Britain's other medal factory: VC Londres

With Fred Wright called up by Bahrain-Victorious for his debut Tour de France, James Shrubsall heads down to the south London club to find out the secrets to its success

Fred Wright
(Image credit: Getty)

High on the wall in the pavilion that doubles as the VC Londres clubroom hang the rainbow bands. Not a photo, a painting, or a replica top – this is a bonafide world champion's jersey, won by a club member just a few years ago.

The place is, of course, the Exodus Travels Pavilion at Herne Hill Velodrome in South London, and the jersey was won in the team pursuit at the 2018 Apeldoorn track Worlds by Ethan Hayter.

With four wins this season for Ineos Grenadiers already, Hayter is very much VCL's man of the moment. The broad-shouldered 22-year-old is clearly a considerable talent and looked very much at home romping in ahead of the pack at the recent Ruta del Sol. It's easy to forget that only a few seasons ago Hayter's racing colours were the striking red and blue jersey of VCL.

I’ll be back

For Hayter, VCL was formative, and while he has gone on to international success, the experience he described when Cycling Weekly caught up with him not long after he won that Worlds jersey is typical of many of the young cyclists who come through the club.

"I started with a couple of Saturday morning sessions," he said. "I just did the youth sessions for quite a while. They had holiday clubs during the summer when you basically just mess about, ride your bike five hours while your parents are at work. You do a lot without realising it."

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While the jersey takes pride of place on the back wall, when it comes to international success VCL has much to choose from. A photo collage on another wall, for example, features Joanna Rowsell Shand – she was a club member as a youngster, and her various champion's jerseys would probably cover the entire pavilion wall space.

There are others too – Fred Wright, who started at the club at eight years old, is forging a WorldTour career with Bahrain Victorious and will soon line up for his debut Tour de France, while Oscar Nilsson-Julien has already represented Great Britain at the Yorkshire Worlds and is on British Cycling's Senior Academy.

Wright, who came up alongside Hayter, says the club was key in his development – and not just as a rider. "It's hard to put into words how important the time of all the people that worked with VCL over the years...how that shaped me, not just as a rider, but as a person as well," he tells Cycling Weekly.

"There are so many people that have helped out, done sessions over the years that I went to. I'm forever grateful for the VCL," Wright added. "And genuinely, when I retire I want to go back and give back what they gave me."

Few clubs can boast such a roster of high-flying alumni. Cycling Weekly paid a visit to Herne Hill last month on a Thursday evening when blustery showers had apparently done nothing to blunt the enthusiasm of the VCL youth riders training there, to see what made the place such a hub of racing prowess.

Ethan Hayter and Fred Wright at the 2018 Tour of Britain

(Image credit: Getty)

Club chairman Mark Patterson no doubt already knows of the esteem in which riders like Wright and Hayter hold the VCL. Both maintain close links with the club, as evidenced by an out-of-the-blue visit by Hayter the week before we were there. But he would find Wright's comments about how it shaped him as a person extremely gratifying. Because while VCL is a racing club, it recognises that not everyone is going to win a Worlds medal.

"We try and bring every member to be the best they can be, whether that's on a bike, as a coach, event organiser, helping in the cafe..." Patterson told CW. "We'd call it a broad church, and we want people to be the best person they can be. That's really important. I think that ethos really sort of comes through whether you're a youngster or retired."

Even the young riders that excel on the bike are encouraged not to be too single-minded, he adds. "We encourage the younger ones to do multi-sports – hockey, football or whatever it is. We wouldn't tell them to specialise in cycling till they're almost 16, and even then to do multiple disciplines," he explains.

In the beginning

Many of the VCL's 400 members are seniors, but it has always been a youth-focused cycling club, born in the 1960s out of demand. With the local education authority offering cycling lessons as part of the curriculum, transporting busloads of schoolkids from their schools to Herne Hill track, a lot of love for cycling developed among the young aficionados, who naturally went looking for other outlets for their newfound sport.

Sadly, back then few clubs were geared to accept children. Traditional road clubs tended to be chiefly populated by adult men riding hard, long or both – ill-equipped to take on a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters.

"They'd go off to a local club and ask to join, and the answer was no," says former VCL chairman Peter Cattermole, who first signed up more than 50 years ago.

Cattermole has played a key role at the club over the years, joining as a youngster in 1970 and later playing a significant part in reinvigorating the club in the 1990s when it was flagging.

He puts VCL's success at least in part down to its sheer strength in depth – not just of riders, but of volunteers too.

"Over the years we've just encouraged everyone to come along. And if you turn out to be a good rider, you turn out to be a good rider," he says. "But it's also having a lot of people who are willing to coach. You know, if I suddenly had to go somewhere tonight, it would not be cancelled due to a lack of coaches," he says of the session going on around us at the velodrome. "Because we've got loads."

VCL rider Catherine Coley, who races open track meets, embellishes: "It's extraordinary, the depth of not only talent, but also the structure behind it – all the coaches, the derny drivers, you know, we've got eight qualified pacers or something. The depth of expertise there marks it apart from many clubs, really.

"There are fewer women members than men," she adds, "but we're doing pretty well and we're quite vocal! We've done quite a bit of racing between us – not only track but road and crits and mountain bike and cyclo-cross. But the track gives you a really good skillset."

Invest to win

Becoming a coach is an option open to all at VCL, and at a cost of around £1,000 it's a considerable investment but one the club is happy to shoulder. In fact 'investment' is the buzzword at VCL, which is prepared to spend whatever it takes in order to give members the best experience.

VCL head coach and longtime member John Scripps is a former British Cycling coach, and one-time national team pursuit silver medallist. As well as investing in people, he says, the club also buys the sort of equipment that will give its riders the best chance when they're racing at the top level.

"I think that really helps, because it makes it more accessible. Riders don't have to go out and buy expensive wheels and expensive aero helmets and things. They've got that for paying £30 a year [adult membership; youth and juniors pay £15]. All the money that comes in gets ploughed into the club."

Scripps, like Cattermole, has been in the VCL man and boy, and describes it as an important part of his personal journey. This feels like exactly what the club is aiming for – with any championship Young members learn essential skills at Herne Hill medals just the icing on the cake. As Cattermole says: "I've often said, would I be more pleased seeing Fred [Wright] or Ethan [Hayter], or seeing one of the other kids that I coached, riding along with a kid and a basket on the front? Which would I prefer? Very hard to say. Because you've given them a lifestyle."

His words are echoed by Wright himself, who warns that kids should avoid putting pressure on themselves to win big, simply because of the VCL's winning pedigree.

"It's more just the great community," Wright says. "That was always what kept me going – it's a reinforcement of just enjoying riding your bike. I think we need to be careful that we don't lose that, because that's what it's all about."

It's an irony perhaps, that this sense of community is part of what has enabled the club to become so successful, forming a virtuous circle with rider achievements and linked by the inspiration that comes from that, and the volunteers that want to see happy kids being the best they can be. And for all its achievements – whether in building a thriving community of riders, or on the international stage – the club isn't about to rest on its laurels.

Highest on his current to-do list, Patterson says, is diversity. "It's one of my pet challenges, to move us away from our comfort zone," he says. "And something we haven't really cracked yet is our diversity, certainly our ethnic diversity. We're getting better at the gender split, but our racial make-up is still not very good. We need to work harder at that. We have a committee meeting on Tuesday and it’s high on the agenda.”

Herne Hill is located in a wealthy area of south London, surrounded by private schools, which adds to the challenge, Patterson says. Even so the club does it’s best to emphasise cycling’s accessibility.

“When I have Ethan on a call [with the young members] I always get him to say how he won his first national on a Decathlon £600 bike, beating other people riding £3-4,000 bikes. That’s the sort of message I always try to get people to understand.”

Six hundred, and indeed £4,000, pales into insignificance compared to the value of Hayter’s Ineos Grenadiers Pinarellos. But you have to start somewhere, and it would seem you could do far worse than VC Londres as a place to make that start.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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