Cheddar punches well above its weight for a medium-sized Somerset village. A world-famous cheese for starters, that the protection-savvy French would have slapped an appellation d'origine contrôlée certificate on from the outset. Anyone with a few cows and some cheesecloth can make a sharp, tasty wheel of the stuff and stick a label on. Canadian Cheddar, anyone?
Then there’s the prehistoric limestone caves at the foot of the gorge, with their stalactites, stalagmites and cathedral-like main chambers. The skeleton of Britain’s oldest human was found there in 1903 and, in our view, rather unimaginatively given the name ‘Cheddar Man’, when Kenneth was still available. And Cheesus, for that matter.
Finally, of course, there is the mighty Cheddar Gorge itself, cutting a swathe through the Mendip hills and ploughing a furrow through the limestone rocks over a million years ago by the magic of hundreds of years of ice age meltwater. It is, undoubtedly, one of this country’s finest tourist attractions, which is why we visited.
What better time to enjoy an area of outstanding beauty and special scientific interest than during semi-lockdown, when the usual busloads of tourists and car-borne visitors are decidedly absent? We’ll have the place to ourselves, probably.
And who better to take on our ride than Alec Briggs? For those of you unfamiliar with Mr Briggs and his oeuvre, let us introduce the man. He races those insane Red Hook fixed gear crits that most of us – especially the Rouleur team – thought absurd, not to mention downright dangerous. We have since reconsidered our position. They are still insane, and we have no idea why anybody would want to subject themselves to such folly, but hey, they are great fun to watch. Just don’t ask us to participate.
Alec also formed his own team, Tekkerz, a bunch of like-minded mates who simply wanted to race bikes and have fun. Nothing is off limits. Suggest a bright idea to Alec and he will try and make it happen. When you have multiple world and Olympic track champion Elinor Barker in the Tekkerz colours, that speaks volumes for the approach. The ethos is to facilitate, not obstruct. Hooray for Tekkerz.
The other thing you should know about Alec is he’s a proper south London lad – a total geezer whose accent and vocabulary encompass the wonderful inner-city mash-up of cultures and ethnicities in this part of the capital. We are taking him right out of his comfort zone to the West Country, where life’s a bit slower and attitudes a little more restrained. Will he thrive and survive? Will the locals get upset at his lairy antics? And most importantly, will the lovely bike Specialized have loaned us make it back in one piece, or will he wipe out pulling a lengthy skid on a gnarly corner?
A gentle roll out of the village gets us started, heading towards Blagdon Lake, the sizeable reservoir created in the 19th century to supply water to nearby Bristol. Cyclists outnumber motorists on the road – a good sign we’ve picked a pleasing route.
It’s a rare outing on tarmac for Alec. These days, shredding the trails on his mountain bike is keeping him out of mischief until racing returns. He’s come full circle: MTB followed by track was his route into riding because, as his mum put it, he was “being a bonehead at school”.
“Truth be told, I wasn’t having a good time. But then I was pretty rubbish at racing as well, to be honest. I just enjoyed it.”
It was Daddy Briggs who provided the next curveball – cycle speedway, that rare discipline born in the bomb sites of post-war Britain that combines lightning-fast reflexes with gladiatorial, elbows out action.
“Speedway was the sport in my house – not football. My dad loved it, and I used to dress up in speedway costumes and pretend I was flying my bike round the garden. There was a club in east London looking for riders, so I joined. It was wicked, won my first national champs, it was really sick. It gave you a bit of everything. That’s what made me a sprinter on the road – gave me a snap. A 33x18 gear round a 90-metre circuit and you are just like… drifting round dirt corners, no brakes or gears, nothing.”
Alec went to university with no clear plan of what career path lay ahead and despite his less than satisfactory experience at school. “I thought I was going to be a world champion, to be honest, I genuinely did – it didn’t happen, so I thought, let me go to uni, what does everyone else do? I’m not academic – doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, I’m just not academic the way they do it.”
We are now skirting the delightfully named village of Nempnett Thrubwell, handpicked by us poring over a map for its quintessentially West Country name. Try rolling those two words around with a Somerset twang.
Nempnett Thrubwell. Perfection.
Our crew attracts the attention of the local constabulary, keen to know what a photographer, videographer and a bloke on a bike are doing in town. The personable city boy comes good and everything is sweet. The cheery coppers wave them on their way. “It is mad what a smile can do. My mum was always good at saying hello to the neighbours. I’ve always taken that and it’s got me so far.”
Founding the Tekkerz team came from a sense of frustration at the generation of Instagram influencers and their self-entitled attitude to free kit without actually achieving anything. If you want to be on the team, you better be prepared to back it up on a bike, not swan around taking selfies in glamorous locations.
Alec designed the kit; Specialized jumped in from the start; a call to Oakley and they were on board. He makes it sound so simple and in his eyes, with his can-do attitude, it kind of is. “What was really good was that I didn’t lose one sponsor – everyone has always invested more each time. You have to navigate everyone’s lives, but then it all picked up. Just wing it and as long as you are up for it, it seems to work out.”
Another set of caves and another big tourist attraction, Wookey Hole, is passed, closed due to pandemic restrictions but hopefully back in business before long. There’ll be no coffee stop here for our trusty team, so they press on over the rolling Mendips towards the big target for the day – the descent of Cheddar Gorge.
What makes a Tekkerz rider then, Alec? And what racing are they likely to participate in? Grand Tour fans whose hackles are easily raised might want to skip the next paragraph...
“I didn’t want to do road racing, I think it’s shit, I don’t understand why anyone wants to watch that for six hours a day, 21 days in a row – just pointless. Who wants to watch 21 marathons in a row? No one, it’s stupid, makes no sense. But a crit, I can watch that – a one-hour race...”
In a split second his racing brain has moved on: “Let’s make a skateboarding cycling team!” I think he actually means it, just for that moment, but then it’s gone, probably never to re-emerge. But what is admirable about the mindset of the man is that, unlike many of us who sit around in cafés or pubs and dream up brilliant and wacky ideas without any intention of getting them done, Alec makes things happen.
“I say to these riders: what do you want to do? I don’t care if you want to win, I want you to have aspirations, a career in cycling, and I am happy to help you find that, even if you don’t know. Want to be a designer or a commentator? There’s always a different story to each person and not everyone has to be a gold medal Olympian. I think we pigeonhole everything in cycling – that guy’s a ‘cross rider, or a mountain biker.
“There are better ways to entice people and show people about cycling on the whole. I don’t necessarily think the professional business model of cycling is a good idea, it doesn’t make sense to me. From the ground up, that’s what I want to tackle. I don’t want it to replace what has already been done in cycling, but let me offer you an alternative and if it pops off and they co-exist, then amazing. If it’s better and the old one dies out, then hopefully there’s something else to springboard off.”
Throw an Olympic gold medallist in the Tekkerz mix, in the form of Elinor Barker, and you have a pretty compelling argument for the formula. How did that come about?
“We were just chatting and she didn’t know which road team to choose and was stressing. I joked and said when you retire, you can come work for Tekkerz and then she went: ‘Actually, I have an idea. How about I ride for you and then I do some crits and then focus on the Olympics?’ That works for me. It’s not about getting the racing done, it’s about inspiring people with videos, talks, whatever. In return, she can spread some awareness and we learn more about women’s cycling – a no-brainer.”
Can’t argue with that. Now for the really fun bit, a traffic-free ride down Cheddar Gorge. But we have promised Specialized not to razz their lovely new Aethos to within an inch of its life and are true to our word. It’s been a grand morning out, a genuine pleasure to get out of the city and see one of Britain’s true wonders. Sometimes that is enough. Thrills and spills can wait for another day.
All that remains is the long haul back up to Cheddar village, setting for the National Hill Climb Championship back in 2007. Notable competitors included one Hugh Carthy in the under-13s and James Knox, under-14s. They turned out to be quite handy on a bike...
But Alec and I are on the same page when it comes to climbing. Hills are a necessary evil to be endured so you can do the fun bit of tearing downhill as fast as possible, shaving the corners and banking that bike over as far as you dare. But each to their own is the Tekkerz philosophy, so let’s close on that note.
“Everyone can have their own interest. If they are passionate about it then they want to talk and make it inspiring. I’m not the one that dictates what’s inspiring. The media does. If a person has a passion and they are inspired, then so can someone else – maybe they’re the catalyst. If someone wants to go and time-trial round the world... look, that’s not really a Tekkerz thing, but if you can make it cool and convince me then go ahead and do it. But there’s no way I’m coming!”