Feature Interview: John Archibald

Off to the World Track Championships this week chasing rainbows in the Pursuit is John Archibald who races for Huub Wattbike in the winter and Ribble Cycles in the summer … we chat

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Feature Interview: John Archibald

Off to the World Track Championships this week chasing rainbows in the Pursuit is John Archibald who races for Huub Wattbike in the winter and Ribble Cycles in the summer.

The fastest time ever for the Individual Pursuit (4000 metres) is held by a teammate of John’s in the winter, Ashton Lambie (USA) who rode a 4.07.251 at altitude in Aguascalientes (Mexico) in 2018. The next fastest in the all time list is John with a 4.09 at Manchester (Track Champs) and he holds the third spot as well with a 4.10 in Switzerland. Aussie Jack Bobridge is next and then there is Chris Boardman’s 4.11.1 in the superman position no longer allowed and Charlie Tanfield next with 4.11.4.

John’s rise up the pursuiting ladder to be one of the fastest ever in the world makes him one of the favourites for the World Pursuit title but he knows there is a lot of competition and refuses to talk it up when it comes to winning the rainbow stripes. VeloUK went to the Derby velodrome last week to see John training during a veteran’s session on the boards with some help from his track teammate Jonny Wale.

Unlike the GB riders in Portugal on a training camp, John, a guest in GB colours at the Track Worlds, was doing his own thing at Derby. No mechanic, no soigneur just him and Jonny, keeping the legs turning over in between doing some 15 second or faster laps of the track on their pursuit bikes with help from the velodrome’s coach with a stop watch to record the data for them.

John was testing his GB skinsuit for the first time and as well as his team’s much tested and very aero bikes and wheels which, as a guest on the GB team for the championships, he is allowed to use at the World Championships. That includes a very impressive looking 64 tooth chain ring to give him a gear well over 110 inches.

John explained how this will be his first World Championships with GB adding he did do the European Championships in 2018 with them so not the first time in the GB colours. “Riding the World Championships is the height of where I can get to as an individual pursuiter as there is no competition beyond that so riding the worlds is going to be surreal.”

Last year and John on his way to winning the CTT 10 mile time trial championship in Scotland aboard his Ribble Cycles Ultra TT bike

John will have his sister Katie racing with him as well in Poland, someone who is well versed in racing the Worlds and the Olympics as a champion in both and both of them will also have their family support too. All that support, says John, will give him a bit of security and confidence that should something go wrong, some one will be there for him. “Having Katie there will be a great help” he says before adding how important this will be as he doesn’t know a lot of the staff or riders in the GB team.

Taking him back to the beginning of his rise to being a world beater, when he embarked on this adventure with the likes of Dan Bigham and Jonny Wale who were with him at the track in Derby, I asked did he ever envisage being one of the fastest individual pursuiters ever.

John replied “No, that thought only ever occurred to me when in Switzerland when I did a 4.10 and I knew then there were not many people faster than me. The question then was can I dedicate more time towards the IP, and see if I can do it (win the worlds). As a long time goal, it hadn’t really been in my mind, as it was more the team pursuit and taking everything we achieve as it comes so going to the worlds in the individual pursuit is a pretty big shock.”

2018 and John was racing at 4.19 pace ….

Going back to before that 4.10 in Switzerland, John explained the progression he’s made. “The progress has been absolutely mad. If I look at the British championship last year, I did 4.19 and came 4th and this year went 4.09. So I’ve gone ten seconds faster in twelve months.”

After his 4.19 at the 2018 British Track Championships, John went to the Commonwealth Games in April in Australia riding for Scotland and he did 4.13 and then later in the year, 4.10 before the 4.09 in January. “I could not have predicted that I was going to take ten seconds off that time from 2018 but I have to say I have enjoyed the process!”

“I do like to work to a programme with progression in there and it’s about believing what is possible and when I first came down here, the idea I could ride 15.1s (per lap) for 15 laps, I didn’t think that was possible because at the time I was doing 15.5s and 15.6s so it does open your mind a bit when you see what is possible”.

“The progression has always been there, but it’s never linear of month to month improving. There are troughs and peaks and it just happens the general trend is upwards and I hope it doesn’t stop now.”

The country has a rich history in men’s pursuiting with world champions like Graeme Obree, Chris Boardman, Colin Sturgess, Hugh Porter, Bradley Wiggins, and Tony Doyle and it never occurred to John he’d be riding faster than they have.

VIDEO: John, Dan and Jonny chatting about the world cup season and more

“When you see guys like Bobridge in the traditional position going 4.10 and you think to yourself I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that sort of pace. Then, all of sudden, you do get a feel for it and whilst it’s not a shock as during the process, you see it coming, but when it does happen, you can’t help feel that is quite an achievement to have made.”

“So it has been quite special to watch those times you think were not achievable and all of a sudden, it is within your grasp.”

Despite having two of the fastest times ever, he is nervous about the World Championships in Poland (Feb 27 to March 3rd). “It is one those things I want to put the shutters on and focus myself on doing the effort. When I over dramatise it, and think too much about it, it doesn’t work in my favour so the whole adrenalin rush of being on the start line and the big crowd, I can feed off it but it doesn’t always work in my favour.”

“It’s better when I think this is something I have done over and over again, something I know how to do, I just have to go out there, do the best I can and hopefully it will be better than everyone else. Knowing the guys who will show up, I take nothing for granted at all so you really have to be on your A game in the World Championships.”

Switching tack and talking about the track bike, I could see John was on a 64 tooth chainring so I asked how has his gearing changed during the process. “The gear has to progress because the idea of keeping the same gear and going faster doesn’t always work. But then you don’t always learn to push a bigger gear overnight, there is progression to be made and I think it’s a sweetspot that is unique to individual riders. So while I push a big gear, others will get away with spinning a smaller one.”

Before John made his name in the individual pursuit, the goals were in the team pursuit with Huub-Wattbike. Asked how that event has helped him, he says “it has helped boost my top end. So for instance, I was always guilty of training my strengths and not my weaknesses so the TP really exposed my flaws and what I was weak at and then there wasn’t a choice of only training my strengths anymore because if you don’t train your weaknesses, you’re not going to get round in this team pursuit as there are three other guys depending on you.”

“So I had to work out a lot of things like my top end power, my starts and so on and that had a knock on effect for my individual pursuit”.

When we spoke, it was only a week out before he travelled to Poland for the Worlds which start next week (Feb 27) and John was still busy training. Talking about the track and city, he says “they are really welcoming here and it’s a great place to be at the Derby velodrome. The support we get is great from local sponsors, the velodrome staff and coaches who at a session will give us splits, track time and so on. They are really looking out for us and not trying to stop us from what we’re trying to do so it’s really nice to have them involved in the process.”

Quite a picture … John is presented with a trophy after winning the 10 championships by none other than a multiple world champion in the Pursuit, Graeme Obree … an omen perhaps for John ahead of the worlds – lets hope so!

Katie & John – Siblings chasing rainbows
If it’s not a first for GB to have a brother and sister at a World Championships together, there won’t be many like John and Katie Archibald and when asked who started racing first, John says Katie.
“We had our fair share of family holidays touring and doing mad stuff like riding up Mont Ventoux but Katie was the first to get into bike racing. I prolonged my swimming career that was never really going to happen for me but I really enjoyed it so kept at it until spending 2014/2015 on the road and then the track in 2017.”

“I could not have predicted what’s happened on the track as there was progression on the road and I did quite well with time trialling being what I seemed to gravitate towards but on the track, the progression was up and up and I’ve been loving it.”

His sister Katie, being the world beater that she is, races for GB full time and when asked if that is something he would like too as the funding can be helpful for full time athletes, John replies “the Charlie (Tanfield) template is a nice one to follow but it’s not the be all and end all for me.”

“I have really enjoyed what I have done in the last few years and what is coming in the next year as well I can look forward to (World record attempts etc). Securing that GB contract and getting on the Olympic team is the pinnacle and is where everyone wants to go (the Olympics) but at the same time, if it doesn’t happen for me, I won’t look back and be bitter about it.”

John getting a trophy from the last Scottish World Pursuit champion, Graeme Obree

So how does he survive without UK Sport funding? “After I left university, I worked for a few years, and we’ve also been lucky in the sponsors that have become involved that have helped facilitate it all in terms of expenses, living costs and so while we are not on salaries, we are subsidised to the point we can take a few years out of our working lives and dig into savings. Obviously, my family is very supportive too.”

“The team too is unique in having five or six talented guys who have the drive for it and that’s the main factor as everyone wants to be there. We’re not there because we are paid to be there. We are there because we want to race together, race fast and everyone has that same thought process.”

John is not just a champion in the Pursuit on the track but the bunch races as well having won the British Points championship in 2018. Does he have ambitions in them as well I asked?

“I loved that racing and it was a thrill doing it and if I could do more bunch racing, I would but when it comes down to the variables you can control, the pursuiting is where my heart lies. It came to a point in 2018 when I could not justify doing both Pursuits and Bunch races as one was taking away from the other.”

“I know at the British championships in 2018, I did the Points on the Saturday and emptied myself and could not perform on the Sunday in the Team Pursuit. I was in the B team at that point and I did let it down a bit so it was playing on my mind for this year where I didn’t enter the Points race and instead focused on the IP and TP and they went perfectly and I am glad I made that decision as that matters.”

Anyone who knows John, and his teammates, will know it’s a very unconventional outlook in that they appear mavericks compared to the riders in say a national team, something which has helped endear them to the public who like their spirit and passion for what they are doing and to not be afraid to say what they think whilst still looking out for their sponsors. Unconventional for sure but characters and that is one thing sport needs.

“When you have strong characters as teammates, there are always up and down sides” says John. “In this case there are more pros than cons. With the banter and high spirits, there is the other side of it of people getting stressed but it does work even though it takes some adjusting to.”
Asked if there is time for a personal life when competing at the level he is, John replies “the way the schedule works, we are focused on the training and the performance but it’s not all consuming and it’s better that it should not be like that because I am quite bad in becoming insular in thinking of nothing but cycling.”

“That’s easy to do when that it is all you are doing but there is enough free time to go away and enjoy your own space and have your own hobbies. When it comes to the World Cup season and you have those three or four months of travelling, racing and training , that is the dangerous bit and when the cracks can appear when we’re in close proximity all the time and there are high stress levels but we managed that quite well this year.”

In the summer, John will be on one of these as he races for the Ribble Cycles sponsored Ribble Pro Cycling team 

The track though is just one part of his cycling. Last year John beat the record breaking machine Marcin Bialoblocki to the CTT 10 mile time trial title, in Scotland, and in 2019 is part of the UCI registered Ribble Pro Cycling team. So the road will follow on from the track worlds as will some work on being ready to attempt some world records later on in the year.

On where he will be based, John replies “I think I will come back to Derby even though I will spend some time in Scotland. The eyes are on the next season (road) and the training here is great as is the atmosphere and I’m not planning on hanging up the track bike whilst I’m on the road with Ribble Pro Cycling. So I am envisaging with the sponsors we have coming on board , I will be here in Derby.

Before all that though there is the little matter of the World title challenge and there is plenty of interest in what John and his team are doing with ITV having been to the track as have GCN. So to finish the interview, we fast forward to the final of the Pursuit and ask, is it man-o-man or riding to a pacing strategy?

“There is toing and froing on that one” says John. “I’ll be going into it with a pacing strategy but the final is always different to qualifying when the legs are fresh. In that for the first eight laps, the pace is controlled, where as in the final, in the first laps it’s already hurting and you can see the other guy on the other side of the track and it’s about ‘can I make this happen’”.

“It is something I have been thinking about a lot, backing up in that final if in there and there are certainly people in the international scene I know who are good at it so I am hoping to prove myself in that too”.

“There are two rounds, late afternoon qualifying and evening final so there is not a big gap between qualifying and the final. It doesn’t matter though whether it’s three hours or six hours between them because you want two days to recover because the feeling in the legs doesn’t go away if you have done a full on four minute effort and in the next one, the legs are sore from lap 1. You dread it but you know that is when the difference is made”.

John also stressed there will be no saving his legs in the qualifying and holding something back. “There are so many guys who can do it and if I am in one of the first heats, and there are ten guys coming after me, I’m not going to think I’ll ride 4.11 pace and see if it gets me there. I’ll have to go for a 4.09 or better ….”

Good luck to John at the Track Worlds and everything crossed for him to win those rainbow stripes and make the fairy tale complete….



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