When the first Sky rider rolls down the Tour de France's starting ramp next Saturday, a 23-year drought on British-backed trade teams in cycling's No 1 event will finally come to an end. But the differences in ambition and conditions between ANC – the last GB team to fly the Union flag at the Tour, back in 1987 – and Sky could hardly be greater.
There's the question of money, for one thing. Despite being Britain's biggest squad of the time, almost all the ANC squad rode the Tour unpaid. Just four riders of the nine finished the Tour, a third place in a stage by Malcolm Elliot – still racing at pro level at 48, for Motorpoint-Marshalls Pasta – the high point of an utterly dismal race.
"It was like being on Elm Street, a non-stop nightmare," recalls Shane Sutton, a wiry Australian pro now working for Sky as head coach. He eventually packed it in on stage 13 as worries mounted over non-payments.
Sutton reckons he lost around £20,000, a small fortune to a bike rider in those days, and says: "I should have made that decision [to quit] earlier. To see someone like [star team rider] Graham Jones – who was a bit of a god in British cycling – abandon in the first week, you realise something's wrong. You're having constant rider meetings about the money and all you're concentrating on is when you're going to feed your family, not the race. I had to make a conscious decision that I was going home and getting a proper job."
In a storm of bad planning, ANC had also failed to get their roster on track for the toughest bike race in the world. Sutton says: "Myself, I'd been ill since March. Basically they wanted me to go to West Berlin [where the race began] and get on the start-line. We didn't have the riders."
The team were way out of their depth, partly because, as Elliot explains, apart from Jones "none of us had done any races that were longer than six days. When we heard we were going, maybe a month before, we weren't exactly over the moon. It sounded like pie in the sky. We thought we'd maybe race it in 1988. As it was, we had no time to get ready".
Nor did they have any financial back-up. ANC had paid £37,000 to get in the Tour and afterwards there was no money left in the kitty. ANC were already in trouble even before the squad arrived in West Berlin. The first stage was an individual time trial but ANC had no time-trial bikes; "they were all in a lock-up on the Isle of Man," Elliot says.
Conditions quickly went from rough to dire. "Bad hotels, the food was what they threw at us every night, we were a small team and as such we got the rough end of the Tour organisation treatment," Sutton recalls. "We didn't have the right bikes, we didn't have the right cars. We had nothing."
Elliot says: "It was absolutely brutal, it was hot and humid, and we were just blown away by how fast the other riders were going. We lost three guys early on, which was a big blow to morale, and from then on we were each in our own private little hell."
July is holiday month in France, and watching the locals enjoying themselves did not help. Elliot says: "We would be riding by all these people lying around in parks and by rivers, having the shit kicked out of us, day in, day out. The temptation to stop was pretty immense. I would just tell myself to go on for just one more day. One more day. It was the only tactic I knew to keep going."
The lowest point came one night when the entire team – management, riders and hangers-on – were dossing down on camp beds in a single school dorm in intense heat. Nobody could sleep and somewhere in the small hours Elliot blew his top, shouting: "I'm never coming on this crappy little race again." He says now that "it felt like we were on a chipper [third-rate, amateur] race and staying in chipper conditions".
Team owner Tony Capper did Very little to help. A chain-smoking, overweight man who used the Tour's team accommodation to put up his family and friends, Capper believed himself to be a visionary, giving British cycling an international profile. But by the third week, the team was running on empty. Manager Phil Griffiths was reduced to selling spare bike wheels to raise cash; when another team manager demanded payment for race radios he had given Capper, he received bike frames in exchange. There were no drivers, with a journalist roped in to drive the team van.
When Capper drove off in a team car without warning, he and his horde of relatives, not to mention the family poodle, were not missed. But his exit was the writing on the wall.
Sutton says ANC kept going because of people like Griffiths. "He was the one person from the management who could really hold his head high, even if he had to do it on the scrimp and scrounge with his own money. Everyone says he's a nutter, and you can put that in, but he's a lovely nutter who's dedicated his life to cycling."
Within months of the race ending the team were bankrupt. Two decades on, riders' resentment at how they were treated lingers. Jones still gets angry if his photo is published with him wearing an ANC jersey; Sutton ran into Capper at a petrol station in Spain and had a sharp exchange: "He wanted to be friends and I told him in no uncertain terms that was not going to be. I never want to speak to him again. It was a real shame because we had class bike riders, we had so much more to offer, but we weren't ready, the whole level of support was wrong.
"But ultimately it wasn't about the money. It never is. It was about the lies and deceit. We were thrown in at the deep end and we got shafted."Reuse content