It’s early morning. Race day. Outside a village community centre, surrounded by Essex countryside, the crunch of gravel signals the first cars arriving. As bikes are set up and the queue for coffee builds, in the still-quiet race control a slight figure sits hunched over, pinning race numbers on a jersey. The comparative stillness of his actions at odds to what will shortly unfold as he fights to take the break clear from the chasing main field over a fast and rolling course.
Chatting post-race and learning that he first rode competitively in the summer of 1996 at the age of 7, it was perhaps inevitable that Steve Guymer would end up racing bikes. ‘I was born into a cycling family. My father has been a cyclist since he was 13 and I attended my first cycle race at only two weeks old.’ And competing from such an early age has provided Guymer with ample time to view the occasionally unpredictable nature of his sport with a measured insightfulness.
Enjoying a range of disciplines throughout his early teenage years and with the belief that this ‘ride anything’ attitude would help develop the necessary skills to improve as a competitor, he finally made the decision to focus on the road. But that’s not to say it was an easy path to follow. At that time, before cycling had truly hit the headlines with the GB Squad dominating the track and Wiggins taking his Tour victory, for a lad growing up in the northeast town of Beverley to favour racing his bike over the usual football or rugby marked him out as different. ‘I don’t have fond memories of school,’ Guymer simply states before adding, ‘My classmates didn’t really understand the sport.’
Nevertheless he still dreamed of one day becoming a professional cyclist and, as British Cycling had just introduced the U23 Academy, Guymer felt this wasn’t an unrealistic prospect. Growing up with cycling heroes such as Merckx, Indurain and Pantani, it was Lance Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999 – long before his fall from grace – that particularly impressed the young Guymer. ‘I found it inspiring to see this guy come back from cancer and win the Tour.’
Understanding that his sport has suffered from past associations with drug cheats, Guymer now believes cycling is riding the crest of a wave in terms of popularity with both the domestic and international race scene benefiting from this increased interest. And even though current professionals such as Alberto Contador who Guymer admires for his panache and race resilience have not been free from accusations of impropriety, he still believes the sport has turned a corner. ‘Cycling still has its problems and may well continue to do so but I don’t think it’s ever been as clean or transparent.’
It was in the late 90s that Guymer’s guile and racecraft began to reap bigger and better results. After finishing third to Team Sky’s Ben Swift in the 1997 BSCA International Youth Tour he returned to the same event two years later – a 5 stage race held over three days – to take the overall victory and the yellow jersey; beating another current Sky rider, Ian Stannard, in the process
With the wins mounting and his domestic profile on the rise, Guymer felt a move to the Continent would benefit his development and the following 2000 season saw him travelling to Holland to compete in stage races as a youthful 12 year old. Looking back on these experiences, he understands Team Sky’s seemingly obsessional focus on details. ‘For the duration of the race you’re in a bubble and nothing else really matters,’ Guymer recollects. ‘Everything you do is centred on the next day and the next stage. As a rider you are constantly thinking: what and when am I going to eat, do I need to wash my kit, wash my bike, will I get a good night’s sleep? Team Sky is correct in working on all their marginal gains as they really do add up.’
These stage races also underlined subtle differences in racing style. ‘In one day races you can leave everything on the road because you know you can rest once you’ve finished,’ Guymer explains. ‘Stage races need to be ridden slightly differently. You still ride hard but it’s important to also have the following stage on your mind so you don’t burn all your matches. That’s why teammates are invaluable. You help each other to conserve energy and keep morale high.’
Embracing a full racing calendar over the following years, Guymer enrolled on a degree programme in Sports Rehabilitation at the University of Hull in 2006 before riding for a Dutch team based in Eindhoven the following year with support from the Rayner Fund. Racing mainly criteriums in Holland and kermesses in Belgium, he competed against the likes of Johnny Hoogerland and Chris Froome – at that time still riding for Kenya – before signing for the Avila Rojas cycling team based in Granada. A highly-regarded team with a strong Spanish fan base, Guymer enjoyed the attention the team received when out training but, in hindsight, he now realises that his comparative young age of 19 meant he didn’t get the opportunity to race as often as he’d hoped and the season failed to deliver on his expectations.
Continuing to meet with racing success throughout his time at university, a full-time ride with Raleigh Avanti followed in 2010 but even though he was consistently achieving top 5 finishes and winning races, Guymer found the professional scene could be disheartening. ‘Much as I felt I was doing well – improving and getting decent results – I was unable to get a ride on one of the bigger teams of the time.’ So in 2011, after winning a stage of the Nigel Meason 2 day National B road race, he accepted an offer to work as a guide for a cycle tour company based in France. Ever the pragmatist, Guymer understands the motivation behind the change in direction. ‘I knew I wouldn’t be racing but at least I was riding my bike and getting paid for it.’
Discovering he enjoyed helping to encourage and motivate the clients he guided on the tours, Guymer found a sense of satisfaction in the busy days. ‘My role was extremely varied,’ he explains, ‘from the early morning ride preparation through to evening sports massages.’ And when a crash and subsequent broken collarbone wrote off his 2012 season, he decided to use the enforced break from riding to start his own company, Palmarès, with a view to offering Yorkshire-based cycling training camps. ‘After coming home from the Alps, rather than sit and wallow I was inspired to set up on my own and show people that we have wonderful cycling roads right here in the UK.’
Aiming to provide a personalised client experience, Palmarès ran its first corporate cycle sportive for three multi-national companies in 2014; the event following an extensive period of preparation that initially began with boardroom meetings to pitch the concept. Looking back on the route design and reconnaissance, Guymer oversaw all of the meticulous planning that such events demand. ‘No stone was unturned: we had medical assistance, mechanical assistance, marshals, drivers, route markers and on-the-bike support.’
Softly spoken in person and without the physical bulk of some riders, when first meeting Guymer it’s easy to make the assumption that he would favour races with a hillier profile where his light weight and climbing prowess would offer an advantage. But as his fellow competitors have all too often discovered, when the opportunity presents itself he has the power and nerve to push the sprinters to the line. Tactically astute, Guymer starts each race with an idea of the way it will unfold but often has to make instinctive decisions. ‘Races at my level are very hard to control because most people ride to their own agenda and not as a team. That’s why the races are so competitive; everyone wants to win.’ Favouring a hard race or hill-top finish where the stronger riders can control the pace, Guymer contrasts the chaotic peloton with the focus of a break. ‘In Belgium it can feel like riding the crest of a wave as one attack after another goes and comes back until either you can’t take anymore or you cross the line. In the UK it isn’t always as smooth. There can be lots of pushing, shoving, shouting and swearing. But when a break does form ahead of the bunch and everyone’s keen to get their heads down and work together – taking their turn at the front and pedalling in unison – then it has an almost organic quality.’
Considering his experiences on the Continent, Guymer’s under no illusions regarding the level of competitiveness and feels the apparently relaxed attitude and carnival race-day atmosphere actually belies the intense rivalry and aggressive riding styles. With knowledgeable and enthusiastic local support, strong fields make for close races where any number of riders stand a good chance of a win. As Guymer discovered, ‘It’s full gas from the gun. Everyone wants the same thing – a pro contract – so they are willing to ride themselves into the ground to get a result.’ Guymer compares this to the UK scene where the competitors are categorised rather than the races and the attacks tend to be made by the same handful of stronger riders. ‘On the Continent,’ he explains, ‘you are either elite – with or without contract – or U23 and everyone on the start line has to be pretty good otherwise they might as well save their money and stay at home.’ And despite rising to the challenge of this highly competitive racing scene, Guymer found he had little support in terms of coaching and the lows sometimes outweighed the positive aspects of racing abroad. Initially living in a hotel, he feels few people understand the challenges of making a career of cycling and assume young riders enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. ‘I had my whole life in that room: two bikes, clothes, rollers, George Foreman Grill, and a clotheshorse.’
Nevertheless, Guymer still believes the sacrifices are a necessary aspect of starting out on the professional racing circuit. As he sees it, ‘To be successful you have to live and breathe cycling. It’s a lifestyle as much as a sport. I think that’s why lots of aspiring cyclists in their teenage years or early twenties disappear as they discover alcohol and start relationships. Cycling is such a hard sport that, if you want to be good, you have to put your heart and soul into it.’
Through his coaching role at Palmarès and regular race attendance, he’s often asked for advice by young riders starting out on the domestic scene. Organisation, Guymer considers, is key to pre-race mental preparation. Simply put, ‘A clear head means you perform better.’ In terms of training, this is split into blocks with mid-week turbo sessions alternating shorter rides on the road and the weekends reserved for longer rides of up to 6 hours.
When asked to choose a perfect day’s riding, even though he’s ridden and raced across Europe, Guymer still favours his home roads of East and North Yorkshire. ‘Mid-summer, little wind with glorious sunshine. Days like those are what I dream of during the long, dark, cold winter rides.’ And when considering his most memorable race win, home again looms large as he reflects on the 2009 Cottingham Day Criterium. ‘That was probably one of the few times in a race where everything went my own way. Being able to celebrate in front of a huge crowd that included my family and friends was one of my best moments on a bike.’
Currently racing for Feather Cycles, Guymer first rode alongside the team at the 2014 Ilkley 2-day race where he took the climbing jersey and a 2nd place on the final stage. With links to Rapha – the company designed the Feather Cycles’ race kit – Guymer accepted the role of Race Ambassador for the Rapha Cycling Club after it launched in 2015 and it was when he was racing for the RCC that he guested for Feather at the Ras de Cymru before officially joining the team prior to the 2016 season. Proud to be a RCC founding member, he appreciates the attention to detail the company brings to bear on their sponsored race days. ‘Nothing is left to chance. From the boxes of gels to the post-race meal. Even the pins and race numbers are carefully considered.’
Guymer is pragmatic when asked if he regrets focusing on new career opportunities with his company Palmarès rather than the next professional cycling contract. Acknowledging that such decisions underline the difficulties many talented riders find in making a living from the sport, Guymer still feels that the positive aspects of his time chasing a professional contract outweigh the occasional disappointments. ‘Each race we’re all thinking the same thing – today could be my day. When I do well I try to drink it in because it doesn’t last forever. I’ve had more than my fair share of lows throughout my cycling career but it’s remembering the good times that keeps me going. This is what drives you because there’s nothing like crossing a finish line with both arms aloft!’
Images of the 2016 Rapha Cycling Club Road Race with kind permission of Matt Randall
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