(This interview by Charlie Mulraine was originally post on The Gear Changer)
Andy putting the 2020 kit through its paces. Photo credit: Orlagh Malone Gardner
As with many elite and professional athletes, you assume sport and keeping active has always been a part of their life. Therefore, when SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling rider Andy Turner tells you that he was the kid in the class who “skipped PE” and that he only took up cycling “on a bit of a whim”, it’s genuinely surprising.
In fact, there were times during the interview when I thought ‘is he pulling my leg about this?’ Turner has a dry sense of humour and an underlying wit that weaves in and out of his dialogue. His teammates will be able to confirm this but I imagine group ride conversation is far from ordinary with Turner in the bunch.
He clearly likes an impossible challenge, from wanting to become a professional cyclist to then combining this goal with a degree. All of this whilst at the same time playing a key role in the creation of a new Continental team when the previous Elite team sponsor pulled out.
In this extended interview, Turner talks about his route into the sport, how seeing riders like Rory Townsend and Max Stedman combine cycling with University proved to him it was possible and on his joint role as rider and Partnerships Manager for the team.
TGC: How are you approaching training at the moment Andy?
AT: I’m still not training properly as such, just Zwift racing and getting back in to some longer rides again. Trying to look after the head as well.
TGC: It can’t be easy not having a fixed calendar to aim for.
AT: Yeah, I just think doing almost a year-long of structured or winter training is almost a guaranteed way of burning out.
TGC: At least you can celebrate now as you’ve finished your degree.
AT: Yes, I got my results back from my dissertation this morning.
“…even if a training session didn’t go well, there was a feeling of ‘everything not going well’.”
TGC: What did you get?
AT: Ninety percent on that. I think that’s a first overall for my degree now in Sport and Exercise Science.
TGC: Congratulations! Had you combined the degree with racing for KTM UK, as the team was called back then?
AT: Yes, for my first year at University I was with KTM, so still fully amateur. Each year I’ve progressed, whether it’s getting more powerful, better endurance or getting a bit more tactically astute. Since going to Uni, it’s kept progressing at a similar level without the mental pressure.
TGC: How were you feeling before and what changed?
AT: Before, if there was injury or illness or even if a training session didn’t go well, there was a feeling of ‘everything not going well’ because there wasn’t anything else happening as I was just riding full time for about four years.
“Almost on a bit of a whim, I thought ‘sod it, I’ll give being a professional cyclist a go’.”
Andy battling the elements during the Betty Pharoah Memorial. Photo credit: Howard Holdberg
TGC: That must have been a tough gig as no doubt there isn’t any money at that level?
AT: No, I’d been working beforehand, saving up to fund the cycling, and fortunately still able to live at home.
TGC: It sounds like a lot of young riders have to do the same thing as they try and make it in the sport.
AT: When I decided on going to Uni, I chose to stay at home because with a lot of the accommodation it’s difficult to bring bikes. They often wouldn’t even let you have a turbo trainer.
“I was ninety two kilos with a threshold of 250 watts. I was the one who skipped PE all the time.”
TGC: When did you decide you were going to give racing a proper go?
AT: After A levels, I wanted a break from education as I didn’t enjoy my time in secondary school and wanted to be out of that environment for a bit. Almost on a bit of a whim, I thought ‘sod it, I’ll give being a professional cyclist a go’.
TGC: I’m guessing there must have been some signs you had some talent?
AT: No, no, no. I was ninety two kilos with a threshold of 250 watts. I was the one who skipped PE all the time.
“It did help seeing Rory Townsend and Max Stedman who were performing well and doing degrees…it gives you the backing and belief that you can do it too.”
TGC: What did people think when you came out with this ambition?
AT: That there was absolutely no chance! My parents have never pushed me to do anything but have always supported me in what I want to do.
TGC: Did you have full belief in yourself to make it happen?
AT: I’m not a hundred percent sure really because I’ve never really hit a point where I’ve thought I was really going to go forward. There was always that self-critical side of things, even now if I win a race I’m still asking myself ‘could I have done this better?’ or ‘did it happen because of luck?’. The aim of being a cyclist was just to give something different a go, to try a different challenge. I had years of not getting as far as I’d like to, then I threw Uni into the mix as a new challenge once I’d got a better idea of what I wanted to do. It did help, before deciding to go to Uni, seeing Rory Townsend and Max Stedman who were performing well and doing degrees. Seeing someone else do it gives you the backing and belief that you can do it too.
TGC: What career goals did you formulate?
AT: Initially, during A levels, I was looking at law or something similar that would earn money but then I didn’t enjoy the work experience in that field. The idea of a desk job has gone out of my head completely. I guess through racing and becoming a bit obsessive about ways to improve my riding, looking at physiology, nutrition, psychology, it then seemed like doing a degree in that field would be a good idea.
“I got very interested in relative energy deficiency in sport. So now, I eat a lot more but I weigh less and I just feel much better on the bike.”
TGC: When did you see the signs in your own performance that suggested becoming a professional cyclist wasn’t a crackpot idea?
AT: The definition of a professional cyclist is a funny one, as a lot of the UK UCI riders aren’t paid a living wage so, by definition, it’s not professional really. The general regard is if you’re at Pro Continental or World Tour level, where there are minimum salary levels, it’s definitely professional. I see myself more as a glorified amateur, although I still conduct myself in a professional manner.
Andy having a moment in the sun during the Bourne CiCLE Classic. Photo credit: Craig Zadoroznyj
Getting to UCI level racing, it’s been less about having set goals as such but taking it as it comes and trying to better each year. When I started Uni that year, I got my first National B Road Race win and started finishing the National As rather than getting dropped in them. And then last year, it was progressing a bit more. I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be in the Prems at the start of the year but then I changed coach in the summer and that seemed to agree with me and then got a top five in a National A and a trip to the podium in a UCI.1 race.
TGC: Who did you change to?
AT: A guy called Tom Kirk. He has a PhD in Sports and Exercise Sciences and I just thought switching to someone who has a bit more of the scientific side of coaching would benefit me.
TGC: Does that better suit your personality? Seeing the evidence?
AT: Yes, a genuine scientific approach behind it, someone who’s interested in new training methods and nutritional strategies and implementing them together. Looking at it as the whole picture. I got very interested in relative energy deficiency in sport after doing a study with Nicky Keay. I had a tinker around with my eating, just slowly increasing what I eat through the course of about a year and a half. So now I eat a lot more but I weigh less and I just feel much better on the bike.
“For a couple of years prior to that I was getting minor sponsorships…So, rather than selling myself, it was having the idea of a UCI team to sell to the sponsors.”
TGC: Are you working as a part time coach as well?
AT: Yes, when I started my degree, I thought it would give me a bit of qualification to start coaching people on a smaller scale. Initially, that was working with a couple of people locally. Being able to ride with them gives a better way of coaching, a more personalised way. By doing so, you can see their technique, how they are riding in the wheels, and how they are expending energy. Hopefully, I will be getting an interview soon with a cycling technology and training plan business, which is launching a coaching service, and it’s sounding like there should be space for me to start working with them.
TGC: Will you do this alongside your racing with SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling?
AT: Yeah, I’ll be doing it alongside the racing. I was doing a full-time degree, whilst training fifteen to twenty hours a week, and I’ve managed to come out of that with a first so I think with a job in a field I enjoy working in, and have been doing already, it should be manageable.
TGC: SwiftCarbon Pro was born out of the ashes of KTM. How did that happen?
AT: I’ve got quite a lot of the sponsors on board for the new team. During the first year, the funding side of things was sorted out by the Team Owner, Paul Lamb, and it is still very much his team. Paul does all the UCI contract stuff and getting the licence sorted and organising for racers. I have just been searching for sponsors and selling the idea of the team to them.
Andy at the Bourne CiCLE Classic. Photo credit: Craig Zadoroznyj
“If you are going to promote things and ask people to part with their money for it you should be genuine and honest with it.”
TGC: How did you approach that challenge?
AT: For a couple of years prior to that I was getting minor sponsorships, discounts off stuff and promoting things. Based on the feedback from those sponsors I was doing it quite well. So, rather than selling myself, it was having the idea of a UCI team to sell to the sponsors. This meant working out what they were looking for from a partnership and how we could work with them to achieve this. This year every sponsor seems really committed to working with us.
TGC: Did you go to Paul Lamb, the team owner, or did he come to you regarding continuing with the team?
AT: Paul let me know KTM were pulling out and said he was on the hunt for sponsors. I’m quite picky about who we work with, I don’t want to use anything that would be a disadvantage. I don’t publicize things if I don’t think they’re any good. If you are going to promote things and ask people to part with their money for it you should be genuine and honest with it. Swift came to mind after seeing their bikes being ridden by the NFTO pros while I was racing with the Development Squad. I got in touch with them when I saw they would be at the Cycle Show. We had a chat and worked out what they were looking for. It was very late in the day getting all the UCI stuff registered but then we had the team sorted with a title sponsor. Then it was a case of adding to that with other sponsors.
“I think it’s accepting that as a rider for a team, you’re not just employed by them to race a bike.”
TGC: Do you feel a sense of pride from doing this?
AT: Yes, I definitely do. If I had an offer from another UCI team to ride for them, I wouldn’t want to. It would be leaving a team I think I have helped fairly significantly in building up.
TGC: What skillset have you got to make selling work?
AT: I think it’s accepting that as a rider for a team, you’re not just employed by them to race a bike, although obviously that’s part of it. The picture of someone winning a bike race isn’t automatically going to sell bikes. It might make people follow the rider or team’s social media and form an affinity with them. It’s empathising with the sponsors and understanding where they’re coming from as well. A business’s goal is to make money and making a return on investment in cycling is difficult. It needs creativity.
“I had a phone call come up about an hour in to the second stage and it completely froze the software!”
With Swift, for example, it was informing them that the investment of having a team with a title sponsorship would improve sales of bikes. Yes, it was about the team getting the results that we did, but it also involved the riders and team publicizing the sponsors in a way that makes people want to buy the bikes. It’s coming up with creative strategies for that. Swift are a direct to brand bike company and so we worked with them to get some partner stores in the UK. One of them, local to me in Hereford, is run and owned by one of the previous mechanics of NFTO. This enables people to demo the bike and ride it themselves before deciding to buy it. A big part of Swift’s marketing is ‘how the bike rides’. Both Paul and Pete Williams have been working with me to set up these partner stores so people can ride the bikes and see how they feel.
TGC: Being able to bring sponsors to the team must increase your value as a rider?
AT: That’s something that Swift like about a couple of the riders on the team. Will Bjergfelt was a UCI rider who then nearly lost his leg but he’s still racing UCI level on the road. There’s me coming from never really exercising as a junior to working through the ranks to becoming professional. They certainly like stories like that. Ultimately, I want to be selected on merit. It’s why I haven’t publicized much that I do get sponsorship for the team because I don’t want to be seen to be riding for them because of that.
Showing off the new 2020 SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling team kit. Photo credit: Orlagh Malone Gardner
TGC: With COVID, have you had to create a new marketing strategy to give sponsors visibility?
AT: Keeping up with the promotional side of things on social media is easy enough but you haven’t got the races being publicized to send people to the social media pages. Zwift racing is something we’ve been trying to embrace but cycling still has quite an ‘old school’ mentality towards it and there are still people who will ridicule you on Twitter for doing it. We had a Zwift race this weekend, the Joe Martin Virtual, but unfortunately we had technical difficulties. I had a phone call come up about an hour in to the second stage and it completely froze the software. I turned off Zwift but you can’t re-join an event! There’ll be more of those races in the future. We’ve also come up with different ideas like strapping a GoPro on to the bike and doing a time lapse of a technical descent to show how the bike handles. We’ve also reached out to some local photographers to do photo shoots for Swift which gives the sponsors visibility.
“If you look at Italy, Belgium and France it’s a celebrity sport there. Whereas in the UK, it’s seen as people getting in the way on the road.”
TGC: Do the ‘get to know the rider’ interviews engage the fans work well?
AT: It sounds like they do. I quite like a more creative take on things but the debate following the post I did for the British Continental, suggested most people didn’t mind about the production quality of social media, it was more about the content. My reverse set back seat post seems to get some interest! It really gets on the nerves on wannabe bike fitters!
TGC: I bet you have some thoughts on what should change in the sport?
AT: There are always difficult sides to this argument. It’s like Zwift racing, which is all about power and inputted weight. The British National Zwift Champs works better when everyone is on the same trainer and weighed just before the event. Interestingly, the majority of competitors on the day had a different weight from their home weight. In terms of road racing, some organisers say BC make it difficult for them whilst others say it’s not too bad and it’s local councils that make it more difficult. It probably depends which race it is. I think because we haven’t got an engrained cultural cycling side of things, it’s just going to be different. If you look at Italy, Belgium and France it’s a celebrity sport there. Whereas in the UK, it’s seen as people getting in the way on the road.
TGC: I suppose cycling has always been a sport that’s never been totally fashionable.
AT: Yes, and it’s also a bit untrustworthy of newcomers. When I started riding, because I was a larger guy my nickname was ‘fat boy’. Which for some people might make them stop riding but for me it made me think ‘well, I’ll get lighter and more powerful and then I’ll show you!’. It can be difficult for people to come into the sport. Women out on rides can get objectified and it’s just put down as ‘friendly banter’. People of colour or from minorities come and ride a bike and they don’t see anyone who looks like them.
“Seeing people achieve things, where you can see yourself in them, is going to be part of what motivates you to keep doing it.”
TGC: I saw the Black Cyclists Network have now formed an amateur race team.
AT: Part of the reason I looked at cycling as something I could possibly do, was Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are about the same height as me. So, if cycling was just for people who are five foot four, I wouldn’t probably have given it a second look. Seeing people achieve things, where you can see yourself in them, is going to be part of what motivates you to keep doing it. So, if you’re from a minority group and you look at cycling you could think ‘I don’t think I’m going to fit in there, I can’t see anyone doing well who looks like me’.
TGC: Or it’s left to that outlier who sticks two fingers up and says they are going to prove everyone wrong but that cuts a huge swathe of other riders who could make it in the sport or just simply enjoy riding a bike.
AT: Even in nonracing environments, you show up with the wrong length socks you get ridiculed. If you’re wearing Castelli bibs and a Rapha jersey some people will mock you or if you’re wearing Aldi cycling kit. I will wear the ‘matchy matchy’ sometimes but other times I’ll go out with socks with red and green and blue palm trees all over them with fluro yellow shoes and a bar bag.
TGC: Yes but you can get away with it because you’ll just burn everyone off!
AT: It’s quite fun dropping people on climbs with a handlebar bag but I do despair of cycling sometimes.
TGC: What are your ambitions for the next couple of years?
AT: I’ve stopped being coached at the moment but once racing is confirmed I’ll restart that. With the Commonwealth Games being in 2022 in Birmingham, I’ve got enough Scottish ancestry (both parents are Scottish born) that if I’m doing well enough who knows, maybe I could get into the road race. It’s just something I’d like to do. There’s a lot less money needed to send someone to travel, it’s probably more likely they’d send people. This year, the goal was selection for Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain, as last year I was first reserve. They fall into a nice time of year. The period between these races is when I get my worst hay fever and I’m just struggling outside. Spring and September, this is when I get into my swing properly. Last year, on the weekend of those races were my best performances on the bike. I have a track record for tapering for an event!
The GC would like to thank Andy for sharing his insights and experiences as a rider.
We wish him and SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling every success for the future. If you would like to know more about the race team please visit their website swiftcarbonprocycling.co.uk