It used to be that if a young Britain wanted to spend fifteen years of his life racing bikes around Europe they would hope and pray for a particular set of circumstances. A genetic gift of big lungs and big legs was, naturally, one component. A pathological attraction to the suffering of six hour training rides and brutal time trials was another. If these stars aligned, they would spend the first 6 years of their career, until they were 18, riding to races, racing, riding back completely spent, sometimes asking parents to drive them to races slightly further away, enjoying the novelty of arriving fresh. When no races were on they would, more days than not, be out riding in the British winter, revelling in the superstitions of long winter training: only in the little ring, at least 4 hours at a time. Do your legs feel good? Yes? Ride harder. Bad? Ride harder. Don’t eat this, do eat that.
At 18 these riders would pack a bag and a bike, get the ferry to Calais, and do more of the same, but harder, for longer, and against riders of a far higher pedigree. By 19 they would appear as freaks – thick legs, deeply tanned, topped by a torso with no muscle, just rib bones and a gaunt face. Just a hint of mediocrity caused riders to head back home or grasp at any ‘enhancement’ of their performance. There was no money in this endeavour.
Despite the hardships, it’s difficult to find a current British professional that hasn’t followed some version of these events. Everything is changing now, and Joe Perrett (“one of the most exciting young talents in the world”, says his General Manager) is fundamentally new school. At 18, around the time he should be stuffing a suitcase with training kit and looking for a bedroom in the fag-end districts of provincial French towns, he is a multiple national champion, European Time Trial champion, and he has just signed a development contract with a remarkable team. I talked to him about his exceptional career to date, and future prospects, in a generic East London café.
Joe Perrett is riding for Sprocket ProCycling this coming season. “Belgium changed it all for me”, referring to the weekends spent racing Kermesses in nondescript towns across the country that introduced him to ‘real’ racing. These races are the proving grounds of Northern Europe; the courses are rarely challenging, but the pitting of aspirations of hungry teenagers against the been-there-done-that wits of Flemish riders with no regard for safety creates a dangerously fast clip. The occasional pacing of the peloton by a scooter or motorbike doesn’t calm the atmosphere.
“I get bounced around a little bit… but positioning, following wheels, breaks, I learnt all that. It’s not my style of racing, but I learnt”. The modesty of a young guy that should be as arrogant as any 18 year old is bewildering. Understatement abounds: “I think I won… the JHS TT10 and the U16 National 10, and I thought ‘this is OK’”. These victories culminated in last summer’s Junior European Time Trail Championship.
Joe has just started a degree in Geography, through the Open University, “just in case”. “I’m a geek really. I was looking at Boulder on Google Earth yesterday, have you seen it?” Boulder, Colorado, is the American Mecca of cycling. “Training would be great there. Do I want to ride hills or work on time trials? Why not both!” The prospect obviously excites him.
Boulder figures into our conversation because it is the base of the world’s premier development squad, Trek-Livestrong. Associated with Lance Armstrong and run by Axel Merckx, son of the cannibal himself, Eddy Merckx. Taylor Phinney, former World Junior Time Trial Champion, current
world Track Champion, heads up the team. Joe recounts his telephone call from Axel Merckx placidly.
“So Axel contacts the club, and I thought about it, but, you know, I’m 18. I’m just starting a degree, it’s all quite a lot to do at once, isn’t it?” We talk about his preparation for the year. He has to cycle for 45 minutes to get out of London and into Epping Forest. “When it’s this cold I like to duck in behind the buses, the exhausts are so warm”. What about the fumes? “Oh, I hold my breath, try not to crash into the back of them, it’s quite fun really”. He has been training hard, but is anxious. He spent the first two weeks of January in Lanzarote training with a friend, occasionally updating twitter with a running total mountains he had climbed and hours in the saddle. Soon the racing season will start.
I ask about coffee. He does impressions of himself after two cups of coffee, floating off of his seat and light-headedly fumbling for imaginary handlebars. “I don’t hold it well”. Names of riders crop up, Joe rates Domestiques slogging away at the front of the peloton, serving others. Eventually the conversation is forced round to doping. Unlabeled needles and glass vials seem a world away from that of Joe Perrett, but in cycling there are not that many degrees of separation. “Magnus”, whom Joe has known for a few years through family connections, “he obviously heard all that stuff. Who is doing what and whatever. He started off in the late nineties”. ‘Late nineties’ is a byword for the EPO era, where nearly all the bike riders of note, and most not of note, were suspected of being walking pincushions. “A former Pro was giving us a lift and he was talking about doping. He’s saying what it does, how it works, it was all explained to me”. Like what? “Apparently it feels like you can sprint for three minutes – chug, chug, chug (he mimes sprinting in the drops of his handlebars). You can sprint for three minutes, amazing… then you die at 45”.
He isn’t being melodramatic; the number of deaths or doping-implicated illnesses in the last two generations of riders is sobering. Frederik Nolf, a highly promising Belgian, three years older than Joe, died at the Tour of Qatar last year. The family didn’t request an inquest or autopsy.
He may have died from a heart attack, he may have had blood so overloaded with platelets and cells that it became too syrupy to be moved around his veins.
“This might not be the most palatable reason for anti-doping, not everyone will want to read this – but you die at 45”. When the interview finishes we go outside to take a few photographs, and Joe thanks me for talking to him, making it feel as if it wasn’t me who asked for an hour or two of his time. He seems nervous and still in front of the camera, but our conversation becomes far more relaxed. He tells me about his favourite bar tape (“wonderful to wrap”), the sales at Oxford Circus where he bought his natty long overcoat (60% off? I was like, yeah!”), and the Olympic venue at Stratford (“awesome”).
This is the day before New Year’s Eve. Two updates to his twitter account, which more often chronicles his training regime, remind the world that he is 18, talent or no talent. 31st December: “JoePerrett is wasted”. 1st January: “JoePerrett has a headache.”