Interview: Racing Captain Ryan
It's fair to say that time trialling is deeply entrenched in British cycling lore and custom, to the point of obsession for many devotees. Burton, Engers, Yates, Boardman, Botrill, Wiggins: all Gods (to name but a few) in the church of the Race of Truth. Widely considered the Blue Riband of Holy Grails at this altar is the National 25 Mile TT Title, a title taken in 2015 by a previously almost unheard of 29-year old British Army Officer: Captain Ryan Perry. Perry has been tearing up course records and beating times set by some of those aforementioned icons of the sport after only coming to cycle racing four years ago. A product of the British Army’s elite sport programme, riding on an impressed Chris Boardman’s frames and supported by Langdale Lightweights, a true local bike shop, passed down from father to son, this is true Great British, plucky amateur stuff of the highest order. Remember last year’s pictures of a smiling Alex Dowsett atop the podium in his National Champion’s jersey at the National Time Trial Championships? Look to his left: that’s Captain Perry that Dowsett’s arm is draped around. A 12th overall in GC at this year’s Tour of the Reservoir, animated riding in the break at the sharp end of the Rutland Melton CiCLE Classic and a win in The Tour of the Mining Valleys hint that, with a little more road race craft to go with the phenomenal engine, there is more to come and nothing of the one-trick-pony about the fiercely driven, racing Captain Ryan…
Always Riding: Let’s start at the beginning of this four-year journey to the top of UK time trialling: British Army Sports. Talk us through how that works and fits in with your normal duties as an officer – are you excused from regular duties?
Ryan Perry: It’s getting a lot more difficult to be an athlete and get supported by the Army as we’re so much smaller now- the last few years we’ve had loads of rounds of redundancies whereas we used to a be a massive army with loads of fee capacity and there was a lot more opportunity, but I suppose now only the cream of the crop get picked to be supported. Right now I’m the only supported cyclist. They’ve taken me out of my full time roll to give me a year just to focus purely on cycling.
The career in the Army is fairly well structured - you take time out, it’s hard: I’m falling behind my peers as far as promotion and experience. But, on the other hand, it is my decision to sacrifice my career in the Army to focus more on this.
AR: What is the thinking behind the supporting of British Army personnel in the world of elite sports?
RP: My boss understands that it is good PR for the Army. I’ve just got to find a route were I can do well at what I’m doing to publicise the Army and keep the right people happy - and then, who knows, I might be able to keep going, I might not! But, whatever – I mean, I love the Army! They’re really supportive!
“I’d make loads of time up on the skis ‘cos I had the legs and the lungs – but come to the range I’d be shaking and there’d be bullets going everywhere!"
AR: Cycling wasn’t the first sport you were supported for though – you started out as a Biathlete…
RP: It was one of those things: I was posted in Germany. Each officer has to take a unit team to compete (in Nordic sports). So, we had to decide which officer we were going to send. So we had a running race: And I won the running race! They were “Right Perry – you’re going skiing!” That’s the selection process “Line up, two mile run, stand by - GO!”
So off I went training with these lads who were already pretty good, I had some catching up to do. I was really good at the skiing, but crap in the range! Crap at the shooting but I’d make loads of time up on the skis ‘cos I had the legs and the lungs – but come to the range I’d be shaking and there’d be bullets going everywhere! We went training and racing all over: Norway, Austria - it was brilliant.
AR: Would you go back to it?
RP: I think I would, yeh. Before I started cycling I was much stronger physically, upper body wise. I think I’m turning into a bit of a dweeb with the cycling - I can barely do a press up now! So if I was given my ski poles now I’d probably pop my shoulder…
AR: So how did the cross-over into cycling come about?
RP: I’d always ridden a bike, I was obsessed with mountain bikes as a kid, always bombing about on a bike, dirt jumping and skate park stuff – all my mates were dead good at jumping but I was just crap. But I could ride really hard uphill! That all got side-lined after I joined the Army for maybe ten years. Around 2012, still while posted over in Germany, there was a really good circuit racing community. All the different units would come together on a Wednesday afternoon and race around one of the airfields. Us skiers used it as training in the summer. So I bought an old road bike - and just battered everyone! I thought “What? I don’t have to go in the range and shoot? Brilliant!” That was probably the most fun racing I’ve ever had. Such a good community: No ego, just guys turning up on whatever bike they could get their hands on and just thrashing each other. I loved it and was bitten by the bug then. I didn’t train or anything, just went and raced.
AR: So at what point did someone say “Hey, you are more than just a ‘bit useful’ at this?”
RP: We went to Bavaria, a group of us from the Army. There are some big hills out there – I mean, I was nearly 90kg, I was a big lad. We got this pro Iron Man Triathlete, a friend of a friend, to come and coach us: I just dropped him on one of the hills – proper ‘See ya later!’ style. He’s like “Who the hell are you!?” So it was him who said “you need to start really racing a bike”
The Army cycling team caught wind of all this. I got an email one day asking if I wanted to look at being supported, starting by training for 6 months over the winter to lose all that weight! So I did and I lost 3 stone in those 6 months. So we went from there…
AR: Nordic skiing and cycling are physically very tough sports to compete in at the highest levels: Does your army training feed into the mental strength required to punish yourself to that degree? Or is that something you have always had?
RP: I think the Army maybe just attracts blokes that are, to start with, mentally tough. I mean, you do some hard stuff in the army – I’ve done very little really hard stuff in comparison to some blokes… they push you to such extremes physically and mentally that twenty minutes on a bike pedalling hard is easy! For me, personally, the physical stuff I can do all day. Physical pain: No problem. It’s the real mental pressures in the Army that are the hardest, when you have someone breathing down your neck and zero timeline – that’s what melts me: That intense, mental pressure. Time trialling, I just stick to a pace and hammer it out, I can just do that.
“So I bought an old road bike - and just battered everyone! I thought 'What? I don’t have to go in the range and shoot? Brilliant!' That was probably the most fun racing I’ve ever had."
AR: You came together with your team, Langdale Lightweights, through racing with the Army in Australia and meeting up with Langdale rider Dan Boultby. Mick Green is the boss at Langdale and I know you’ve commented that he treats you like a son. I know Mick, I know he is passionate about supporting the ‘underdog’, if you will, and developing those riders who may have the raw ingredients but not the pathway laid out for them…
RP: He’s just a calming influence because he’s been around so long. I’ll turn up to a race - not disorganised, I calculate everything to a degree - but Mick has been there a million times, it’s like having a hand on your shoulder and chills me out, takes care of all the things around racing so I don’t have to worry about anything. I can just get on with my warm up, get on with visualising what I’m going to do and everything else is taken care of, Ellie Green too, a massive help.
AR: Talk us through the 25 National Time Trial Title race and what that meant - that title is so revered here in the UK, with our massive time trialling scene and focus, it made a lot of people sit up and take serious notice.
RP: I don’t think I really realised what I’d achieved and how many great riders had won it, how prestigious it is, until Mick, in floods of tears, told me afterwards! To be honest I was in a bit of a weird place last year. I’d done far too much on the bike, was totally burned out, knackered all the time. I felt like I was dragging a tyre, my head was gone. I thought I’d lost the race before I’d even started. I think that, in a way, took the pressure off and actually helped me ride better. Which is different to this year as I’m more of a favourite to win it, which adds another dimension mentally…
“For me, personally, the physical stuff I can do all day. Physical pain: No problem. It’s the real mental pressures in the Army that are the hardest, when you have someone breathing down your neck and zero timeline."
AR: How about beating the times of riders like Chris Boardman and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the recent City RC Hull Open 10?
RP: : Yes, I beat Boardman’s PB by a second and I think I was ahead of Wiggins by about five seconds. I did a 17:53. The locals said it was a similar day to when Brad rode it. I’m under no illusions that I’m just going to go out now and be beating Sir Bradley Wiggins – he is phenomenal. I had a bit of bad luck on the race, actually – I nearly crashed and had to unclip and so lost a few seconds there.
It was good to get under 18mins, but it hasn’t quenched a thirst for me: It wasn’t enough. It didn’t feel all there. I want the competition record. I think that might do it. But maybe not… when I started racing the bike, I thought I’d like to win one of those races on the airfield in Germany: “When I win one of them, I’ll be happy”. But I wasn’t. I don’t know - where does it end? I don’t think it ever does. I still remember my first ever running race, at primary school, it was a one-mile race to qualify for a championship or something in the local area. I won it and qualified. Then I came second in the actual championship race. I got home and went to my bunk bed and was almost in tears. My Dad came up to see what was wrong and I told him: “I can’t cope with this, Dad…” I don’t know where it comes from – I’m not sure it’s a wholly good trait!!
AR: Which do you prefer: The race against the clock or the competing against other riders in a road race?
RP: I’m still a real novice at the time trails, really. I think I’ve only done maybe ten - fifteen, perhaps. That’s going to be the focus for the rest of the season because I like winning. Time trials: Hardest Bloke Wins. What I don’t like so much is that time trialling is becoming a bit of a ‘race of resources’. You see all the aero kit these days. I like sports were the guy who punches hardest, wins. That’s a frustration with time trialling. Luckily I have great kit! But I must admit that I enjoy the road racing more. I like the tactical element of it, I like using my brain, outwitting people. Then dissecting it afterwards, it’s half the fun.
I’m still lucky that at the moment people don’t really know who I am in road racing, so when some chubby, goofy lad attacks at 25 miles in, they expect to see him back in a mile and a half: And then I’ve pulled a minute out! So I just try my arm a bit while I’m still reasonably unknown. At Rutland (Ryan was in one of the key breaks in the latter stages of the notoriously tough race this year - Ed), on the TV footage it looked like we were really working well – but we weren’t: Me and Downing were keen, doing decent turns and pushing through, the others were just sat on… coming through for the odd turn. It was really frustrating as we were doomed then. We’d wasted too much energy to win. Stupid. In hindsight, I’ve chatted with my trainer over it, he says “No more of them – save your energy for the finish”. And I can finish. If I could have been there for that last secteur with plenty of energy left… I’m confident I could have won it to be honest. I was almost there with Rutland. I’ll be going back.
AR: I hear you’re pretty old school when it comes to what’s in the musette. Are you a dyed in the wool ‘porridge in the bidon and a banana’ type?
RP: I believe in the science to an extent – but you’ve got to cut through all the marketing bullshit. I believe there is some good research into stuff like amount of carbs per hour, amount of water you can absorb, I am savvy with that. But I also believe that the body is designed to burn real food, not F’in loads of gels and stuff. I mean, I’ve done the ‘loads of gels’ and it just makes you feel horrible! So, yeh, I definitely prefer a ham butty and a croissant! It comes from skiing: Most of the ski races are twenty minutes to half an hour, so I know for time trialling what works as far as eating and drinking so as not to be sick or anything. I stick to what I know.
“I’m still lucky that at the moment people don’t really know who I am in road racing, so when some chubby, goofy lad attacks at 25 miles in, they expect to see him back in a mile and a half!"
AR: Time trialling is the main season focus: What is the big target?
RP: The Nationals Time Trial Championship. Everything I do now will be geared towards that. I just want that day, one of those days when I feel amazing and that race to coincide… that’s what I want.
AR: Ok, I have to ask: Leg shaving in the Army. It’s probably fair to say you work in a fairly Alpha Male environment. How do your silky smooth thighs and calves go down?!
RP: There is always banter in the Army, regardless of what it is - It's ruthless! So, of course, nobody is getting away with shaven legs! But, I'm an A-grade piss-taker myself so they get as good as they give!