Q&A with Tom Southam

Tom Southam was a professional racing cyclist for "about ten minutes." During his career he raced and lived in France, Italy, Holland and Australia and the UK. 

During the final two years of his career he studied for an MA in professional writing at University College Falmouth. He currently works as a writer. His first book 'Domestique' written with Charly Wegelius was released in June.

As a racing cyclist, which results are you most proud of and why?

You know I find this a hard question, funnily enough. For me the real success of my career wasn’t one result or another, it was becoming a proper European professional cyclist, at a time when British riders didn’t become professionals.

Making that leap was what I always wanted to do, and it took so much to do it that I can barely remember the results that got me there… I didn’t really have much room for thinking about that stuff, I remember putting a divisional championships medal in the bin of a sports centre because I just didn’t see the point in carrying around a piece of metal – it was just stuff I didn’t need.

That was the way that I was for a time, I left a garage full of trophies in France, I lost a national championships silver medal somewhere along the line too… So it was never results, but what I managed to make of myself that I look back on proudly now.

Which are your favourite stretches of road to ride on locally and what is it that you like about them?

All of my favourite stretches of road are by the sea. I like them because having grown up by the sea (in Penzance, Cornwall) it is something that I really enjoy having there. I don’t surf, or swim in it, or anything like that; I just like having it in the background. 

The same question for roads anywhere in the world?

Answered above.

What is your most memorable moment on the bike or involved with cycling?

My whole adult life has involved cycling in some way, so it is hard to say. But my first pro World’s in 2004 in Verona were a pretty big deal. I’d ridden the Worlds as a Junior on the same circuit 5 years before, and going there as a pro was pretty special. My team made me a custom GB paint job bike, the works. I think there were 300,000 people on the climb or something & the noise was so loud you couldn’t talk to the rider next to you. 

Has racing affected your relationship with the bike? If so, how?

Racing never affected my relationship with the bike – because I wanted to race as soon as I took the sport up. What affected my relationship with the bike was stopping, and realizing that, shit – I can just go for a ride, and it can be pleasant, it can be easy, it can be short and fun and I can go wherever I want. In a way I have it sort of backwards I suppose. 

Do you agree with Mickey Goldmill's advice to Rocky that 'women weaken legs'?

No. Most of my best rides were done in order to show off to women. 

We are in the midst of a well-publicised boom in cycling in the UK at the moment. Has it affected you? Do you have any thoughts about why it has happened and whether it will continue? Do you see any negatives to the increase in popularity?

For me the boom couldn’t have come at a better time. All of a sudden there are opportunities for an ex-pro to find a career that is still linked to the sport. In my case the standard of the cycling press is unbelievably high compared to other sports, and I really appreciate the fact that not only can I make a living writing about cycling, but that the publications I do it for are top quality and for a really discerning audience and you know, Charly and I can write a book like Domestique, and actually sell some!

The downside for me is the fact that I miss cycling being a quirky European sport a little, if I’m honest. It’s like the band that you love suddenly being played in every café and hotel bar in the country. But, that’s cool – it never belonged to me. I have no more of a stake in it than anyone else. 

All cyclists, whether they race or not, seem to obsess over the weight of their bikes. Why do you think this is?

Cycling is the perfect sport for obsessives. There is always something to change, some new part to buy or way to save weight. At pro level I found there were two types of riders – those that spent every waking moment obsessing over kit to go fast, and those that gave not the slightest shit and just wanted to go fast. I fell into the latter category. 

Do you approach riding, or ride your bike, differently now to when you first got into cycling?

I’ve always sort of been the same really. I just like to go out on my bike and ride it. When I was racing I had to conform to following training schedules, and doing certain sessions and using a heart rate monitor etc but I was always a little uneasy with that. Now I am exactly the type of cyclist I always wanted to be. I don’t use a GPS, I don’t time my rides: I just head out and come home some time later.

Who has been your favourite pro riders over the years and why?

Gianni Bungo. Pure class, I love watching the way that guy rolled such a low cadence, but had so much power. Plus I was really into the Gatorade team kit.

And later on Oscar Friere. I met Oscar a few times, we had dinner after the World’s in ’05, and he said to me, “How many races have you done this year?”

I counted and added a few extra in, thinking it would look better to be racing more, “About 60”

He said, “Oh, I only did 11.”

I think I must have laughed, because he added straight away, “I won 7 of them.”

He was such a cool bloke, and his wife was lovely too. Drove a Vauxhall Corsa the year he was first World Champ - just didn’t give a fuck, he was content to do his thing. 

What was you favourite era of professional bike racing?

All of it up until 2000

Do you think Bradley Wiggins looks cool despite his long socks or because of them?

Wiggins looks cool man, in his own way. 

Mudguards, mudguards and mudflaps or racing bike with clip on guards through winter?


Do you enjoy a cafe stop or do you prefer to ride straight round?

I love a brew stop. I always stop in company. 

Assos, Rapha or neither?

I’m a Rapha man, obviously. I’ve known Simon (Mottram) since I first met him in 2005, and I love what they’ve done. There are some seriously talented folks working there and they consistently make great looking stuff that I want to wear. 

Do you prefer to get your head down on the A6, keep a good tempo going on the B roads or get onto the back wacks? What about the rough stuff on your road bike?

You mean the A38, right? Hah. When I was training I always stuck to bigger roads, you don’t train well in lanes. Now that I just roll around, I stick to the lanes for sure. Rough stuff is OK too, can’t avoid it when you ride with Oli Beckingsale, actually. He loves taking a detour through a wood or some such nonsense… 

What do you think about Strava?

Rubbish, dangerous and anti-social. Pin a number on if you want to race.  

What do you think about Sportive rides?

Great, if you want to go and ride with a big group, but again – if you want to race pin a number on. I never understood the psychology of people that clearly want to race but fear failure so much that they do other events where if they lose there is seemingly no consequence. It’s the same with testing; ‘I’m only racing myself’ – that’s great, but you’re actually not.

Do you have any cycling pet hates?

People who call themselves bike racers and skip turns on the front on a training ride. I mean for fuck’s sake, how do you expect to be any good if you can’t put your nose in the wind in training? 

Are there any cycling traditions that you think have been, or are being, lost as a result of changing attitudes and behaviour? And are we better off or worse off as a consequence?

Everything has changed post-Lance. Like it or not the sport has been dramatically Anglicized over the last fifteen years, and I expect will continue to do so. With that has come a different set of rules, and a different way of doing things.

The whole attitude shift to tolerance to doping has happened. In Europe they have a very Catholic way of dealing with the bad stuff – go into a box, tell someone quietly, and it’ll all be OK. Most Europeans are happy for cyclists just to get on with their shit – ‘We don’t care what’s really going on, let’s watch the race – now, pass me the pastis.’

In Anglo-Saxon countries, we have the puritan roots – ‘is he cheating?’ ‘Is this fair?’ ‘Ohm well, I did cheat, and now I feel bad about it, so I’ll denounce everyone else.’ And I think that preoccupation with drugs and ethics and all this stuff is really fucking the sport. Not so much in terms of having cleaning the sport out – which, if it has happened is really great, but the hangover is the tit-for-tat air of suspicion that is going to linger for at least five to ten years.

And doping and the press attention has also caused this whole separation between riders and journalists and the public. Where now, for fear of scrutiny teams are hiding behind press officers, and press are told who they can talk to.

It tightens everything up and the sport suffers for it, you know soon they will cordon off the sign on area at races, and instead of me being able to go down and wait for Zak Dempster to get off the bus to say ‘good luck mate’ at Paris Roubaix, it’ll be like Monaco; VIP areas and God-knows-who swanning about like it’s F1. Corporate hospitality, VIP passes… let’s put a barrier up here and keep the plebs out… and that will be a real shame in some ways.

Cotton cap or helmet?

Cotton cap. I don’t even own a helmet. 

The benefits of spinning a low gear compared to mashing a high gear is often discussed. Putting aside the serious, physiological and mechanical aspects, what cadence you think looks right?

About 70-80 rpm – watch a video of Bugno or Tonkov if you want to know what that looks like.  

White, black or coloured socks?

White, unless you are well tanned and it is wet – then you can rock the black socks. 

Frame pump or mini pump?

I don’t carry a pump, believe it or not. I just ride a flat most of the time. 

What do you like to talk about when you are on a ride with friends/team/club mates? Do you prefer to keep the subjects lightweight or get your teeth into something contentious or controversial?

I normally ride with Si Richardson (ex Sigma Sport rider) and I used to think that he had very differing opinions to me about everything. I recently worked out though that he just likes debate – so no matter what I say he’ll take the contrary opinion. This leads to things getting pretty deep, usually to the point of me saying there is no point to human existence and that our species is doomed, and him saying otherwise.

Who would be/is your perfect tandem partner? Would you ride captain or stoker?

I don’t know which one is which… I’d say my old man probably, because we share DNA. Surely that would mean we’d be in pretty good sync.

Tom and Charly's book 'Domestique' can be purchased from Random House here.

Comments on this post (2)

  • Aug 25, 2013

    Loved the interview,
    A refreshing change to hear some straight forward talking without the usual pretensions which is so common in biking at the lower club levels.

    — Justin

  • Jul 22, 2013

    Enjoyed the read but dissappointed to see that you do not wear a helmet .
    Having broken 2 , this past month , i am sure that either you know how to land on your feet , or i am getting your share of the misfortune .
    Remember meeting you in Verona along with the others in the GB squad & El Diablo , near the river .

    — Skippy

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