GOOD things come to those who wait – so goes the saying. Never has that been more true than for one of the most well-respected and liked riders in the pro peloton.
Of course, we’re talking about Steve Cummings. Last year, the self-effacing 34-year-old was the toast of the cycling world after producing a tactically-perfect display to take Stage 14 of the Tour de France from two squabbling Frenchmen, Pinot and Bardet.
Not only was this a first stage win in La Grande Boucle, but a double-whammy for his African team Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. As the new kids-on- the-block, they popped their stage win cherry on Mandela Day, no less – all courtesy of the big man from the Wirral.
It was a victory that was special – and source of acclaim for the world’s media – for the style in which Cummings took the stage from a 22-man breakaway in the ancient city of Mende.
Coming into the final climb of the day – Cote de la Croix Neuve, which is 3km at an average 10.1% gradient – the power-house from the Wirral timed his effort to perfection, letting French riders Thibaut Pinot, of FDJ, and Romain Bardet, AG2R La Mondiale, attack each other at the bottom, to leave both in the red.
The Briton overhauled the French pair on the descent to the flat of the runway, taking a few metres lead through the penultimate bend and then, using track pursuiting ability first developed in his early years with the GB national cycling team, stayed clear to the finish.
Cummings was close to tears when he came to a stop 100 metres from the finish line and, in the middle of a media scrum, emotionally embraced MTN staff and his former Sky team-mate, turned Eurosport reporter, Juan Antonio Flecha.
Needless to say, countless interviews in both the written press and television followed but the well-timed victory was no shock for Cummings.
For him, this win was no fairytale. It had been many years in the making – one penned in hard work, suffering and sacrifice.
Compared with Sir Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish, Cummings is one of the less celebrated riders to emerge through the British cycling system.
But, since taking the silver medal in the team pursuit at the 2004 Athens Olympics, followed a year later by the gold medal at the discipline in the world championships, he has shown an intermittent ability to pull off significant wins: the Coppa Bernocchi in 2008, a mountain-top finish at the Tour of Algarve in 2011 ahead of Alberto Contador, stages in the Vuelta a España and the Tour of Beijing in 2012, a place in the overall standings in the Tour of the Mediterranean in 2014, and a stage in the Mallorca Trophy in spring 2015.
He enjoyed a two-year spell at Team Sky alongside Wiggins and Chris Froome – who was also his teammate in 2008 at the South Africa-backed Barloworld squad – and had the chance to return to the British team last season, but opted instead for Team Dimension Data.
And a key decision it’s proved to be. Cummings has followed last season’s Tour de France success with more top-class performances in the 2016 early season. Impressively he took Stage 4 of the Tirreno-Adriatico, and, in the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, powered from the rear of the front group with a seated attack at the 1km point to take another fine solo stage win.
He produced a strong attacking ride in La Fleche Wallone and in the Liege-Bastogne- Liege held a good position in the main chasing group through sub-zero temperatures, wind, rain and snow, to cross the finish line a creditable 19th.
During the last winter break, the now famous Merseysider, returned home to spend some time with friends and family, but spared a few moments to chat with us about that glorious day back in July; his journey to the top of the sport and how, having arrived there, his life has changed.
And, for Cummings – who is well known for his love of his Merseyside home and his die-hard support for Liverpool Football Club, and who was once seen by his long-standing friend Sir Bradley Wiggins as ‘a hard case from the Wirral’ – there was no better place to recount his tales of success than on the banks of the famous River Mersey.
“No, still not. I’ve been asked that question a lot. And sometimes I just can’t speak,” says Cummings when asked whether he could describe how he felt when he crossed the line in Mende.
“If you can imagine having a dream in the back of your mind for more than 20 years, setting goals and targets to help you get inch-by- inch closer to that dream, all the ups-and- downs along the way, broken bones, [pressures on] family life, illness and then, suddenly, with 100 metres to go, in a Tour stage, you realise you’re about to live the dream.”
“It was a bit of a buzz to say the least. It was extremely emotional. Not only for me, but for my family, who have been
there with me throughout the good and bad.
“I cried after the stage. I was overwhelmed. But I need to move on and find new targets and look for new dreams. Winning a
stage lets you dare to dream bigger and go for things that you may not have dreamt of before.”
Riding behind the tall, strong rider from the Wirral was once described by Alberto Contador as like ‘being behind a motorbike’ and French commentators talked of Cummings coming, ‘like a freight train from behind’ to snatch the stage from Pinot and Bardet. Remembering the team plan of using his strength to target the stages between the Pyrenees and the Alps, he recalls the precise moment of his attack, saying.
“I was chuckling to myself because there was no way I was going to lose from there. I tried to use my momentum and go straight past them. Unfortunately, I had to tap the brakes because they changed sides of the road. I tried first to drop them in the corner and get a slight gap, which is what happened. After the last corner, I checked to see how much gap I had. If they had been in my wheel, I would have waited and beaten them in the sprint.”
His astute attack at the summit of the Côte de la Croix Neuve was dubbed a classic stage hunter’s move. However, Cummings – a hugely experienced rider and a knowledgeable student of the sport – is quick to point out his other attributes.
“Perhaps I am a stage hunter,” he said. “But I think I can do a lot more. I’m strong in time trials and, in week-long stage races, I’m more than capable of getting results. When it comes to Grand Tours, I’m a stage hunter but I can also help the others.”
It has been that blend of ability, experience, skill and spirit that seems to have made Cummings such a perfect fit for his increasingly successful African team.
“The team was not then World Tour,” he said. “We did not have GC riders, so I had a lot more freedom. The attacking style, the team philosophy, was also a big factor to help me race in a more attacking selfish way.
“I like to race with passion and that’s when I’m at my best. I need to know that I will get my chance; my opportunities. I also like to help when I can.
“There has to be the right balance and I need to be around the right leaders. I have had more opportunities here. The management has been great and given me freedom and full support. When you start a race and you know everyone and everything is in place I think you perform better. Performing at the highest level you can is sweet.”
Given his career expertise, reflective personality and personal charisma, does his team role involve mentoring and developing the team’s promising crop of young African riders?
“I talk to all my team mates,” laughs Cummings. “I’m older than them all. Mentor? I don’t know. I don’t say much unless I think something needs to be said. Sometimes someone comes to me to ask for advice or ask something. I’m only to happy to help. I try to keep myself-to-myself.”
The addition of Mark Cavendish, who as a Manxman spent many of his junior racing years in Merseyside competitions, as well as the presence of Liverpudlian, Matt Brammeir, gives the developing African team something of a Merseyside accent.
And, while Cummings might not see himself as a mentor, he certainly does envisage a new non-riding role for himself.
“I can see myself acting as a translator for Cav’ and Matt,” he says with a wry twinkle in his eye. “For sure, we will have a laugh. It’s nice when you have team mates on the same wavelength and from the same part of the world.”
And is camaraderie a feature of the team’s marked success so far?
“Yes definitely. That goes back to what I was saying before about everyone getting their own opportunities,” says Cummings. “It motivates everyone. Spirits are generally high. Africa’s first cycling team at the Tour – it is a big adventure to them. That’s nice to be part of.”
And what about that Mandela Day magic back in July last year?
“Being part of an African team and associated with Qhubeka – the charity to mobilise students in Africa, to get them to work or to school on time, or cut their journey time – was significant,” reflects Steve.
“Mandela said everyone should be entitled to an education and he was right. Hopefully, the win coming on that day generated more funds to mobilise more students.”
“We spoke about Mandela, what he stood for and how important it was for the team to be visual that day to represent him and to represent Africa. It was a bit different when we left the bus that morning. We had an extra spring in our step.”
“I got the impression that the win was big [back in South Africa]. I didn’t get carried away with the hype. I just tried to re-focus and make the most of the rest of the race. Often, when you’re at races, you’ re in a bit of a bubble and only afterwards do you realise the impact the race had.”
Cummings has never been one to court publicity – always more ready to recognise the achievements of others than promote his own. Yet a win in the Tour – the annual competition for the world’s best riders; the biggest and most watched bike race in the world – has huge media and publicity consequences, with a shift from professional sportsman to sports personality almost inevitable.
Once acquired ‘Stage Winner in the Tour de France’ is a title that will stay with, and to an extent define, a rider forever. And it’s been no exception for the quiet professional, who – in his own words – likes to keep “himself-to- himself”.
High level publicity is not something that fits comfortably with Cummings.
“It’ s not something I like,” he explains. “It’s been non stop. It’s flattering, but now it has to stop and I’ve got to work.
“Talk is talk. In the end, what’s important is the results and performances. My goal remains the same – to be a good racer. I never thought about being a good talker. It’s strange because, honestly, I’m looking forward. I haven’t forgotten and I’m happy with what I achieved. But until I stop racing, I must concentrate on the future and forget the past.”
For all that though, he’ s not a bad talker with an appeal that goes beyond his ability and love of his sport right to his unassuming personality and his knowledge of himself.
Reflecting on what has helped him most in facing the challenges of his career – and come out on top – he states “my wife and my family.”
“They share every up and down,” comments Steve. “And a simple outlook of always trying to give 100 per cent and accepting the world is not fair and that sh*t happens. All we can do is our best every day, in every training session and every race.”
Finally, looking across the Mersey to Liverpool’s inspiring waterfront and remembering his early local races, he had these words of encouragement for any young talented rider who dreams of winning a stage in the Tour de France.
“Take control of your programme,” he advises. “Set realistic goals and targets and work 100 per cent every day to reach the best you can be. The beauty is not reaching the top. The beauty is picking yourself up every time you fall on the way up to the top.”
Not bad for a reluctant mentor.