, at the top of the game in their careers but still prepared to give up so much to push the club forward."
It was that sort of drive that saw the Mid-Devon organise a two-day race in the mid-1980s, starting as the Launa Windows Two-Day, which eventually became one of the most prestigious in the country.
When club stalwart Andrew Parker became chairman in 2004 – he's now regional events secretary for British Cycling – he was, at 31, the youngest ever to hold the post.
Jake Durant, from Chudleigh Knighton, took on the road racing secretaryship when he was only 16.
Membership of the Mid-Devon is at an all-time high of more than 260.
It's not unusual for 75 riders to be out on Sundays, split into three groups of varying ability. An increasing number of them are women.
There are road racing, time trial, cyclo-cross and mountain bike sections and, importantly, the popular Abbrook Aces junior group, which meets every Saturday morning at the club's Kingsteignton HQ.
It's all backed by a team of qualified coaches to match.
One of them, Mark Dolan, won GB international honours as a Mid-Devon rider in the 1980s.
"We get 40-50 kids along to the Aces, and maybe two of them a year will turn out to be really good," said Perkins.
"It doesn't mean we don't look after all the others, but I think what we have got is the ability to nurture talent.
"Everybody is willing to support the people who are doing well, to encourage them to the next level.
"We have also attracted riders from outside this area in recent years – Jon Locke's family lives in Plymouth – but they don't come for the money, and it's certainly not flashed about.
"They seek out the club because of its reputation.
"Anyway, we only give out expenses for National level events."
Solicitor Perkins, now 42, will be aiming at national veterans' honours next season, but he is just as excited about his much younger clubmates.
Locke, Barker, Brennan Townshend, Seb Baylis, Hunt's younger brother Josh, Pete Vincent, Rob Smail and Ella Hopkins could all be riding for professional teams next season.
And they are already looking over their shoulders.
The next generation, teenagers like Teignmouth brothers Will and Joel Kelly, are showing the potential to be the next Lewis, Hopkins, Hunt, Barker or Tiernan-Locke.