Paul Jones interviews Megan Dickerson

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Megan Dickerson: A Breakthrough Season

Paul Jones catches up with Megan Dickerson to eat food, drink wine, and talk about bike racing, Bristol, and her lovely Argos bicycle.

Megan Dickerson cooks a super tasty curry. Like most things this year, she’s raised the bar. Please note: all interviews will henceforth be accompanied by lush food and wine. We caught up to discuss her ‘breakthrough’ season; with additional vicarious thrills because it means seeing the mighty Bristol South CC high up the results board. It’s been an exponential curve, a rolling wave of PBs, including 20 minutes and 15 seconds for 10 miles, podium places at various National Championships, and an entirely new adventure at the Skoda DSI Academy with the illustrious Dame Sarah Storey as her mentor.

As if wearing the red and gold wasn’t Bristolian enough, Megan has been racing on a 20-year-old Argos road frame, hand-made by Garry Needham in the St Anne’s area of the city. Right now, it’s hanging up in her living room (this is an archetypal house of bikes), a beautiful blue enamel, steel-frame with the trademark Argos aero-fork, as featured on Stuart Dangerfield’s chrono-weaponry. It stands out in a sea of indeterminate carbon bongo.  We talk about the bike. 

“It wasn’t by design. I didn't have much money and it was cheap. This is the thing: it shows you can race on steel, on a budget, and it's fun. It cost £230 for the frame and fork. In fact, the whole bike was about £680. It's not even a TT frame, just a tiny road frame. Argos got in touch this week and offered to re-enamel it for free.”

I’m astonished; in this world where we’re encouraged to think that only staggering amounts of money can buy staggering speed. I think even Richard Bussell, the last rider feted for super-fast rides on budget bikes, would be astonished. This undercuts his mythical machine by about 40%.

There are a few Argos Cycles in the Bristol South; Allen Janes rode the first ever crown-mounted low-pro back in the day. It’s a scary yet beautiful machine. He raced on it at Thruxton last weekend alongside Megan, coming third in the veterans behind Graham Huck – another legend from the 1970s.  Allen refers to her in hushed, Bristolian tones as ‘that new supergirl in the club… oooh she’s faast. ‘Ave you' eard about the toimes she's doin’? Bloomin’ eck!” Allen has a laminated picture in his wallet of him riding his Argos, taken by Bernard Thompson back in the day; “he showed me it at the café stop”, says Megan, unfazed. Allen also has a vintage Viking which is a bit too tall for him; “our Dad got it for me when I was about 14 and he said I'd grow into it. But I never did.” I ask Megan about the club, the network of support, the identity of cycling in the city, and other amazing (and alliterative) south west riders like Barbara Body and Bridget Boon.

“I love the club. I have the 25 trophy and the names on it are crazy; Eileen Sheridan, Beryl Burton, Barbara Body, Pauline Strong. Arja Scarsbrook – the previous owner of the Argos - is on it from about 25 years ago. Now I’ve won it, and in 25 years’ time other names will be on there. The sense of community is the nicest thing. When I turn up on the Argos the officials and riders always comment on it, I’m riding something that's familiar to them and has memories.” I remember looking at Phil O-Connor snaps from events in the early ‘80s, how everyone was riding a frame built within a 50-mile radius. Whilst I’m not saying I want to go back to that, it's hard not to respond to the gentle embrace of nostalgia. New bikes seem indistinguishable, they don’t whisper stories or come freighted with different meanings for different people.

“My first race on it was a 22.53. It was a big PB. I remember thinking, ‘oh this is really fast’. It was a new bike, jazzy kit. My boyfriend Rob beat me though. However, the next week I broke my collarbone mountain biking. It was the week before the Bristol GP and a fast 25, I was gutted. I remember landing and sitting up. When I touched the shoulder it felt wrong, sort of ‘you’ve got two collarbones now’, I could feel them.”

It did for the rest of the season, except for a short hill-climb. She then dusted off the Argos in February of this year. After a strange feat where she stopped the clock at 22.53 three times in a row, her times began to plummet. A rapid 20.28 in Wales was dampened only by ‘being beaten by Rob by four seconds’.  At which point, things started to change.

“I work in social media, essentially looking at Instagram all day. I kept getting zapped by these adverts for the Skoda DSI Academy on my Instagram feed. They were targeting women my age who were interested in cycling. Unsurprisingly, I kept getting served the ad.”

I’d never heard the term "served" before. I now know I get served a lot of ads for robust winter commuting bikes and ever-larger jerseys. No Saga cruises yet. We laugh about ads being served.

“So yes, I was served the ad and eventually thought I should apply because I'd seen it everywhere. You had to explain what cycling meant to you and why they should choose you. I wrote something like: ‘cycling is my entire life, I spend all my life riding bikes and pick me because I am having a good season and want to carry on but don’t really know how.’ I was then invited to a testing day at Lea Valley the day after the National Circuit Championship at Marshfield, where I came second to Kelly Murphy who rides for Storey Racing. I mentioned it to Sarah and she said, 'Oh yes I saw the picture’, and she got her phone out and said 'that's you!' and everyone started looking at me and it was a bit surreal.

“The tests included 12 minutes on a Wattbike which I liked because it was a short time trial, then a 3-minute test, then a 6 second max power test, and then a timed lap. It was hard, and I wasn't confident. However, I got the phone call and joined the group. We’ve had super opportunities, like riding the Étape du Tour and another stage with Donnon Des Elles au Velo, a group of women who ride the Tour a day ahead. We joined them for a long stage. They were concerned about energy because they had to do the whole parcours, so it was pretty chilled, but it was a pan flat stage from Reims, no hills, 10 hours in the saddle. At the end I was like, my bum. We then did the Etape with Juliet Elliott and Adam Blythe who are Skoda ambassadors. It was a great experience; we were getting to know each other. People cheered for us all day, shouting 'allez les filles'. It was incredible.” There is a sense of cautious optimism for next year, “Skoda are very supportive as sponsors. It is about rider development and Sarah and Barney are focused on getting the best out each of us”

In between riding for the Skoda DSI Academy, Megan entered the British Cycling National Championships in Norwich. It was a long schlep from Bristol, but she approached the race with a degree of optimism. There were some anxieties - the UCI frame jig didn’t like the Argos fork so they had to swap it out; something easier said than done. The perils of mechanical shifters affected her position; “it's annoying; everyone is on satellite buttons and you're on a mechanical index, and you can't use them! If your shifter is pointing at the sky, you're in the 28 sprocket – how does that help?!” Despite a wobble on the ramp, it was a good ride, “I was shocked, I was 45 seconds behind Katie Archibald, which was just ridiculous. I was aiming for the top 25 and came 16th.” It was another turning point in season increasingly defined by them.

The next big race was the National 10 in August, “Alex Dowsett said it was the opposite of when he did his 17-minute record. At the start you have to climb up and there was a headwind; at 3 miles I was averaging 23mph, it felt really slooow. I knew I had Joss Lowden breathing down my neck and my motivation was not to be caught, which I managed. It wasn't until I looked at the results board that I realised it was a good ride, only seven seconds behind Emily Meakin who had won the National 25, with Joss out in front. It felt like the end of the season.” 

However, there was one more National Championship to go; the closed-circuit race at Thruxton, racing in Team Storey colours. It was an individual time trial followed by a 4-up in the afternoon. She was seeded “in a Joss and Emily sandwich” and felt daunted, both by the strength of the other riders, and because of general illness and less miles. It didn’t help when Lowden – fresh from the mixed time-trial at the Worlds - caught her early on; “she could probably see me with the 30 second interval. She came past after a lap and a bit. I was expecting it, but not quite that quickly. I was a bit annoyed but just got back on it. I was happy with my time at the end, though surprised to beat Sarah. She was really happy for me.”

I wonder about the wave of brilliant results and phenomenal times in what is essentially a first season. Her 10 time is in the top 15 fastest times ever and a 30mph ride is tantalisingly close. There must be another 15 seconds in the choice of bike?

“It’s always ‘imagine what you'd do on a really fast bike’, and maybe I would go a bit faster, but I don't know how much faster, and this bike is fast and comfortable: I love riding it and I don't ever want to not have it. Riding the Argos is brilliant, but the sharper it gets maybe the less room there is for that. That starts with me training - because I don't train, insofar as I don't have a coach or a plan or do intervals or have a turbo. I ride to and from work, Monday to Friday, 12 miles each way, do a mountain bike ride at the weekend and then race.  There might be more pressure on a different bike. If I got a brand new sparkly, fancy bike, with everything integrated I'd feel aggrieved if I didn’t go a lot faster and other people might think that way too.

“I know I’ll have to adapt and change to improve, but I don't think that will kill the enjoyment, it's just a challenge to fit it in with work. Having a job is important to me, but who knows? If you'd said to me back in July that I was going to beat Dame Sarah Storey I'd laugh. And now I want to do better; how I get there is the question. I don't know what bike I'm going to be riding, what the Skoda plan is, what my plan is, apart from knowing that whilst I'm not going to go another 2 minutes quicker over 10 miles, I am going to go quicker.”

I steal a last look at the Argos and silently cross my fingers in the hope that we might see it again next year, a beautiful blue flash of speed, courtesy of Megan Dickerson.