Why I ride: Paul Ainsworth

Michelin-starred chef Paul Ainsworth shares his journey into cycling, revealing his joys, challenges, and newfound sense of freedom

Nestled along the coast of Cornwall, the idyllic harbour town of Padstow exudes a charm that captivates all who wander its cobbled streets and breathe in the salty sea air. This picturesque setting serves as the backdrop for renowned chef Paul Ainsworth's culinary haven. Here he has two restaurants (one with a Michelin star – Number 6), a hotel and a bar located in the vibrant seaside town, while it's also where he found his passion for cycling.

Having been convinced by a friend who already cycled during the month-long second lockdown the UK experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ainsworth decided that perhaps it was the right time for him to give road cycling a go – the same time many others also had that idea… “It was probably the worst possible time to get into it because there was not a bike available anywhere,” Ainsworth laughed. Luckily, he knew Alan Murchison, a Michelin-starred chef turned performance chef for Specialized. 

“I asked him where I could get a bike, and there ended up being one in a bike shop in Southampton, which is where I am actually originally from, so I knew exactly where it was,” he said. Embarking on the eight-hour round trip, Ainsworth secured one of the very few bikes that were available, and from that moment, he was sold on cycling. Recalling his first-ever ride, he mentioned the endorphins he felt after finishing the 30-mile cycle. “I just felt so energised,” he continued, “and I just got this amazing buzz.” 

Like a lot of cyclists, the coffee stop is another reason why Ainsworth loves the nature of cycling. He said that he does a lot of running, and had done before he started cycling, and could never imagine stopping mid-run to eat a slice of cake and have a coffee, but relishes in the fact that it is perfectly acceptable mid-ride to do such a thing. “I really enjoy that aspect. You know, Cornwall is very hilly too, so it’s so nice just to stop, have a coffee, and have a good chat with your mates, so yeah, I have never looked back really,” he said, the joy evident in every word. 

But being a chef is a demanding job, let alone having multiple businesses on top of that as well as media requests, TV filming and being a parent to his seven-year-old daughter Cici. Ainsworth explained that he is used to being busy, from a very young age he was helping out his parents and by the age of 12, he had four paper rounds, worked five nights a week at the fruit and veg merchants and collected orders for the Betterware catalogue, while still attending school every day. This is a man who knows how to handle spinning plates. 

“I make the time,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It is difficult when you are so busy, so you’ve just got to really make the time for it. Saturday is always a good day to get out because all the emails from the week have stopped and the inbox slows a bit. Last year, when I did Race the Sun in the Brecon Beacons, I was in a really good routine and was making sure that I was cycling in the evenings too. I had never ridden in the evenings before and it was really enjoyable. 

“And what is funny, I don’t drink so I would have a Coke Zero or a lemonade, but when I would go out with my friends who cycle too, they’d swap cappuccinos for pints, so they absolutely loved getting out in the evenings.” 

Being able to just enjoy cycling is what it is all about for Ainsworth. It’s not about numbers or competition to him. The only competition he has, he said, is with himself. He noted the sense of accomplishment he gets when he achieves something on the bike, and with this in mind, sets himself a yearly challenge. In 2022, he rode 180 miles in two and a half days across France – never having ridden more than 30 miles in one stint before – and in 2023, he completed Action Medical Research’s Race the Sun event, a triathlon-style race. And this year? “We’ll have to see how it goes,” he said. “I have a burning ambition to try and complete the Ironman 70.3. Something like that I would love to do, and who knows, maybe one day the full Ironman, but small steps. Cycling would obviously be a big part of the 70.3, 56 miles in fact. So that is where my head is at right now.” 

Having only started on two wheels three years ago, although Ainsworth does share fond memories of getting a BMX when he was a child and then riding around town on his metallic Raleigh Mustang and Dakota as he grew up, Ainsworth is still learning a lot about long-distance cycling. A trap many fall into is underfueling, and even with his culinary background, Ainsworth admitted to being guilty of this, especially on his ride across France.

“I got it massively wrong on the first day,” he said pragmatically. “There was a guy with us who was a friend or a friend and he was constantly fuelling, like every 25 minutes no matter what. So, I was sort of watching that and took that on board for the second day and that made it a lot easier.” 

Ainsworth also noted how heavy his bike felt as they tackled some of France’s biggest climbs from unnecessary things he took with him in his bike bags, laughing as he recalls thinking to himself every night of the trip, “Why did I even bring this?” But nevertheless, the trip was a learning experience and although he suffered some lows throughout – “I’ll happily admit there was one point where I think I had actual tears in my eyes” – nothing beats the accomplishment of getting through and finishing such a challenge. 

“I find the bike has an even greater sense of freedom to me now than it did when I was a child,” Ainsworth said. “I had a good childhood. It was pretty simple. I was of that generation where you’d go out and play in the woods with your mates on your BMX. It was pretty carefree. Now, I am so busy. When we first started our business in 2005, there were four of us. Today, we have five businesses and currently employ 166 people. So, that comes with a huge amount of pressure, stress and responsibility. When those opportunities then come up, to be on the bike, that stress just disappears.” 

Hoping to get out more and savour those more stress-free moments, he recently bought his daughter her first bike. Showing her the delights he loves about cycling, he took her on a 10-mile bike ride along the coast from Padstow to Wadebridge and back along the Camel Trail. “She absolutely loved it,” he said. “I think she also loved it because she loves Haribo sweets, and I explained to her that you can eat them when cycling for energy. 

“I’ve taken her running before, you know, only a mile or so, and I think for her that feels more like a chore, but with cycling, you just get the sense of freedom that nothing else can give you, and I think she felt that.”

*Cover image by Florence Parker

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