This article was originally published in Issue 115.
Charlie Craig went to bed on January 20, 2017 after a perfectly normal day at school in the village of Hayfield, in the heart of the picturesque Peak District. It had been an unremarkable day, apart from the notable inauguration of Donald Trump as the US’s 45th President.
His mother Sarah went into her son’s room the following morning to rouse the 15-year-old budding cyclo-cross star. She wondered whether he was having a lazy Saturday morning, but it was most unlike this very active young man. Charlie did not wake. He had suffered a fatal heart attack during the night, the result of an undiagnosed pre-existing heart condition.
Just one week later, Tom Pidcock led an unprecedented Team GB clean sweep of the medals in the juniors’ race at the World Cyclo-Cross Championships. As Ben Turner, Dan Tulett and Pidcock – all friends and team-mates of Charlie in the tight-knit British cross scene – approached the finish line in the snow and ice of Luxembourg, they pointed to their black armbands. Tears flowed on the podium. They raced for Charlie.
At the funeral one week later, an overflowing church congregation comprising family, schoolmates and cycling friends from across the country heard what we already knew about Charlie from grief-stricken speakers. Charlie was a special kid: brimming with life, creative, chatty and bubbly, always with a ready smile.
And much like his dad Nick, a multiple national champion in cyclo-cross and mountain biking, a very handy bike rider too, who shared his father’s sense of adventure on two wheels. It wasn’t all about racing for the Craigs. Packing a bag and tent and heading off to explore the mountains was how the father and son would often spend their holidays.
Young friends at Charlie’s funeral sported mini knitted pom-poms on their lapels, in honour of his favourite headwear. His smile was never broader than when peeking out from beneath a big bobble hat. Hayfield’s knitters had been frantically producing hundreds of woolly orbs that decorated St Matthew’s church that day.
Five years on and the pain for Sarah and Nick, and Charlie’s brother Thomas - also a talented racer in the British Cycling system as a junior – remains undiminished. Time does not heal when you have lost a child.
“You can’t compare child loss with losing anybody else: mother, father, auntie, uncle,” Sarah tells me. “We were told that, and we know that. But it’s the worst grief ever. It doesn’t get easier. You just have coping strategies and manage it.”
She crochets as we talk, a coping strategy in action. Her former position as a community nurse was held open for four years, but Sarah felt unable to return to work. It was too painful. Too close to Charlie’s tragic end.
“I love cold-water swimming, and spend a lot of time in the hills, riding my bike and walking the dog. And crocheting is something I never did before. It absorbs my mind.”
“I ride my bike for the same reason,” adds Nick. “I mostly ride alone, but I never feel alone.” Following Charlie’s death, Nick and Sarah were contacted by Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY), who raise awareness of the condition and offer subsidised heart screening for people aged between 14 and 35 and bereavement support for those who have suffered a loss. The idea to set up a Ride For Charlie foundation soon formed.
“When Charlie died, a lot of people wanted to donate money,” remembers Sarah. “We had a phone call from someone at CRY, because Charlie’s heart had to be sent to St George’s in London. So we started to learn about it then, and set up a fund with CRY that was ringfenced in his name, so some of the money raised went into that.
“But we also wanted to do something that was very much about Charlie, his personality and nature. We wanted to offer something that was able to help young people experience adventures like he did. That’s how it started.“
Young cyclists are invited to apply for financial support to race events such as the European Youth Championships – a multi-stage MTB event Charlie had been due to ride the year of his passing – European cyclo-cross races and assorted adventures with the following stipulations: “Off-road, ages 14 to 23. We felt there was a lot of stuff out there for the road already,” says Nick.
Sarah shows me a selection of snippets of emails from applicants. Some knew and raced with Charlie; some did not. But his passion for riding and his inspiring legacy is quoted by all. So long as it’s off-road and sounds exciting, their grants will be considered. Racing is not compulsory.
“I always ask myself: would Charlie like this adventure? Is this what he would write to somebody?” says Sarah. “If it is, it’s a goer. I look at them all individually and we discuss a lot of them, too.”
“I was quick to realise that it took me places I had never been before,” says Nick on a lifetime of racing and riding that has taken him all over the world. “For youngsters to travel, it gives them a better view of other cultures. It really does broaden your horizons.”
Nick and Sarah became aware of the Rapha Foundation, formed in 2019 by the clothing brand and donor of $5million to cycling organisations worldwide to date. Sarah began the lengthy application process.
“It was very hard and I almost threw in the towel several times, but I persevered and carried on with it. And the people on the end of the emails from Rapha were very helpful,” she says.
Her tenacity was rewarded with $30,000 per annum over the next three years, a substantial boost to the Ride For Charlie campaign. “This year, I’ve had the most applications we have received. We’ve not had to turn anyone away,” says Sarah.
“We said if Ride For Charlie lasts for ten years and creates those experiences for young people, then we will be happy with that,” says Nick.
“But I also hope it continues,” adds Sarah.
Donations to CRY in Charlie’s name continue to fund important work, as Nick tells me: “Last year we did one day at the local school and tested around 120 kids, and Sarah ran days there the year before. The team come from St George’s in London and do the screening – they are brilliant – and that’s all paid for from kind donations to CRY in Charlie’s name.
“There was no testing during the two years or more of Covid. There are at least 12 deaths per week in the UK from undiagnosed heart conditions in 14 to 35-year-olds. In Italy, testing for athletes is mandatory and they have reduced cardiac death by 90 per cent.”
The coroner’s inquest and report for Charlie came a year after his death. Professor Sanjay Sharma, medical director for the London Marathon and a cardiologist for the English Institute of Sport, told the inquest Charlie had suffered several cardiac episodes over time, leaving scarring which ultimately led to his death.
Coroner Chris Morris said he was concerned at the apparent lack of health screening of youth riders by British Cycling, the governing body. He would be writing to BC to urge screening for young cyclists.
“As we know from when Charlie and Thomas were in the BC system, there was no testing apart from elite competitors,” says Nick. “All these youngsters were not being tested, and nobody knew about it. They were doing all these ramp tests, but not checking their hearts for abnormalities. The recommendation was that anybody representing GB in competition should be tested.”
To his credit, BC’s Performance Director, Stephen Park, visited the Craigs to ask their advice: what would they like to see implemented in the GB system? “They weren’t at fault,” says Nick. “It’s the lack of information and sharing of knowledge that could have been better. So heart screening is Charlie’s legacy. If every child was tested at the age of 14, the way CRY does it, then we’d have a lot fewer deaths.”
Former BC psychiatrist Steve Peters has also been a supportive figure to the Craigs, offering advice and strategies for dealing with the hardest times of the year.
“The national cyclo-cross champs always seem to be a massive trigger for me,” says Sarah. “Steve would say, expect it to be shit – it’s okay. Winters are really difficult for us, because it’s Charlie’s birthday in November, then Christmas, then the anniversary of his death in January. So those three months are always going to be hard.”
Talking about Charlie, as painful as it clearly is for Sarah and Nick, helps them both process their insurmountable grief. I wondered if perhaps the young people they know and support deal with these conversations better than our generation. It’s good to open up, yes?
“We have lots of interaction with parents and adults from the racing scene who knew Charlie,” confirms Sarah. “Some of them are lovely, but some cannot speak about it. But the kids always ask how you are, and how you are doing. Those little things really help. I know it is hard for people, but we need to speak about it more.”
Knowing Nick for many years, but only seeing Sarah across a crowded cyclo-cross pit dealing with her family’s muddy bikes, I say that Charlie seemed to be a chip off the Nick block in his upbeat nature.
“Personality-wise, I always thought Charlie was more like me,” says Sarah. “And Thomas was more like Nick. He was very tolerant, very placid. He was creative in everything – sewing, drawing, he liked numbers. But he never stopped playing.”
“He always had time to have fun,” concludes Nick.
And that’s a good note to finish on. Charlie had it nailed. Be competitive, by all means, but be kind to the competition; make friends; never stop playing, or having fun.
Ride on, Charlie.