Alex Spratt: From rugby player to Olympic track hopeful
The rising British sprint star on where it all went right
"To be perfectly honest, I hated it," Alex Spratt said, recalling the first track-sprint session he ever did in March 2017.
"I was so lacking in confidence, both in my ability and in what I was doing: riding round, winging it, thinking I was going to come off at any moment," he said, practically squirming while recalling the not-so-long-ago early days of his track cycling career.
But, less than a year after that treacherous first lesson, Spratt finished fourth in the sprint event at the 2018 National Track Championships. The former rugby player then won at the Good Friday Race meet at the Lee Valley velodrome in London with a sub-10 second flying 200m, and went on to compete at the 2018 Six Day London later in the year.
Already this year, Spratt has picked up another fourth-place finish at the track Nationals, despite a family bereavement only weeks before. Not only is the story of Spratt's rise to national and potentially Olympic contention remarkable – what's just as astonishing is how few people know the tale.
Spratt, 29, from Fulwood in Preston, went to Kirkwood Grammar School, which is known for producing rugby talent. He played the game from five years old at Preston Grasshoppers, and the whole way through school. Then, in his final year, while on trial for the Barbarians, his shoulder popped out of its socket while making a tackle. He carried on, but it happened repeatedly, to the point where he simply had to give up his career aspirations.
"I think I could have made it to club level." said Spratt. "I was really enjoying playing sevens at the time, and a couple of my teammates from school – Richard de Carpentier and Dan Bibby – are now in the England Sevens squad. I would have hoped that I could have made it to a similar level as them.
"I went out to Australia last year while the Commonwealth Games were on to watch them play, and that brought back feelings of, 'If only that hadn't happened.'"
Just like that, his hopes of being an international rugby player were dashed. It wasn't until Spratt, who has worked at the NHS for nine years now, spoke to his boss, who was a keen cyclist, that the idea of venturing into another sport even entered his head.
"At the beginning of 2016, I changed jobs to PFI monitoring – contract managing, basically – and the manager who was there at the time, Craig, was a keen cyclist. He mentioned it, and kept showing me Strava, and saying, 'Look how many miles I've done,' and I thought, 'I might do this.'
"One day, I was online, and I just thought, 'I'm going to buy a bike,' so I did. I bought a road bike, picked it up, and bought everything else: shoes, a helmet, bib shorts – anything and everything you could think of. I did it for about three months – and then got a bit bored."
But just when it seemed as though he was going to pack it in, Spratt took part in a training study using virtual racing and training app Zwift, and shed nearly 17 kilograms in three months. However, at still over 100kg, the idea of racing on the road didn't interest him. Then, by blind luck, he discovered the world of track cycling.
"I don't even know how I stumbled across it. I was probably scrolling through the internet on YouTube looking at videos, saw this weird thing called track cycling, and started looking into it."
Spratt went to a couple of taster sessions, and then his girlfriend got him tickets to the national championships in Manchester in January 2017. And after seeing it first hand, with just a couple of small introductions to track cycling under his belt, Spratt thought he could try it, too.
That first sprint session in March of 2017 was with 2011 European keirin champion Matt Crampton on an aluminium Dolan TC1 bike – the bike he would continue to use until just weeks before the 2018 national championships.
Spratt's first competition was just over a month after his first track training session, and he clearly had no idea what he was doing – understandably so for someone who'd been sprinting for less than a month.
"It didn't go very well because we hadn't practised a flying 200m or anything, so I just sort of guessed and stopped pedalling when I got to where I'd been pushed off from, thinking I was done. I got, like, 12 seconds and that made me think, 'OK – what am I going to do now?'" said Spratt.
"From there, I carried on training with Matt, and had a couple of other sprint meets. The next one after that was a Black Line race series meet in May, where my times came down, and I came third. The progression was going really well."
Eventually, the national championships rolled around. Incredibly, just nine months after his first race, Spratt qualified third in the sprint. Devastatingly, he missed out on a medal in the finals, but didn't let that deter him.
In October, he was invited to the Six Day London event in Stratford to race alongside former world champions Max Levy, Shane Perkins and Robert Förstemann, and double world-record holder François Pervis.
"I thought it was a joke because Lewis Oliva had given my email to a guy at the Six Day, and I thought nothing more of it. But then they contacted me, and it took me less than two seconds to say yes," he said.
"Even now, it's hard to believe that someone who was riding for such a short period of time was asked to take part in such a prestigious event.
"Once there, I was standing on the sidelines thinking, 'I've got no idea how to track stand, and I'm not the most capable on a bike, but I know I can go fast.' Winning the keirin on the first night and then my race against François were the two highlights – and the race against François even more so because of the sheer volume of the crowd. I watched it back the other day and the sound coming from everybody is such a buzz," said Spratt.
He was quickly brought back down to earth from the adrenaline of the Six Day London event after his nan passed away from cancer prior to the 2019 national championships. Despite the grief, and having to balance a full-time job with his training, Spratt achieved another fourth place in the sprint in Manchester, and pushed six-time Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny all the way in their heat.
It's a quite incredible journey from a debilitating injury playing rugby to racing the country's very best in track cycling. And what would top the story off would be a place in the Olympic squad for Tokyo 2020, although Spratt is realistic about his position as an amateur with little funding and of his chances of going to Japan.
"Obviously, I need race wheels and entry into races, and if I want to go to Europe then there are flights, accommodation, getting my kit out there, physios, coaching, training at the velodrome, and everything. You're talking thousands of pounds every year," he said.
"It's like night and day when you compare amateurs like me to the GB lot. They're training every day as a full-time job, and then I'm working full-time and just training when I can. It's always going to be a massive difference.
"It would be insane to go to an Olympics, though. It's something you can never write off, although you kind of do. I'd be happy if British Cycling came to me tomorrow and said, 'Your racing has improved dramatically, you're hitting times similar to the guys on the Podium Programme, and you probably won't go to the Olympics, but do you want to come onto the Podium Programme and we'll try to turn you into the best you can be?'"
Spratt also talked of other goals he's setting his sights on – such as getting the national record for the flying 200m, as well as competing at the Six Day Manchester this March in front of a local crowd of people who've seen his incredibly swift rise from the very beginning.
Whether British Cycling take a chance on him or not, the rise of this NHS worker from Preston cannot be ignored.
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