Prolific UK Winner Mark Walsham Gets PEZ’d!
Ex-Rider Interview: Back in the 80s, Britain had a very strong home professional scene with a road race calendar and regular TV city centre criteriums. One of the top winners form those days was Mark Walsham, but there was much more to the man. Ed Hood found out.
Mark Walsham, one of Britain’s “Crit Kings and a Man of the 80’s” – there can only be one first question:
PEZ: How many wins in total is it, Mark?
Mark Walsham: Just over 200 all included.
PEZ: 1984, your breakthrough year with a Girvan stage, the Manx International, the Archer – what was that down to?
The engineering firm I worked for as a welder, making stuff for the coal mining industry went under with all the pit closures. This meant I was able to train full time, not so much more miles, but more rest/recovery time. I also had a big accident in the autumn of ‘83, fractured my skull in several places, in intensive care on a ventilator for a while. I was super motivated after that, training with John Wainwright, Malcolm Elliot and other great riders from the Sheffield area. I’d sometimes put in double days, out with the pros in the day and then out again on the evening chaingang.
PEZ: 1985 and Raleigh – tell us about how you got the ride and what was the adaption to pro racing like?
In 84 I was being helped with training advice by George Shaw (Raleigh team manager), but more importantly he believed in me and motivated me. It was a natural progression to turn pro for Raleigh Weinmann for the following year once I’d got the results. Season ’85 was my first year as a pro with a lot to learn. Pro racing is so much more a team sport. I probably learnt the most from Steve Jones as regards training, but you soon pick up the rules, who should ride with who, which team should chase, when to organise a combine to benefit both teams etc.
PEZ: 1986 and Bilton, I believe ‘Mr. Percy Bilton’ was a ‘character’?
Ron Groome (CEO) was passionate about cycling, he used to go touring on silk tubs. He always backed the team 100%, we used to get our yearly salary in a lump sum in January and full expenses/bonuses monthly on top. I remember we won the Mercian Asphalt in 88, which was a local event to where Percy Bilton first started and Ron sent us all a £1000 bonus each the following week. We always had the best kit and stayed in the best hotels. The way we were looked after really motivated us, we really wanted to repay his faith and commitment and always rode 100%.
PEZ: 1987: The start of a phase where you were rampant with ’88 bringing you a Milk Race stage, the Crit. Champs and wins all over the country – how did you maintain such consistent good form?
I think my consistency was mostly down to doing very similar training week in week out, I always felt best doing between 450 – 500 miles per week and always with other good riders. The Peak District is great for training, trust me, five or six hours out in the hills with riders like Malc Eliot, John Wainwright, Simeon Hempsall, Chris Creaghan, Gary Speight and John Tanner is no joke, a lot of strong legs. The terrain and egos did the rest, I was very rarely ill either, so consistent training and very few lay-offs were the key. Oh, and I liked winning!
PEZ: BUT what about all those Champs podiums over the years, any ‘what ifs’?
Loads! Still irks me that I never won the Road Champs, should have won it several times, but it never happened, silvers and bronze, but no gold. Championships can be a bit of a lottery, often with favourites being marked out. The last time was ‘97 in Wales, silver again, three man break, should have had confidence in myself and led out, but I hesitated, Jeremy Hunt got the jump on me, I was coming up his inside when he closed the door. I accepted it was my mistake, but the kicker was the following week talking to the chief judge, he told me that if I’d put in a protest he would have upheld it.
PEZ: 1990: Ever Ready – memories of that team ?
I was offered the ride by Mick Bennett mid-season when Crown-Chafes disbanded due to financial difficulties. It was a strange set up, some great characters in the team, great equipment. . . Received my ‘split’ of first month’s prize money and had to query it, thought I’d been given too much, but was told the team didn’t split prize money – you got what you won! That’s not good for team unity and never experienced that in any other team. Unfortunately Ever Ready didn’t renew the sponsorship for 91 and the team folded.
PEZ: You were second at Knokke that year, did you ever consider a continental career?
Yes, 87, 88 were the years when I would have liked the opportunity, but it never happened and looking back it was probably for the best as I would have had some tough uncomfortable choices to make. Overall I’m happy with what I achieved in my career.
PEZ: 1991: ‘Saville Stainless’ single sponsor – how did you take to not being in a team environment?
Didn’t have much choice, the UK pro scene was dying. Dave Lloyd helped me out that year, building me bikes and using his contacts to get me some sponsorship. It was really difficult to win pro races that year though, up against a seven man Banana squad with some great riders, who would only ride with me in breaks if they had at least three men there, then attacked me relentlessly. Fair play though, that’s how it goes, any team would do the same, it’s a tough sport.
PEZ: 1992: IME Bola Wines in the USA, how did that come about and what was the experience like?
Dave Mann had ridden for them in ‘91 and when he moved on to a bigger team I think he recommended me. My stage win in the ‘91 Milk Race helped as well I believe. IME was a small team and we struggled to perform at the bigger USA events, but overall the experience was great, really enjoyed the lifestyle and met some great people.
PEZ: 1993: back in the UK and going well but unsponsored, was it not difficult with no team support?
That was the year that the sport went open, so the calendar of races opened up and the Star Trophy series became the Premier Calendar series, which I won that year. There was still a televised crit series as well. I enjoyed riding the Prem races, no one team was dominant, so it was mostly every man for himself, good, hard racing mano a mano. The Banana team also gave me guest rides in the Tour of Lancs, the Niederosterreich Rundfahrt in Austria and the Milk Race, I won stages in all three races and did lots of riding on the front to help team GC aspirations. Shane Sutton, Ben Luckwell and myself spent half the Milk Race that year riding tempo on the front, ensuring Chris Lillywhite’s GC win. That was a great experience and things were looking good for the following year until the Banana marketing group withdrew at the end of the year.
PEZ: 1994: Choice Accountancy – tell us about that team.
I got the call out of the blue, the main man was hyper enthusiastic, and things quickly escalated into a four man team, with me as rider/manager. We had a great team of riders; John Tanner, Simeon Hempsall and Dutchman Patrick Eyk. We dominated the home scene that year and even guested Malcolm Elliot in the team for the Pru Tour. It was also the first year the Commonwealth Games was open to Pro’s and I finished sixth that year in Canada. ‘The cheques in the post’ scenario meant that I had to go to London to pick up the team cheque every month, which always led to being wined and dined and waking up in a hotel room the following morning, having to find my way back up North, the guy liked a drink or ten. Unfortunately the team’s rapid expansion led to financial problems and we had resort to legal action to recover some of the funds owed to the riders and myself – disappointing and demoralising after such a successful season results-wise.
PEZ: 1995: ‘Powerbar’? and ‘Tritech’? as sponsors – but a good season with The Kingdom and Lincoln.
Yes, downscaled for 95, but a great two man setup with John Tanner and a little support from Tritech (later to become Planet X). Later on in the year Steve Arch dreamt up a scheme to get us sponsorship for a new Sky TV regional TV crit series, which to get around BCF rules we rode as a ‘Manchester Division team,’ Gill Airways were the main backer and we repayed their faith in us by winning two rounds of the series if I remember right.
PEZ: 1996: ‘Gill Airways’ – and wins in Guatemala and Guadalupe, tell us about those.
Trefor Williams, the CEO of Gill Airways was a great guy and backed us for the 96 season on the back of 95’s Sky TV crit results. Keith Lambert had a bit of backing from Peugeot for two riders, so we agreed to combine the two and have a four man Gill Airways-Peugeot team. Things were on the up again until half way through the year when a management takeover within Gill Airways stuck its oar in. We had a pretty strong signed contract which they had to honour, but Trefor was left high and dry at risk of losing the roof over his head. From then on I had to pick up the monthly cheque in person from their Newcastle Airport HQ as when it was ‘in the post’ it never seemed to arrive! Racing-wise the team had great results John Tanner won the Crit Champs, with me second and I managed to secure my second Prem calendar championship. We were even Bronze medallists in the Nat Team Pursuit Champs. JT and I were invited by Eddie White to ride the Tour of Guadeloupe, it clashed with the Girvan, so we had to choose between the Caribbean or Scotland! So JT won the Tour of Guadeloupe overall, I won two stages and we both got a great sun tan.
PEZ: 1997: Unsponsored again – how did you get the Olympia Tour ride and any ‘what ifs’ on that second place to Jez in the National?
Peugeot changed to backing an MTB team and Gill Airways didn’t carry on. So, initially JT and I were backed by Tritech again and joined by Joe Bayfield, who brought his Controlware sponsorship with him and Scott Gamble who had a little backing from Brookes saddles, both of whom just wanted to be part of a team with a winning pedigree. There was enough backing for kit and expenses but only Joe through his Controleware sponsor had a wage. The Olympia Tour of Holland was a GB selection. Tough race and there was a stomach bug raging through the peloton which both Wayne Randle and I succumbed to unfortunately. Second in the National RR Champs was decent, on a course in Wales that included the inevitable Tumble climb, but a disappointing result as explained earlier.
PEZ: 1998: McCartney – did you suspect it would end as it did – and why quit, you were still winning?
This came about via Simon Cope, a good friend who had contact with Julian Clark who in turn had backing from Linda McCartney to promote her Vegetarian food range. It all seemed like a perfect match, but in hindsight the impetus went out of it very quickly when Linda tragically succumbed to cancer within weeks of the team launch. Paul was happy to carry on in Linda’s memory, but really I think it was Linda’s baby. Julian however was another hyper enthusiastic person that crops up regularly in life; full of enthusiasm and ideas, but feet nowhere near the ground. In August 98 and not many people are aware of this, I had a verbal contract to retire from riding and manage the team in ‘99. I rode my last race finishing fourth In the Tour of The Peak Prem and hung up my wheels. The next day my wife Ann and I took off on our motorbike touring in France, only to discover half way through our hols that I’d been flicked again and Sean Yates given the management job. That was the last straw, I walked away from cycling for 13 years, didn’t touch the bike, didn’t even watch the Tour de France on TV.
PEZ: Of all those wins, which one(s) gives you the most satisfaction?
Loads of people think my favourite win must be Lincoln GP in 95, solo, but I never particularly liked the race. A bit like a Belgium Kermesse, like a last lap scramble for the front every lap for a good position going up Michaelgate until it splits, a break forms then the real race can begin. Great race to watch though. Probably my favourite win was GP of Wales 1987, brilliantly organised by Bill Owen and his team – 135 miles over the Tumble, red hot day, I won solo by about three minutes. Close would be Manx International as an amateur in 84, again solo win, iconic hilly circuit, even won KOM and was up on the podium to see that year’s Olympic selected riders finish minutes behind. Pro Crit Champs win in ‘88, fantastic team support from my Percy Bilton teammates.
PEZ: With hindsight?
Where would I start? The near misses at the Nat Road Race Champs would be victories, but you can’t change the past, it is what it is, I gave it a good go, had some great teammates, some success, even met my wife Ann through cycling, travelled all over the world doing what I enjoyed and I’m back on the bike smashing out the miles again and my son, Sam is having a bash now, it’s all good.
# Thanks to Mark and to the photographers. #