Brian Cookson Q&A: 'Chris Boardman winning in Barcelona was the only time I’ve ever cried at a bike race'

Former UCI and British Cycling President tells Cycling Weekly about his time in cycling

Brian Cookson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a former president of the UCI and British Cycling, Brian Cookson is an important figure within the sport and is also himself a former racer. Cookson was awarded an OBE in the 2008 New Year’s Honours list for his services to cycling. He recently chatted to Cycling Weekly about his time in the sport and his love for his home roads of Lancashire. 

What got you into cycling and made you want to consider it as a potential career option?

Although as a 14 year old I was already quite keen on cycling, I was inspired to take it up properly and join a club when I read about Tom Simpson winning the World Pro Road Race Championship in 1965, at San Sebastian. 

That made me reconsider my teenage career plan to become a world-famous rock guitarist, and switch my ambition to becoming the next British World Road Champion. 

Alas both ambitions were ultimately thwarted by a lack of sufficient talent.

Did you have a particular cycling hero growing up? If so, who was it?

I think we were all dazzled by Tom Simpson at the time, and then devastated by his sad death. After that, Merckx of course was everyone’s hero. 

Gimondi and Adorni were such stylish riders too – I was lucky enough to meet Vittorio Adorni many times in later years, a real gentleman. Of course we never saw these guys on television in anything other than brief newsclips, we read about their exploits a week later in magazines, or a month later in Sporting Cyclist. 

Sometimes we’d see tattered copies of l’Equipe or Miroir du Cyclisme in the club room, with such dramatic images it was impossible not to be inspired. A different era, long before the internet and wall-to-wall cycling coverage.

What was the first race you watched? 

The first race I saw was actually a 3rd category and junior race on the Oakenclough circuit in Lancashire in early 1966. It was won by Don Parry of the Lune RCC who was National Junior Champion that year. 

Although I never really knew him at the time because he moved away from the area, he has subsequently become a good friend and is well known as a multiple winner of Masters Category Championships, and was also Chair of the LVRC/BMCR for many years.  

After that, most years in the 60s the Milk Race would finish in Blackpool, so we would ride out and see it either there or passing over the Trough of Bowland en route to the finish. Hard men like Les West, Arthur Metcalfe, Hugh Porter and Geoff Wiles, in a proper tough two week stage race.

What was your first bike?  

My first proper racing bike had a red and white Bob Jackson frame I bought off a clubmate. Reynolds 531 tubing of course. I built it up, as we did in those days, from a mixture of new and second-hand parts, with money scraped together from Christmas presents, paper round, and Saturday jobs. 

Universal brakes, plastic-bodied Simplex front and rear mechs, Milremo steel cottered cranks, soon replaced with a Williams alloy cotterless chainset, and eventually a reasonable pair of 32/40 spoked wheels with Fiamme rims, Clement tubs and Campag Gran Sport hubs. 

It had a Brooks Professional saddle but never really liked them, far too heavy, so I replaced it with a much more comfortable Unica-Nitor plastic saddle about half the weight. I had the frame re-sprayed a beautiful purple and yellow the next winter and wish I had kept it, but I soon shot up and needed a bigger one a year later.

Brian Cookson

Cookson at the 2016 Olympics in Rio di Janeiro

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What's the best place your career has taken you to? 

Well, living in Montreux, overlooking Lake Geneva, and working at the UCI World Cycling Centre as President (2013-2017) was pretty special. It’s also a great place to ride a bike. 

More broadly, it gave me the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world I would never have visited, see lots of events I would never have seen and to meet lots of people who also love bike racing in all its wonderful forms, and on as many occasions as possible to ride a few kilometres with them.

If you hadn't ended up working in cycling, what do you think you would have done? 

Cycling never was my job, not until I was elected as UCI President. All my roles in cycling up until that time, including 17 years as President of British Cycling (1996-2013) were honorary positions, alongside my day job. 

I was a Chartered Landscape Architect (hence my interest in trees) for the first half of my professional career, moving into broader urban regeneration and management as my career progressed. 

Alongside that, and bringing up my family, I organised lots of races, well over 100 days of racing in total over the years, including the Tour of Lancashire 4 Day, plus working for the local Division / Region, including managing teams. 

Oh yes, and becoming a UCI Commissaire, in which capacity I was a member of the Jury at the Barcelona Olympics and was trackside when Chris Boardman won the Gold Medal in the Pursuit.

What's your favourite memory from your time in the sport? 

Chris Boardman winning in Barcelona was the only time I’ve ever cried at a bike race. I was operating the lap board for his opponent – a dead simple job until you think that millions of people around the world are watching this historic occasion and you can’t make a mistake or you’ll never be able to show your face at a bike race again. 

The stress level was off the scale! When he won the race and did his laps of honour it was very emotional – the first British cycling Gold Medal in 72 years.

On a more personal note, my first road race win, as a junior on the hilly Dolphinholme circuit in Lancashire in 1969 is something I will never forget – the feeling of putting your arms in the air as you cross the line is something special. 

There weren’t many more for me, so it is still fixed there in my memory, and I still ride over that finish line a few times every year, over 50 years later. If no-one’s around, you might even catch me throwing my arms in the air!

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