Sonny Parker has a coldSonny Parker has a cold. It’s not a cold like you get – sniffles, a sore throat, a little head-ache, feeling sorry for yourself, a mug of Lemsip and please let this get worse so I can call it man-flu and justify a day off work. No, this is a cyclist’s cold; laid up on the sofa with chilled bones, a fever, hacking cough and streaming nose, this is over-training where an athlete’s body is so fit it dances on the edge and succumbs to every virus flowing past. Sonny Parker’s been to the races and he’s been over-doing it. Sonny Parker is 17 and lives in West Wickham, a pleasant but fairly anonymous suburb of London sandwiched between the faded but soon to be Westfield enhanced Croydon and the slightly less faded charms of Bromley. Sonny is still at school and is studying for his A levels. He has less than 10% body fat and a raging desire to be a top cyclist. Go tell it on the mountain but Sonny might – just might – be the next Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish or even a British born Chris Froome. West Wickham High Street is a friendly place with a nice selection of shops. There’s a Marks and Spencer (food only) and that sign of middle-class aspiration, a Cook and a WH Smith and Larratts, a popular and old fashioned butcher and there are nine charity shops and five cafes, a Pizza Express, two Sainsburys, a musical instrument shop, a Subway and a chemist and, to show it’s really on the map, Lidl are building a new store where Iceland used to be. Go through West Wickham heading south, down Corkscrew hill past the war memorial and the playing fields at Sparrows Den which flooded last year and go over the roundabout and head up the hill. This is Layhams Road and there will be few cyclists in South London and beyond who are unfamiliar with this traditional gateway to Kent. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Sonny Parker has finished school for the day. He rushes home and changes into his cycling kit and grabs his Bianchi Oltre and heads up Layhams on his usual training ride. Sonny was born to be a cyclist. He’s 5’10” and weighs 9 stone with an almost perfect power to weight ratio. He’s been cycling for only a year. He remembers 2014, watching the Tour de France and thinking, with his mate George, that he fancied giving that a go. They managed to locate a couple of road bikes and scraped the money together to buy some kit and joined the Old Portlians, a small but long established cycling club in West Wickham. George was keen and enjoyed it but Sonny loved it and soon left George behind. Something in Sonny’s brain just clicked on the bike. He’s a bit gangly off the bike, tall and skinny and seems to have too many limbs and if he stands behind a lamp-post only his shadow gives him away, but put him on a bike and that all changes. Sonny and the bike meld into one and once he starts to pedal he doesn’t stop. The Old Portlians Saturday ride is a social 30 mile club ride with a cafe stop and, apart from chasing a few Strava segments or the traditional race to the stop sign, the pace is gentle – everyone is winding down after a hard week (whether working or retired) so there’s no real racing. It wasn’t long before Sonny progressed to the Sunday ride. This starts earlier and goes further and at a faster pace and the club’s racers and testers thought this teenager would soon get found out. But not Sonny. It wasn’t long before they too were floundering in his wake. The Old Portlians organise a reliability ride – a traditional early season event, 65 miles through the mist and fog and drizzle of a February Sunday morning. In 2015 – his first time – Sonny suffered like a dog and struggled around the course, cold and ringing wet he finished shivering and bitter. He’d been in the club for a month. Fast forward to 2016 and Sonny blew everyone away; first at every checkpoint he flew up Church Hill in the Ashdown Forest, paused briefly at the tea-stop and then breezed on, riding alone because no-one could stay with him. Up Toy’s Hill as if it was flat (it isn’t) he finished in 3 hours 20 minutes, the second fastest time ever on the course and an average of 18.5mph. Now the hard work for Sonny is beginning. Crit races, track accreditation, time trials, sportives, the full panoply of competition – Sonny wants to try it all. He’s working with a coach now and a couple of mentors in the club are supporting him – the club has even decided to use a legacy to offset some of the entry fees and transport costs to races. Sonny knows these are early days, he knows the world is full of promising youngsters who never made the grade, he knows that the transition to a senior rider is going to be hard, he knows that he has to revise and get through his exams and he knows that the route to the top is filled with pot-holes, broken glass, loose gravel and dodgy paving, but he also knows that if he’s got what it takes (and he does) and he’s prepared to put in the effort (which he is) and he gets a little luck on the way (because we all need a little luck), then he might, just might, follow in the footsteps of his heroes.
*The Catford Hill climb is the longest continuous running cycling event in the world. Every October cyclists of all ages and abilities descend on York’s Hill on the North Downs to time themselves on this brutal climb; 1 mile of punishing ascent, at an average 12% and peaking at 20%, it is three and a half minutes of sheer unadulterated bleeding from the eyes, vomit inducing pain and torture. Competitors do what they can to shed weight, discarding helmets and bottles, pumps and useless gear ratios, anything to add a scintilla of speed. Sonny decided to give it a whirl. His first formal hill climb event, his light weight and sheer guts and power saw him dance to the top in X minutes, quicker than David Millar on his career final event. The crowds packed into the leaf strewn gullies love this quintessential British event – cyclist and machine willing to put their body through every level of suffering to be the first to the top. For most the pain barrier is shut and bolted long before the end and they collapse at the finish line, snot and dribble and their bib shorts and jersey flecked with vomit. Sonny’s parents aren’t well-off and it takes money to make your way in any sport. Cycling is no different – there’s the bike of course and the kit and the helmet and the special shoes but every race costs money to enter plus you’ve got to get there and it isn’t always possible to ride to the start line. But Sonny is determined. He hadn’t been cycling for very long before it was obvious to anyone that his was a rare talent. What’s next for Sonny on this path? He needs results, simple as; winning races, making waves, proving what he can do for the world to see, training and more training, gym work, watching his diet and staying focussed.
*Sonny looks like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. He is wearing a strange mask over the lower half of his face which has the effect of restricting the flow of air. It’s like cycling at 5000m. Sonny is panting, breathing hard, gasping for breath. It hurts. ‘If it’s not hurting it’s not working,’ his coach tells him. Sonny is hurting. Sonny heads up Layhams to Warlingham ridge; the countryside falls away and the wind whips across the road. He drops down White Lane, scene of the hill climb and turns left down Titsey Hill, hitting 40mph as he tears into Limpsfield. Up the slight incline, he crosses the A25 and heads towards Crowhurst and the popular TT circuit. School can wait, homework can wait, everything can wait, it’s just Sonny on his bike, racing through Kent, pummelling the pedals, checking the pace on his Garmin, feeling the wind and the clean Kent air, building his strength, his speed, his cadence, loving every moment of riding his bike.
*Herne Hill Velodrome is hidden by trees, surrounded by the gardens of million pound Dulwich villas. There is more money spent on garden furniture in these suburban gardens than there is on the fixtures and fittings of the Velodrome. And on a cold February day with the drizzle drizzling and the icy wind scything across the track, it’s about as inviting as a Siberian picnic. But wait – HTFU. Toughen up, layer up, swaddle up in windproof, waterproof fabric and thrash out a few circuits on the tarmac banking – you’ll soon warm through and the sweat will bead on your skin as the rain now beads on your rain jacket. These are early days for Sonny Parker. Does he focus on the track, is he a stage racer, a pure climber, a Classics rider, a domestique, a Team Leader? Only time will tell. ‘Ride your bike,’ said Fausto Coppi. ‘Ride your bike, ride your bike.’ Sonny Parker has heard the call and he’s out riding his bike. Watch this space – he’s heading your way.
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