Retro PEZ Talk: Chris Wreghitt
Interview: Second in our ‘Best of British’ cyclo-cross riders is Chris Wreghitt. He broke the stranglehold that John Atkins held on the National championships at only 18 years of age and still at school. From then on he was Britain’s best man in the winter mud until a back injury in 1984 forced him out of the sport at only 25. Ed Hood got the full story from school cycling to the World championships.
If you’re a ‘cross fan you’ll have read our recent John Atkins interview. Atkins and Keith Mernickle dominated British ‘cross in the 70’s – and on ‘raids’ across the channel, acquitted themselves well. Atkins never made the podium at the Worlds but twice finished an excellent fifth, once with the amateurs, one with the pros.
The juniors have fared better; with both Stuart Marshall and Roger Hammond bringing home rainbow jerseys. Marshall faded away, whilst Hammond went on to have a long and distinguished road career – with cyclo-cross taking a secondary role in his program. But the rider who perhaps aroused the most excitement was a tall young man called Chris Wreghitt. He ended the domination of the UK ‘old guard’ of Atkins, Mernickle, Stone and Davies with five consecutive wins in the British championships and produced some fine performances on the continent. When he proved he could also ride well on the road, he was snapped up by the mighty Bianchi squadra. And then?
We thought a chat with the man might be in order – here’s what he had to say to us;
PEZ: Why cyclo-cross?
Chris Wreghitt: I started cycling as an 11 year old when at Loughborough Grammar School, inspired by Peter Hopkins who was Head of English there and a cycling fanatic who ran a cycling club in the school.
My first race was the under 12 Midlands English School Cyclo-cross Championship and the second was the National Championship and I won both – so began my love of cyclo-cross! At school Peter introduced me to all types of cycling, from road, time trialling, grass track and touring, as well as cyclo-cross. As a 12 year old he took a group of us on a Lands End to Loughborough bike tour, which was quite an adventure for a 12 year old back then.
PEZ: Five national titles on the trot, pretty impressive.
I won my first British Pro/Am cyclo-cross title at the age of 18 in my last year at school and then won the title for the next four years as well. For three of those years I was at Birmingham University reading a history degree so cycling wasn’t then a full-time career, but in 1982, on graduation, I went out to live in Switzerland (the hotbed for cyclo-cross at the time) to pursue a full-time career.
PEZ: You had some big results.
In my first year doing the sport full time, I won the Zurich Waid Pro/Am ‘cross event, (while still an amateur), one of the biggest ‘cross races of the season and this put me on the international map. That year I was probably one of the favorites to win the world amateur title in Lanarvily in France but I was brought down by another rider while in third place, just behind the leader on the last lap and finished 11th. This was probably my last competitive world cyclo-cross championship as my focus then switched to the road and anyway I spent much of the next ‘cross season nursing a knee injury, which I sustained half way through the season.
PEZ: Was the Zurich race your best result?
The Zurich Waid race was probably my biggest ‘cross win and brought me some accolades back home, winning runner-up in the Midlands Sports Personality of the Year award.
PEZ: Which courses did you like best?
My favorite courses were probably the fast, technical courses. I wasn’t a bad runner but some of the Belgian ‘Mudplugs’ favored the lighter riders or specialist runners.
PEZ: How long were you in Switzerland?
I spent nearly three years in Switzerland, as this was really the centre for ‘cross at the time. I had became friends with some Swiss riders whilst spending a few days racing with them in a series of races in Luxembourg one New Year and they helped to introduce me to the Velo club Steinmaur near Zurich who welcomed me as one of their own – I am still an honorary member of their club. My coach there, Fritz Schaerer, was tragically killed while racing a few years later, but he and his family gave me much help and support and I am still in touch with the family now.
PEZ: The road?
As I had gone out to Switzerland to live, trying the ‘road’ seemed a logical thing to do as I was at somewhat of a loose end when the ‘cross season finished! The Swiss amateur road scene was fortunately very well organized with the Elite amateurs competing against each other as part of 10-12 man semi-pro sponsored teams. I was fortunate to have had some backing from the UK Sports Aid Foundation but was also sustained from winnings and appearance money from the ‘cross races and backing from my Swiss road teams – especially GS Allegro-Puch.
PEZ: You won the GP Lugano – that’s a nice race.
The 1982-3 Cyclocross season was ruined by a knee injury but this meant that I had an enforced rest, so started the 1983 road scene relatively fresh. I won the early season Classic GP Lugano while still an amateur, beating top Pro’s Gilbert Glaus (former World amateur champion) and top pro Erich Maechler.
That season brought further accolades. I rode the Peace Race with the GB amateur team – my first three weeks tour. Unfortunately I lost half an hour on one stage in Poland when my frame broke and I was left alone to chase the field for the last three hours into a head wind. I didn’t lose a great deal of time after that and, in fact, got second on the last stage into Prague and was fastest rider on GC in the Czech stages of the race.
I came away from the Peace Race with great form and went on to the Tour of Sweden (Post Girot) with the GB amateur team. I held the yellow jersey for several stages and was spotted there by the Bianchi Piaggio pro team manager, Giancarlo Feretti, whose team was there competing with their Swedish Pros, Tommy Prim and Alf Segersall. I signed a contract to ride for Bianchi at the end of that season where Tommy Prim and Silvano Contini were the team leaders. I relocated to Italy, living in Imola, near Bologna – another country, another language. I had become quite proficient in German by the time I left Switzerland, but apart from the two Swedish riders, none of the team spoke any English so I threw myself into learning Italian, which I still speak regularly now, as I do a lot of business in Italy.
PEZ: Did you let the ‘cross go due to road commitments?
I rode a few ‘cross events that winter but was under orders NOT to ride a full season as I needed to have some rest for the road season. I rode most of the important early season races in Italy, including the Milan San Remo and finished not far off the pace and things looked promising.
I then went with the team to ride in the Tour of Romandy back in Switzerland and was involved in a nasty crash on an alpine descent. All I remember was that I came around a corner only to see a sea of riders on the deck and, as I fell, my back landed, I think, on an upturned pedal. As you do, you dust yourself down and jump back on but I started to get some pain in my back and my left knee. Initially I had therapy for my knee, but I was later diagnosed with a compressed vertebrae, which was giving me a weakness in the left leg.
Back in 1984, an operation was considered risky and, despite various attempts at manipulation, traction etc, the back continued to give problems and eventually in August that year, I quit the sport after I decided that I was unlikely to get back to a condition where I could sustain consistent form and fitness. It is frustrating that I will never know what could have been. I retired at the age of 25 with hopefully, I thought, still my best years ahead of me. On the other hand, I have always tried to look forward in life rather than backwards.
PEZ: What then?
I had no clear idea what career path I would follow. I had a vague idea when I was at University of becoming a lawyer but my father’s background was in retail buying. I was equipped with a University Degree and relative fluency in French, German and Italian and a good knowledge of the biking world. My father’s background in retail buying prompted me initially to look in this direction and within the space of a few days I was offered jobs at Halfords as their Cycle’s buyer and also a sports equipment buying job at Olympus Sport (now JJB).
The late David Duffield (legendary eccentric Eurosport commentator) was the buying controller at Halfords and that, along with my passion for bikes, swayed me in favor of the job at Halfords. This decision put me on course for a lifelong career in the cycling industry. I spent seven years at Halfords learning the business world but eventually, feeling a little stifled in the corporate world after the takeover of Halfords by Boots, I set up my own worldwide sales and marketing agency, Global Opportunities, in 1991. Twenty years on the business is still going strong.
Thwarted in my cycling career by injury, I looked to other sports for recreational fun and fitness and play competitive golf now, tennis and badminton. Only in recent years, inspired by friends in Worcester, have I got back on the bike.
Alongside my day job at Global Opportunities, I went into partnership with a friend, Ian Moseley, and set up a bike website www.thegreenbikecompany.co.uk specializing in selling quality second hand bikes and we then went on to open our first retail shop in 2010. One of the suppliers of The Green Bike Company is Yellow, owned by my good friend Phil Griffiths. Back in the mid-eighties, I provided the winter exposure for Phil’s GS Strada’s sponsors and Phil and I have been good friends ever since.
I had been sponsored while racing in Switzerland by Toni and Eliane Maier of Assos, then a young up and coming brand. I introduced Phil to Tony Maier when Phil, who was coming to the end of his biking time, was looking for a new career. Assos has now become the heart of Phil’s ‘Yellow’ business and, for Assos, the UK is one of their best export markets.
# So now we know – with thanks to Chris Wreghitt for giving so freely of his time. #
Thanks to Cycling Weekly and all the photographers, original owners could not be found for some.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.