For over a decade, former racer Cherie Pridham directed and owned one of Britain’s most successful Continental teams. But for 2021 she takes on a new role, as a DS with Israel-Start Up Nation, making her the first woman full time in the team car in the men's WorldTour. Procycling magazine hears her story.
This article is taken from Procycling magazine issue 278, February 2021.
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The last 10, 12 years I spent at Conti level with my former team, Raleigh and then Vitus Pro Cycling, and having to make the decision to close the door on that last year was heart wrenching. It was pretty emotional having to shut the service course down and selling everything. When we made that decision it was almost inevitable. Sponsorship here in the UK was scarce and I just needed to make the right decision, and that’s what led me to believe, early - August or September time - that I could still roll the team into 2021, but I’d need to work. I’d applied for normal jobs as a start, and I wasn’t getting any joy there I was 40 applications in and had not even had two responses, so that was getting me down. That’s why I thought, why can’t I send an email to WorldTour teams? I’ve got nothing to lose. And I did.
All credit to Kjell Carlström at Israel Start-Up Nation, he picked the phone up and we had a real good talk for a good 45 minutes. It was clear to me that the team was definitely a forward-thinking, diverse team that was looking to the future, not just because I was a female. Kjell made it quite clear that we’re looking at what you’ve done as a DS over the last few years, we both had views on that and I think that’s always been the case. And we had a discussion and nothing much happened.
It all happened in one night, really. We made the decision at board level to close Vitus Pro Cycling, which I have owned... and it was a pretty emotional evening. I got a bottle of wine out and I’m sat there and an email comes in with a contract offer from Kjell. I won’t say it’s a coincidence, but people kept saying to me, when one door closes another one opens, keep your chin up. And that’s the way it happened. It was the same day.
I still don’t think of myself as being different because it’s all I’ve ever done since I was a kid. Even when I was racing as a kid I had to race with the junior boys, and when I got into management, with the junior teams in the UK back in the early 2000s and I started learning the trade, it was with men’s teams. I’ve never actually done anything other than that. When we started working our way up the ranks, becoming UCI registered, I was still, I guess, the only female then. I never gave it a thought. Just cracked on.
There’s always one or two you come across, year in year out, that do make your life difficult and challenging. But I think that when you come across those kinds of people, they’re the people that make you stronger and allow me to be in the position that I’m in. I learn from those experiences. I’m not alone in that. Sometimes in the business field, you get looked at differently. And I would say it’s more in the commercial side of things. I’ve been accepted a lot easier, I believe, in the cycling world, in the convoys, in the DS meetings, than I have in a commercial atmosphere when I’ve owned the team and had to present myself, looking for big corporate sponsorships.
I left South Africa on my 18th birthday because I was going to be a professional cyclist. And mum and dad made it quite clear, yes you can go - we had family and I was born in the UK - but you’ve got to pay for your own flight. They made me stand on my own two feet straight away and work for the stuff that I needed to do.
I knew when I was a very young teenager that I wanted to be a pro bike rider and there was nothing that was going to stop me. I remember writing to Rebecca Twigg, who was a real American icon at the time, she still is to me. She sent me a 7-Eleven skinsuit all the way from America to South Africa. That’s just the way it appears I’ve worked out, is to swim the earth.
When I turned professional for the first time, I still had to pay my way from the UK to Italy. I can remember the language barrier and I got the flight and the day wrong, and ended up sleeping in the airport. It’s just a different breed to the now generation, where everything is almost laid out for them.
I think as a kid I was probably a bit of a tomboy. We’d ride around on bikes and all my friends were lads. I ended up climbing trees and racing them round. I don’t know why I even knew about cycling shoes, or having a race number on, but we actually made race numbers. My mum used to play hockey and I got my dad to chop mum’s old hockey boots up, leave the front studs there, so they acted as a cleat. Those were my shoes that I used for my very first race.
The club atmosphere or club life in Cape Town was pretty strong. I was a member of the city cycling club that was based out in Green Point. The community around those... you had barbecues and track meetings, stuff like that. They were your family, and mum and dad got involved.Mum was doing a bit of secretary work for the club and dad was marshalling. Then I got to know different coaches… I developed really quickly two years on from when I started, aged 11. Suddenly I was winning things at senior level as a 15-year-old. It was quite clear that was what I wanted to do. I always said that I wanted to ride the women’s Tour de France for GB.
I morphed into a climber. When I was in Cape Town I was more of a sprinter because I came from a track background. I was always in the gym and got into a bit of bodybuilding at 15, 16 years old. I had to lose that weight, but I soon learned when I came to the continent. We didn’t have nutritionists and sports scientists back then, I just sort of worked out that on my first Tour de France for GB, to go up these mountains I needed to lose some weight.
We were so fortunate, my generation, to have so many women’s stage races. I mean, we had the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Suisse, Tour de France Féminin, Tour de l’Aude, Three Days of Vendée, Tour of Sicily - there were that many to keep us going. For me, that feeling of finishing the Tour… most of the time it finished in Paris on the Champs-Élysées but there were a couple of times it finished at the top of iconic mountains. We had a Tour finish at the top of Alpe d’Huez, and that’s pretty special.
There was a series of life changing things that happened and ended my racing career. I had two bad accidents and they were both involving cars. One was actually a real silly accident - someone chucked a bag of spuds out of a car window, and I broke my wrist. I had all that repaired and it wasn’t long after that… it was June just before the National Championships, I was hit by this car. It ultimately put paid to my career. At the time I tried to make comebacks, as you do, but I was having that many surgeries. I had bone taken from the hip, my shoulders repaired, broken jaw, wrist was broken again… I think my body just said, that’s enough. I was a climber at the back end of my career, I was pretty lean. I woke up one morning not very well and as it turned out the next thing I knew I was in Nottingham, in an isolation ward, and I had meningococcal meningitis. I think it was at that point where cycling wasn’t the be-all and end-all. That was the year I decided to take it elsewhere.
My partner Eddie was involved with the GB junior squad. I’d been on several trips and sat in the cars while he was working, and I think that work with younger riders attracted me. I ended up doing my coaching exam with British Cycling, I’d already started that transition probably without me even knowing. The junior team morphed into under-23 and it wasn’t long before Raleigh came knocking at the end of 2010 and the rest is history.
I probably never saw the significance, the honour, of being asked to be a team manager or DS of the iconic brand Raleigh. That’s not taking it away from the true team Raleigh from back in the days of Zoetemelk. Nonetheless, I still was a team manager of one of the most iconic brands in the world. I’m immensely thankful for that opportunity from the guys at Raleigh. But also realising the opportunities they gave us, and the size of the budgets in those days to what we had to work with and what we’ve had to work with in the last three to four years. It’s chalk and cheese. I look back on those years with great pride.
We raced in South Africa, Mexico, Canada, America, the opportunities and the places that we went to were amazing. And we did well. We could podium with a team abroad and I could have Eddie looking after a team at the Tour Series and still win a round of the Tour Series. We were able to run a two tier programme which is almost nigh-on impossible to do now.
People management is key, and being diplomatic. Particularly, nowadays more than five, 10 years ago, is being able to listen, especially to the younger generation because whether we like it or not they are a different breed. As a manager you have to learn to adapt very quickly. I think that’s the other thing that I’ve had to learn and been capable of doing, is moving with the times. Understanding power meters, Training Peaks, learning VeloViewers - all the gadgets and trickery that makes DSing work.
I knew that we were going to continue into 2021 as Vitus Pro Cycling, but I knew we had to work on some new commercial sponsors. We had some very, very warm fires and one that we were close to signing a three-year deal with, it just fell away, purely because of covid. And then it was a downward spiral from there.
The big difference [with Israel] is we’ve got the buses and the TVs and the ability to share strategies and race tactics in the bus. Whereas sometimes we were out in the sticks with Vitus Pro Cycling and all you could do was show the route on a bit of paper. But I’ve always been one for preparation; I’ve always enjoyed looking at the wind direction, difficulties on the course, and I believe in the car. I’m fairly calm and I’m just me. I don’t give too much information. That’s something I need to learn now - do I change my style? Probably not. I’m here because of my style. What you see is what you get.
Quite frankly, whether you’re male or female, if you’re good enough to do the job then you promote yourself, you push yourself, you take every opportunity. My philosophy in life is you only live once so get out and get stuck in.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling's deputy editor.
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