This article on record-breaking cyclist Andy Wilkinson originally appeared in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine.
The Longest Day
National 24 hour time trial, Essex, June 24th, 2011 07.00 hrs.
Zero minus 1 minute…
The rider is struggling to maintain a quiet composure, though his heart feels like it’s trying to jump out of his chest. ‘Calm down,’ he tells himself. ‘The bike’s ready, the team’s ready, you’re ready.’ Food and fluid requirements have been calculated, and the bike, balanced on exquisite carbon racing wheels, is set up to allow him to take the most aerodynamic if uncomfortable position possible. The start marshal’s voice breaks into his concentration as he begins the countdown. ‘20 seconds.’ He tightens the strap of the vital aerodynamic cycling helmet for the umpteenth time. It snaps. The rider takes a deep breath, pauses, looks at his support team and smiles. ‘No sweat,’ he says, taking the helmet off. And trusting them to fix it he takes his place bare-headed on the starting grid. Finally faced with the impending enormity of the task ahead and the ordeal which he must endure, he hears the start marshal’s voice continue. ‘188.8.131.52.1…zero.’ He presses down on the pedal and the bike surges forward…..
Andy Wilkinson, Wirral’s record breaking time trialist and endurance specialist, is acclaimed by most within the cycling fraternity as probably the greatest amateur cyclist this country has produced. Yet despite the number of world and national records he has held, this modest, articulate and unassuming man is virtually unknown outside of the cycling world.
His long association with bikes, and more importantly the opportunity they have given him to explore the world, began at the age of eight, cycling through the local Wirral countryside. His father had been a market gardener, so, as he says, he was ‘stuck out in the sticks.’ He continued to cycle when he went on to secondary school and, encouraged by other lads, joined a local club in the late Seventies at the tender age of 14. Merseyside, famously, has always had a rich vein of high performing cycling clubs, but the local one he chose by chance was the renowned Port Sunlight Wheelers, home to many a national champion and feared far and wide for its cycling prowess. It was to be the happy start of many lifelong friendships, which continue to this day.
His dedication and love of cycling inevitably led him into the competitive arena and his success began to grow. Despite this, and perhaps because of his modest demeanour, his teachers maintained this skinny diminutive kid would never achieve athletic success. They left him and others deemed hopeless at sport to amuse themselves indoors, while the rest of the class played football or cricket. This led to Andy dreading school sports days, with the exception of the annual cross country run, which he managed comfortably, due to the strength he had built up from cycling.
Over the years Andy – known to one and all as Wilko – has achieved huge success. He has held most of the records available for distance and time, amongst them the fastest time for 50 and 100 miles, the furthest distances in 12 and 24 hours, and Land’s End to John O’Groats records for the fastest time on road bikes, tandems and even the recumbent cycle (on which he clocked 41 hours!).However it is the freedom cycling affords rather than the glory that attracted him to the sport, and whereas other local well known names such as Chris Boardman have chosen cycling as a career, Andy has been more of a free spirit, still doing it for fun. He could not countenance being dictated to, preferring to do things ‘his way’. Indeed it has not been uncommon for him, after winning an elite race one day, to be off the next chasing the horizon on his Royal Enfield Bullet 500 motorbike with a tent strapped to his back. He has disappeared for months at a time, motoring around Europe, the USA and even the Arctic Circle in true Easy Rider style. This maverick cyclist exasperated the cycling establishment, who couldn’t deal with a man who didn’t share their aspirations.
It is hard to reconcile the mythical status accorded to this legend with the man himself when you meet him. Wilko is considered by fellow cyclists ‘the real deal’ and just another one of the lads. Certainly there is not the slightest sense of superiority, and if you are lucky enough to be in the celebrated Eureka cafe early on a Sunday morning you would be hard pressed to pick him out from the bunch of ‘Sunlight’ wheelers and other cyclists gathered there, laughing and joking, sharing stories while they wait for their traditional cup of tea before their club rides out to Wales or the Cheshire plains. Andy continues to cycle every day, whether it be to work, with the club or just out with his wife – Jill, an accomplished triathlete herself. He has earned a tremendous reputation as a cycling coach, and cyclists travel from far and wide to be coached by him, or to obtain a perfect set-up on their bikes. And he’s not finished either with new ambitions, or breaking the 24 hour endurance record which he has held for 17 years. Hence his visit to Essex last year…
National 24 hour time trial, Essex, June 25th, 2011 07.00 hrs.
Zero plus 23:59
Twenty three hours and fifty nine minutes later…
In the far distance, out of the mist, a lone rider emerges. A small group of supporters, including Jill his wife who has kept a quiet vigil at the roadside, moves towards the finish line. Onward he comes, hunched over, his legs mechanically turning the pedals, his arms stoically holding his body up. Exhaustion and pain are etched on his face as he crosses the line and coasts to a stop. He is motionless, frozen in position as every ripped and thrashed muscle in his body spasms and screams in silent agony. Gingerly and carefully his team gather round him, holding him carefully as they remove the bike, tenderly laying him on the grass verge. He lies prostrate, unable to move or speak. He finally closes his eyes in total exhaustion, as he senses not only the loving embrace of his wife but the deep appreciation and admiration of all true cyclists everywhere.
Andy Wilkinson, Merseyside’s cycling legend, at the age of 47 has just broken his own record for 24 hours non-stop cycling on open roads. He has cycled an incredible 541 miles in 24 hours – equivalent to the total mileage of the first seven days of this year’s Tour de France.
After a summer including the British invasion of the Tour de France and the British Olympics, British cycling is at an all-time high. But for those who know their cycling, the Merseyside boy the sports teachers wrote off is the greatest champion of them all.
NOTE: If you are interested in getting Andy’s help with your own cycling, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone 07737755851.