How do you quantify or even recognise what it means to be someone who “does” bike racing better than other people? We’re not talking results here – although there’s no question that someone who has mastered his craft has a better chance of chalking up a few palmarès than one yet to be totally at home in his chosen milieu. Is it the way you sit on a bike, the way you turn the pedals? Not really, no. We’re looking for the brain, the nose, the guy who has a constant picture in his head of what’s unfolding and knows where he wants to be at every moment as the drama unfolds. He’s like Ronnie O’Sullivan, knowing where the cue ball will need to be in five reds’ time. And not via a radio link to his team car.It’s probably easier to look at a rider and say: has he got it? It’s no disrespect to NOT have the craft, and a guileless character can be very likeable and successful. Chris Froome wouldn’t get the badge but it never did him any harm. Jalabert? Yes. Museeuw? Naturally. Kelly? Of course. You can add to that number a British rider who passes under the radar these days, but has been regarded as The Man by figures such as Bradley Wiggins and Dave Brailsford, both of whom sought him out to occupy pivotal roles in their respective projects. Oh, and it helps if you’re chiselled out of the very road surface itself. We’re talking about Chris Lillywhite.
From a cheeky raw talent, fired like a cannonball out of the Roehampton estates of SW15, through his golden years as a patrôn not to be messed with, to his reinvention as a Mr Miyake for a thousand Karate Kids with eyes on the prize. 2020 marks the beginning of his fifth decade shaping the sport. And he’s only 54.
He is known to everyone at LeBlanq – and in cycling as a whole - as Cel, short for Celery*, a nod to a dedication to another sporting Valhalla. If you added up all the hours he’s spent on a bike, they’re probably only matched by the hours he’s spent at Stamford Bridge where he has watched his beloved Chelsea since he could walk. Actually, our favourite nickname for him is one we first heard when riding out round the Surrey Hills with him back in the 90’s: The Map. Cel is a living road atlas. At times, like when he’s skirting some back gardens, under a disused railway arch, ducking down an alley and popping out in a patch of woodland before riding down the runway of an abandoned aerodrome, he’s more the embodiment of the Ordnance Survey.
Did London traffic really grind to a standstill one day because he relieved an aggressive truck driver on Vauxhall Bridge of his keys as he rode between the traffic, before sending them sailing into the Thames? Did he really dislocate his shoulder by punching a German rider who was meddling with the team chase at the end of a big race? Did he have a tug of war at the Giro d’Italia with two ambulance drivers when they were of the mind that Matt Stephens’s injuries would necessitate abandonment when Cel wanted him back on his bike? (Matt’s portrayal of the rope is still talked about in thespian circles to this day.)What we do know is he is in the history books as winner of the last Milk Race, a proud achievement for someone not designed to be a stage race rider. Last seen hollering instructions from behind the wheel of a GB team car or a Wiggins Skoda, much like his dad behind the wheel of his London cab, we are proud to have him among us. Thinking about it, maybe that’s where The Map thing comes from…
by John Deering
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