Weekend Interview: Keith Lambert – helping to saddle up the next generation

Great Britain Cycling academy road manager Keith Lambert at the Tour de Yorkshire.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
Great Britain Cycling academy road manager Keith Lambert at the Tour de Yorkshire.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
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Ten years have passed since Keith Lambert strolled into the headquarters of British Cycling to catch up with old friends – and walked out with a new job.

Lambert was 60 at the time, retired from cycling and happy just playing the role of observer.

He had gone into British Cycling HQ in Manchester for a chat about the good old days with some familiar faces; glory years that for this son of Bradford included two national road race titles in a decade-and-a-half on the bike and nearly as much time spent running his own team.

But those he had gone to see at British Cycling were shrewd enough to not allow such knowledge and experience to walk back out of the door, and out of the sport, for good.

“The Tour of Britain was being staged the following week and they asked if I could help out,” reflects Lambert, on what would prove a life-changing visit.

“I said I’d be happy to help out. Ten years later, I’m still here. I’d been happily retired before then.”

Now 70, Lambert is as busy as he was back in the 1970s, when he was one of this country’s foremost professional cyclists.

He is the road manager for British Cycling’s academy team, a position that sees him travelling the world with the Under-23 riders.

They have bases in Italy and Belgium where Lambert can most often be found; coaching, advising and mentoring the next crop of British cyclists.

He found time for this interview late last week in what was a rare few days back at his home in Denholme; when appointments ranging from a haircut to a trip to the dentist were scheduled before he jetted off again. “I have precious little time at home,” he laughs.

Simon Yates of Great Britain and Team Mitchelton-Scott in the pink leader jersey. (Picture: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Simon Yates of Great Britain and Team Mitchelton-Scott in the pink leader jersey. (Picture: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Lambert is in Italy this weekend, working with the academy squad, but will have more than one eye on events today from Piedmont to Cervina, and tomorrow in Rome.

That is because one of his former riders might need the type of guidance and consoling arm around the shoulder that has become Lambert’s trademark this past decade.

Up until yesterday, Simon Yates stood on the verge of becoming just the third Briton to win a Grand Tour, following in the footsteps of trailblazers Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

After three stage wins and 13 days in the leader’s pink jersey, the Giro d’Italia appeared to be Yates’s to win, until the 25-year-old’s challenge unravelled in dramatic circumstances on the treacherous road to Bardonecchia yesterday.

They have to make mistakes and learn by them.

Keith Lambert

As damaging a day as it was for his immediate ambitions, Yates has proven he belongs in the conversation about future Grand Tour winners, which comes as no surprise to Lambert who spent three years from 2011-13 guiding the young Yates as part of the British Cycling academy.

“The first thing you noticed was his steely determination. He was very, very focused, right from the beginning,” says Lambert. “There were a lot of good riders in the squad but he just stood out that little bit because of his versatility. Whatever he did, he wasn’t getting a battering; whatever discipline he was doing, he did it well.

“But it was that steely determination that struck me.

“And he was always asking what to do next, how to progress. You ask him a question and he’s straight in with an answer and then a follow-up question of his own. That shows you they really want it. He was a quick learner. He positioned himself well in the races. He always gave himself the best chance.

“Simon is also very versatile. In early 2013, he spent five weeks training on the road in Australia then jumped on a plane to Minsk, swapped his road bike for a track bike and won the points race at the world championships. All that track stuff helped him with his positioning on the bike but he also had the talent.

“He could always climb very well, but he’s a climber that can sprint. He’s always had that kick like a mule at the end of a climb.”

British rider Simon Yates puts his overall's leader pink jersey on the podium at the end of the 159 km seventh stage of the 101th Giro d'Italia. (Picture: LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images)

British rider Simon Yates puts his overall's leader pink jersey on the podium at the end of the 159 km seventh stage of the 101th Giro d'Italia. (Picture: LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images)

All these characteristics will be vital for Yates now as he seeks to put yesterday’s gut-wrenching defeat, when potential Grand Tour glory was ripped from his grasp, behind him

For Lambert, it is all part of the learning curve these young riders must go on. And he saw enough in the three years he was with him and in the last three weeks to know that Yates retains the tools to make another concerted effort at history.

“I’m always reticent to put pressure on people to say they’re a future Grand Tour champion, but deep down, you just think if he keeps progressing like this...” says Lambert.

“I’ll always remember the day he won a stage against world-class riders on the Tour of Britain (2013). That was a general classification-deciding day with Brad Wiggins in yellow and everyone was full-on on that climb.

“I remember listening on the race radio in the car behind thinking: ‘Simon’s going to win this’.

“And when I saw it later, the way he won it, cor blimey.

“From there on you think a 21-year-old doing that, he’s going to be some rider. So the seed was there.”

That desire not to saddle Yates with too much expectation is a tactic Lambert still employs five years on.

The British Cycling academy is awash with promising riders, many of whom will look at the accomplishments of Wiggins, Froome and Yates and think: ‘I could be next’.

Lambert’s own home county has plenty of prospects, from Sheffield’s Joey Walker to Holmfirth’s Gabriel Cullaigh.

But one in particular attracting national attention is 18-year-old Tom Pidcock, of Leeds, who is already a junior world cyclo-cross champion.

He was part of the Great Britain Cycling team at the recent Tour de Yorkshire, learning from experienced riders like Ben Swift how to compete in a professional peloton.

“At the level the academy races at we can’t use radios because it’s supposed to help their learning,” says Lambert. “They have to make mistakes and learn by them.

“But at the Tour de Yorkshire you can use radios. So they were getting feedback there and then and learned so much.

“Tom had a good go in the break on the final day before ‘popping’ on Greenhow.

“He was disappointed, which in one way is good, but there’s no shame in seeing this as a stepping stone.

“You can’t expect to come straight into the top rung of the ladder.

“You’ve got to move up the ladder steadily and learn as you go along, as Simon is doing.

“Everyone is placing expectation on Tom and because they expect it of you, maybe you expect it of yourself. You’ve just got to hang on a minute, you don’t need to progress that quickly.

“As long as Tom gets the right guidance over the next few years, he’ll be fine.”

Guidance that Lambert has been serving up for the last decade. Just ask Simon Yates.

No wonder British Cycling would not let Keith Lambert walk out of the door.