It is completely natural to remember people in their best light when they are no longer with us; loss can iron away the edges of anyone’s character. But Chris Walker’s words about his close friend Dave Rayner ring true as soon as the front door of Rayner’s parents’ house opens, and the smiling face of Dave’s father greets me.
There is an unmistakable physical resemblance between John and his son, but there is something else that seems to bring Walker’s words to life. As John offers a handshake and invites us into his home, he laughs and chats to me and photographer Andy like we’re old friends who have arrived for Christmas. It is the comfort that I immediately feel in his presence that I assume, through the words of his friends, is the very impression Dave Rayner himself made on the world.
I was 13 years old in November 1994, when I read the tragic news of Dave Rayner’s death, after an incident at a Bradford nightclub, in my copy of Cycling Weekly on the dark bus ride to school. But, in the same way that you can watch all kinds of horrors on the BBC news over breakfast without stopping to put down your cereal and weep, at the time I felt so far removed from this Dave Rayner — a grown man who I didn’t know, who lived so many miles away — that the story seemed like sad news, and not much more.
But within a few short years the legacy of that terrible story, the eponymous fund, set up to help young riders with the ambition of becoming professional cyclists, offered me a grant of £500 to help with the costs of spending four months racing as a schoolboy in Holland. I became one of what is now a long list of British riders who the fund has helped achieve their goal of becoming a professional cyclist.
Thanks to the fund, and the successes of beneficiaries such as David Millar, Charly Wegelius and Dan Martin, Dave Rayner’s name remains well known in British cycling circles. Every young hopeful coming through the ranks in the UK will have heard the name at some stage. Yet while the name remains, less is known now, perhaps, of the man himself.
It was for this reason that, nearly two decades after his death, I went to Bradford, to talk to Dave’s friends and family, and to begin to finally get to know the man whose legacy has had such an influence on the careers of so many aspiring British cyclists, including my own.
Dave Rayner was born on March 4, 1967, in Shipley, the second and youngest son of John and Barbara Rayner. He was, as John explains, born into a cycling family.
“My dad was a cyclist, and when he came out of the army in 1949, he bought us all bikes. I was nine then and my brother was 11. My dad and my brother joined East Bradford Cycling Club then, but I was too young at first, so I waited and joined when I was 12. And it went from there on really… the Rayners were cyclists.”
I find John’s statement striking; the Rayners weren’t into cycling, they didn’t do cycling, they were cyclists. Living in West Yorkshire in the ’50s, they were also cyclists right in the middle of, what could lay a very strong claim to be, the heart of the British cycling scene.
“I raced as a junior with Barry Hoban, Bernie Burns and Albert Hitchens. There were some good lads in West Yorkshire, in fact if you didn’t come from West Yorkshire…”
To get an impression of how important cycling is in the county, and how strong the community has been (and still is), you really have to see it. During the afternoon spent with the Rayners we are joined by Sid Barras and his wife Linda, as well as Keith Lambert, stalwarts of the UK cycling scene and committee members on the Rayner Fund.
As each of them arrives, the small talk starts up with the usual gossip about who rode where that day, and who has been out in the groups of late. To an outsider, it is a little like learning a foreign language: you catch on to words that you don’t know or understand and suddenly they start cropping up in conversation all the time; places, riders and races, all begin to register. Cycling runs in the blood here and, not coming from a long line of cyclists myself, it is quite something to witness.
John was deeply involved in the local cycling scene, making first category as a road racer by the late ’50s, and working in the Ellis Briggs cycle shop in Shipley. Racing naturally became a family affair for the Rayners. Dave’s elder brother, Gary, raced throughout the youth and junior categories and, Barbara explains, race day was just as important to the rest of the family.
“I never missed a race and my Mum and Dad used to love going, it was always a big family affair.”
Despite their close ties to the sport, Barbara tells me that nobody in the family considered that young Dave would end up cycling for a living.
“When he was about ten years old, we went up to Otley when the Milk Race came through, and all the riders and vans and stuff were all coming past. He pulled on my trouser leg and said: ‘Mum, I’m going to be in one of those one day.’ And I said, ‘oh, yes love, of course you will’. And you don’t think they will be… but he was.”
Riding in the colours of East Bradford CC, Dave soon paired up with young Bernie Burns, the son of another top Yorkshire rider, Bernard Burns.
When I speak to Bernie, despite him nailing down the beginning of their friendship to “about 12”, when the two boys began racing, you get the feeling that he simply can’t imagine a time that he didn’t know Dave.
Burns paints a clear picture of the two of them as schoolboys. “I developed a lot sooner than Dave, so I was a better rider when we were young, because he was so slim. Obviously when you are 16 or 17, you all mature at different rates, so Dave struggled because he was that bit younger, and because he was so light.”
Photographs of Dave as a schoolboy confirm that as a young man he was startlingly thin. Sid Barras, who first encountered the blond youngster as a small boy on the local chaingang, points out, however: “Even though he was so small, you could tell right away that he was going to be a class rider. Just the way he sat on the bike. We saw it in him straight away.”
It can be hard to know exactly what it is that sets apart one talented cyclist from another. But no matter whether you subscribe to the theory of The Sports Gene, or Malcom Gladwell’s Ten Thousand Hours, one thing is true: determination is essential. Dave, it seems, had that in spades.
As Burns explains: “He had to try like hell in every race he rode until he started to win, so he always had the mentality that you had to really try. He knew how to dig deep.”
I like this idea of Dave Rayner, the young man, so accustomed to hanging onto the coat-tails of the older lads he rode with that he learnt how to suffer from a young age. It is, arguably perhaps, one of the most important lessons any young cyclist hoping to make a career from racing their bike could ever hope to learn.
After their years together as schoolboys, it was Burns who proved influential in the next step in Dave’s career, helping him get his first start in Europe in 1984 (Rayner’s first as a junior) with the Porcari-Fanini-Berti team, based in the Tuscan city of Lucca.
“When we became juniors, I used to win a lot of races, and someone from the British Cycling Federation rang me, and said: ‘Look, there is an opportunity for two British riders to go out to Tuscany to race’. They were taking the national champion from the previous year, a guy called Nigel Simpson, and they asked if I wanted to go.
“Nigel Simpson only lasted a few days, so I spent a month on my own, and because they needed another rider they asked me if I knew anyone in England who’d want to come.
“I rang Dave and said ‘there is an opportunity here and you can come out if you want’. So he was out there within a few days.”
Despite Burns brushing over Dave’s arrival in Italy, his decision to spend a year racing abroad didn’t initially go down too well at home. Rayner had started an apprenticeship as an electrician a month earlier, and quitting so soon wouldn’t look great on a CV. Ultimately, it was Barbara who insisted that her son take up the opportunity.
“They all said to him ‘you can’t go, you’ve just got a job’, and I said ‘yes he can go, because if he fails he can come home, but at least he has done what he wanted to do’. I was determined he was going to go.”
Once in Italy, Dave began to excel. The selective racing was well suited to his talents as a climber, and by the time John and Barbara went to watch him at the 1985 junior Worlds in Stuttgart, ‘Davide’ was a genuine star.
“I had a conversation with Mario Cipollini’s dad at the junior Worlds,” John recalls. “I couldn’t speak Italian and he couldn’t speak English, but the gist of it was, when the race went shoooooot [flat hand] Mario won, and when the race went shoooooot [gesturing up] ‘Davide’ won.”
Charmingly amongst the pile of old photos we find one from that race with a banner that reads: CIPOLLINI E RAYNER CAMPIONE DEL MONDO 1985.
Dave ended up spending three full seasons in Italy: two as a junior and then one as a senior before a new ruling forced all foreign riders in Italian clubs to race in plain white jerseys, in a bid to stop the stranieri over-running the Italian amateur system.
It seems unfortunate for a rider of Dave’s talents (“a brilliant climber with a fast finish,” says Walker) that he couldn’t have stayed in Italy for longer. However, in the late ’80s, the path to the professional ranks was simply non-existent for British riders. There was no BC academy, no network of contacts, and there were no rider scouts looking to the UK for the next Tour winner. There were just individuals whose talent was enough to get them through.
For Dave this proved to be exactly the case. Within a year of returning to the UK he was snapped up by Raleigh-Banana, easily the best British team of the time, and after three seasons he duly stepped up to the major leagues, with Jan Raas’s Buckler team. As one of the youngest guys at Raleigh-Banana, you could imagine that Dave was looked after by his team-mates, as the young talented guys always are. It was clear that no one ever had an issue warming to the youngster who, as Barbara explained, was quite the talker from an early age.
“Even when he was really little he’d talk anyone’s ear off. If a plumber or a builder came round he’d just go right up to them and chat away. He’d talk to them all day if they let him.”
There is an abundance of Dave stories from his team-mates, telling of the fun-loving team joker, whose continual high spirits and excitable nature kept morale high. But there was more to people liking Dave than that. Perhaps the nicest example of his character comes from Linda Barras.
“Our son Tom went out to ride an evening time-trial on his tenth birthday. To his total surprise, Dave rode out there with a Raleigh-Banana jersey in his back pocket, and he gave it to Tom for his birthday. Tom was so delighted, he couldn’t believe it, but that was just like Dave.”
Whether in Italy or the UK, it seemed that Rayner’s talent was such that moving to a big team was inevitable. Keith Lambert, manager at Raleigh-Banana, explains: “In 1990, we’d done the Tour of Americas and Dave had done well, then in March we went to Murcia, and he won the combine jersey, so the big teams started tracking him from there on in.
“Then it got to the Tour of Britain [Milk Race], and there was a Spanish team that were tapping him up.
I knew that Buckler had been looking at him, so I rang Raas during the race, and told him that the Spanish team had made an offer, and Raas sent someone right over.”
Even based in the UK, Rayner had proved he had the talent. “In two days it was over,” Lambert adds with a grin, “and we got Dave another five grand on top of what the Spanish had offered him.”
Everyone laughs at the recollection, as it seems Lambert might just have exaggerated the amount of the Spanish offer when he told it to Raas. The idea of the shrewd Yorkshireman, Lambert, outfoxing a manager of Raas’s calibre on behalf on a local boy, goes down particularly well.
John beams with the memory. “To me, it was like him signing for Manchester United. They were such a big team, and Dave had a grin from ear to ear when he signed. He said: ‘They want to pay me all this money to ride my bike — and all I want to do is ride my bike!’”
It will be hard for young riders, who grow up in a post-Wiggins and Cavendish world, to ever really understand the achievement that signing for a foreign pro team was for a domestic racer at the time. The cycling world was a different place, where British riders were regarded, at best, as talented oddballs, and as cannon fodder the rest of the time.
The fact that Dave made it onto the Buckler squad was remarkable. The fact that Buckler might not have used him to the best of his talents in his two years on the team is entirely less surprising.
Burns agrees that Raas probably didn’t get the best out of him. “They didn’t really go out of their way to make him feel welcome.” Dave did, however, still manage to get starts in many of the world’s best races, including the Vuelta and the Ardennes Classics, where he found his way into the break of the day in the 1992 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Chris Walker, racing in Europe for Subaru-Montgomery at the time, diplomatically suggests that the early ’90s world of European professional racing wasn’t an environment that either of them wanted to fully become a part of. “After two years we both felt the same… Because of certain things, we didn’t get on (in Europe) and I think we were both ready for a change. So when we got offered a place in America for 1993 we decided bollocks to this and we went back to enjoying bike races.”
When Walker talks of his time racing in the States alongside Dave for the IME-Healthshare squad, it is clear that it was a special time in both mens’ lives, and the fun loving Dave was in his element.
“We lived in Plymouth, New England. I’d just got married, and so my wife and Serena, who was Dave’s wife, went over. It was the four of us in the house, and we absolutely loved it.”
It was Walker who gave Dave the nickname ‘Crazy Legs’, on account of his fearless descending skills, and it was that very talent which netted Dave a stage win in the Tour DuPont that year.
“It was one of those things. In the team meeting, the manager was saying ‘it is a dangerous finish so don’t do anything daft’, and we just sat there laughing, thinking: ‘This is the stage for Dave’.
The last kilometre was down a mad crazy descent, with the last 300 metres on the flat. Hincapie actually won, but he took a sling from one of his team-mates and got busted, so Dave ended up winning it.”
Following issues with late pay, the two friends returned to the UK together for the 1994 season and enjoyed a successful year as home-based pros at Lex-Townsend. Dave again proved to be much more than a climber, winning a silver medal at the national criterium championships.
When the season came to a close, Dave planned to return to America and had found himself a ride with the Saab team for 1995, before that fateful off-season night-out.
On November 16, 1994, Dave Rayner suffered severe head trauma at the hands of a nightclub bouncer, Steven Barry Johnson. Dave had been dancing on a stage with a drink in his hand when, reports suggest, he was dragged down by Johnson and fell from the stage. Johnson then forced open the emergency exit, allegedly using Dave’s head to do so, before he was taken outside. He never regained consciousness.
Johnson admitted common assault, but denied manslaughter. He received one hundred hours community service.
When I was 13 and read about a grown man being killed in a nightclub, I was removed from the story because I’d never been to a nightclub; never been out for a few drinks; and because, at the time, 27 seemed so old… But now I am 32, that age has long passed, and each November for the last ten years of my cycling career I went out to bars, clubs and all sorts of places, looking for fun at the end of the racing season.
I have all of the parts of Dave Rayner’s story. I can no longer claim to not understand the situation, nor do I feel removed from the man. But the last piece of the story doesn’t make sense to me, and it never will. There can never be an explanation to a life extinguished for no reason at all. There is only loss and grief, and those things never make sense, nor do they ever become easier to accept.
When I arrived the following morning at Dave Rayner’s memorial plaque in the small town of Gargrave, all I could think about was how tragic the conclusion to this story was. There is just a huge black full stop, where I want there to be more chapters and a proper resolution.
When I think about Dave Rayner now, though, I see a man who was, in the very best sense, a product of the envi-ronment that he grew up in, and the cycling community that he was a part of. And thanks to that very community, and his family and friends, who rallied around to create the fund, the story doesn’t quite end there.
Instead, through the lives and careers of the young riders that the fund has helped, the end became a beginning, and in many ways Dave Rayner continues to be an integral figure in that cycling community that he lived to be a part of.
Tom Southam is an ex-professional cyclist and currently works as a Directeur Sportif for Team EF Pro Cycling
This article was originally published in Rouleur 48.
The Dave Rayner Fund recently became a registered charity, renamed the Dave Rayner Foundation. Representatives of the Dave Rayner Foundation joined us at the Rouleur Classic 2019 to talk about its history and plans for the future. Watch in full below.