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By journalist and broadcaster Rebecca Charlton



I would share an exact timeline of my lifelong relationship with cycling but the truth is some of the magic blurs in time and that’s what I love about it. Perhaps not wanting to acknowledge quite how long ago some of it took place I’ve opted for a meander through some of the moments that shaped my view of cycling, alongside millions of other people near and far.



My first memories of bike racing


Back in nineteen-ninety-something I was handed my first ever race number by one of the beaming mums who was sat volunteering at a rickety sign on table. I remember thinking she had a kind, pretty face as she lifted the safety pins from a tatty pile marked ‘under-9’s’. I longed to enter the enviably grown-up ranks of the under-14s and juveniles. I’d never heard of track racing until my parents took my brother and I along to Preston Park in Brighton that night and it’s where I fell in love.


As I entered the gates that summer I didn’t know that this foray into fixed gears and smooth legs all wrapped up in the overwhelming smell of deep heat would shape my future career, my passion and everything in between. My dad’s friend Bob was always wandering around with a 90s camcorder and making VHS tapes so my first post-race interview came early in life. Like the cyclist I grew to be today I blamed my first defeat on a mechanical.


Aside from the track feeling as if it took a lifetime to navigate one lap, two things stand out in my memory - the smell of freshly cut grass and it becoming the coldest place on earth when the sun disappeared behind the grandstand. The concrete remnants of the spectator seating were unloved and derelict but it was still the most magical place on earth to me at the time. The nights I returned from track league were the ones where I could barely sleep for excitement. I’ll never forget the inconsolable disappointment when I realised the track season ended at the close of summer and I’d have to wait until the next season to do it all again, which at that age also felt like a lifetime. Of course I then discovered cyclo-cross and the magic began all over again.




It had to happen sometime


I knew most cyclists would crash at some point but I didn’t expect it to come so soon. Within weeks of sitting on my first track bike, a touch of wheels saw me hit the tarmac and I had to make my first trip to hospital. The pain I felt more than anything was the other children thinking it was because I didn’t know how to stop on a fixed gear and offering me suggestions as to what common mistake I may have made.


I recall being quite indignant at this suggestion and wanted to explain before departing for A&E that it was an unavoidable touch of wheels that led to my predicament, rather than a lack of experience. I was 12 at the time.


By my early teens, I felt quite convinced that no one would think my inevitable tan-lines or scarred legs were desirable, in fact at my school, very little was known about this world of competitive cycling so I decided from this point onwards it would became two very separate worlds.



University days


Fast forward to two-thousand-and-something and while settling into university life my house mate complained that she kept walking into my bike when she got up in the night and painfully hitting  her shin with my pedal. Gradually riding went onto the back burner while I studied for a degree in journalism but really I can’t blame her for this brief interlude in my cycling journey, that would be a poor excuse. The truth is my attentions were turning to chasing another passion - becoming a writer and broadcaster.


I recall my house mates discovered my Lycra in the wardrobe one Saturday night and took turns to try on my bib tights and skin suits, which they thought was some sort of hilarious fancy dress they’d stumbled upon. I wasn’t sure at this point whether I’d return to the sport and not because of the bib fiasco but because I had aspirations of becoming a news reporter or investigative journalist, I’d watch war correspondent Kate Adie and long to make a difference in the world like she had so tirelessly and eloquently.


When I graduated from Bournemouth University I felt that while I’d been honing my skills as a presenter and writer, the end result of living on cheesy chips, Lambrini (a very bad, cheap wine sold in British supermarkets) and the lack of riding did not feel so good.


I knew I wanted to get back on the bike but there were all sorts of questions in my mind. What was my identity as a rider? Should I go back to full Lycra, ride in casual clothes over cycling kit and what did it mean to me now? Well that’s a short story because I ended up being rapidly drawn back to racing when my dad informed me he’d paid for a licence on my behalf and I was out of excuses! Before I knew it I was racing round Calshot velodrome (the shortest and steepest in Europe, I believe) doing Madison training.




My first Tour de France, 2007


Unfortunately this segway doesn’t lead to instant parity at the Tour de France with me turning pro and riding it. By the time the Tour de France (to my absolute delight) began in London I’d been fortunate enough to find my path into cycling journalism via a fast-paced stint at a major London publishing house as a features writer. I was handed the opportunity to cover the whole three-week spectacular, a race I’d been glued to since childhood. My first time in a post-race press scrum was quite the experience and I learned fast. If you wanted a good interview you had to think on your feet, be ready and make an impact (a good one!). And from that point onwards something started shifting.


Things had already started to change dramatically in the UK and people were increasingly noticing cycling but the British success during the 2012 Olympics had a bigger impact than I could have  ever imagined. What a treat it was to finally have all eyes on the sport I felt at one point I had to apologise for loving. I was publicly embracing my passion and people understood it, they were hungry for more. Before long I was talking about racing on BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4 and all the British broadcasting platforms. Friends were asking me what a Madison was and why the riders were holding hands, they were glued to it and I was pinching myself.





Where we are today


When I was growing up it’s no secret that many of my visible role models in cycling were men, although stepping into my first national championships and seeing the senior women preparing for their races had me transfixed. I may not have often seen them on the television very often but I was in awe of their race confidence and I wanted to know and see more.


Skip to 2018 when I began presenting the ITV coverage of The Women’s Tour in the UK and it was a really special moment for me. Not only was it an exciting step in my career but it married with  celebrating the significant improvement in the visibility and coverage of women’s cycling that we’ve seen in the latter part of the last decade.


At the time of writing, the teams have been announced for the return of The Women’s Tour for 2021, which I’ll have the great privilege of hosting again, I’m also looking forward to getting back into the velodrome for Six Day Cycling where we’ll see more Madison racing for the women than ever. I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of presenting The Bunnyhop, a brand new show launched by La Pedale Films covering the women’s peloton and its race calendar in great depth. We’ve just heard confirmation that we’ll see the Tour de France Femme avec Zwift hit the calendar next year, Paris Roubaix is coming, oh and the Olympics are finally upon us. I need a sit down just listing it.



What does the future hold?


Behind the scenes I’ve seen the endless work of people and organisations including The Cyclists’ Alliance and my manager Emma Wade, the first female UCI accredited rider agent, who have pushed for better conditions for the women’s peloton. They’re gaining momentum with conversations around maternity leave, wages, and simply the fair treatment which appallingly isn’t guaranteed and they’re making leaps forward.


There’s so much more we can all do, but equally so much to celebrate. I’m still working away behind the scenes to encourage as many people to experience the joy of cycling as possible as well as riding indoors and out, I am a self-confessed Zwift addict - whatever makes you happy!


I often think what that under-9 rider would think of all the progress we’re making collectively if I could go back and tell her, I think she’d be pretty pleased.