I first met Joe Cox on a Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) satellite ride to North Wales. The group had come to a halt at a crossroads and he was track-standing as we waited for the lights to change. One of the riders challenged Joe to unclip a shoe and use his foot as a brake and the unhurried confidence of this manoeuvre stuck in my memory.
In his role as ride co-ordinator for Manchester’s chapter of the RCC, Joe spends his working week planning and leading a broad range of events and activities on and off the bike. Launched in 2015, membership has grown rapidly with more clubhouses soon to open. ‘By the club’s second year, you kind of know what does and doesn’t work,’ Joe explains. ‘The third year is all about taking this forward. The social aspect is something I’m very keen to develop as you quickly realise we all have lots in common in addition to riding our bikes.’
Riding, however, still remains at the heart of the RCC and the clubhouse fills every Sunday morning for pre-ride coffees. With Cheshire lanes and Peak District climbs both within easy reach, Joe encourages members to lead their own rides to complement the routes he himself devises. ‘Rides such as our Tour of Flanders tribute, with all those cobbled climbs to the north of the city, have been a real success,’ he acknowledges before adding with a smile, ‘Who doesn’t want to be Ian Stannard for a day?’
Tall and athletically lean – with a single silver hoop piercing an ear – Joe is having to cope with a degree of good-natured banter since featuring in the promotional campaign for this year’s Rapha Winter Range. Greeting each member as they enter the clubhouse – cleats echoing on the stairs that climb from the ground floor bike storage – he sets to work on the coffee machine before bikes are readied outside the entrance in the shadow of St. Ann’s Church; the pre-ride briefing concluding with a tongue-in-cheek, ‘Any problems, just drop me a fax.’
Although clearly comfortable in this role – a calm demeanor testifying to an easy-going attitude to life in general – as Joe plans on taking a serious tilt at racing over the 2017 season, these goals and ambitions interestingly raise questions of identity. ‘What I find is that people tend to have their own views on who I am and what I do. Funnily, I sometimes don’t even think of myself as a cyclist.’
Perhaps a surprising observation considering he had his first taste of competition racing a trials bike at the age of 11 – ‘Basically hop over and don’t put your feet down’ – together with school cross-country successes that led to combining disciplines and a 10th place in the Salford Sprint Triathlon when Joe was 16. A place on the GB development squad followed with a 13th place in the 2008 Vancouver BG 16-19 Triathlon World Championships before he packed a rucksack and spent time overseas travelling.
Now paid to ride a bike in his role as RCC Co-ordinator, there’s a slight pause when I question if it ever becomes a chore. ‘For the past two years, working for Rapha, I always thought the answer would be no. But interestingly, now that I’ve set my mind to racing – with turbo sessions before and after work – because I’ve got to do it, it’s not always that easy.’
Discussing this role with the RCC, when asked to describe the breadth of his responsibilities Joe suggests, ‘In many ways it’s a traditional British cycling club but with a bit of Rapha sprinkled on top. In essence we ride our bikes but do this within a framework of events, the club kit, the trips and the backing of a global brand.’ Understanding the way cultural nuances influence how members of different international chapters view and interact within this structure is an aspect of the job that Joe finds particularly interesting. ‘Amsterdam, which isn’t that far away, ride very differently to us,’ he explains. ‘Often taking a train out of the city – they’ll all pile on board, no hassle at all because the trains are so easy – before riding 200km back to the clubhouse.’
Initially aware of Rapha through the marketing films he used to watch, Joe was taken by the stripped back nature of their content. ‘I kind of see myself as a little bit of a simpleton and – watching riders rolling along in North America on steel frames – it just looked amazing. I bought my current bike after watching one of those films.’ Referring to his stainless steel Starley hanging in the ground floor workshop of the Manchester clubhouse, although he also enjoys riding the Canyon bikes that Rapha have available to hire for their RCC members, he explains the reasoning behind choosing steel over carbon: ‘Even though it’s not the best of bikes in some ways, for me, there’s something special about it. A certain nod to the past. It can handle cobbles, climb hills and descend at speed. I did Hell of the North on it last year and I wouldn’t have done that on a carbon bike.’
Continuing with this theme of trends and acknowledging that social media has an increasingly integrated relationship with cycling – there’s that distinct lull in conversation when a group returns to the clubhouse as everyone checks their segments on Strava – Joe understands the attraction but imposes limits on how far he personally engages. ‘From my own point of view, I guess I have a rather backwards relationship with social media compared to the majority of people. I don’t fully like it to be honest. I always prefer, for example, to have a chat in person rather than using Skype. And if you take Instagram, it’s a pretty filtered view of your life. I’m a fairly happy bloke but it’s not always sunny, is it?’
A case in point when you consider both Joe and his father had serious accidents on their bikes during the past 18 months. As ride safety is often quoted as a major concern that prevents individuals from taking up cycling, Joe doesn’t shy away from accepting there is a certain element of risk when riding on UK roads. ‘I struggled to get back on my bike after getting knocked off. Which is weird because I can handle a bike and I can ride a bike fast. But I do think that in this country we have very busy roads and some very angry drivers and their approach to cyclists isn’t always what it is on the Continent.’ Asked to suggest ways in which the relationship between drivers and cyclists can be improved, he feels the more people that cycle the greater the awareness that both sets of road users will need to develop. ‘The cure to this problem,’ he emphasises, ‘is not to just stop riding your bike.’
Listening to Joe describe his plans for racing over the coming year, it’s clear from the level of professionalism he expects of himself that this will inevitably influence his ambitions. ‘With my own work stuff,’ he explains, ‘if it’s anything to do with me, I like to know that it’s done to the best of my own ability. But from a competitive side, with my racing, I think there’s a lot of other people’s opinions which just make it worse.’ An interesting viewpoint perhaps best illustrated by a recent first attempt at cyclocross where he came a creditable 8th place on a borrowed bike. ‘The expectation was there even before the race. It’s tongue in cheek – with casual comments that I’ll breeze to a Top 10 placing – but for days beforehand the pressure builds.’
I suggest that finding a balance between the expectation of others and the reality of competing against other strong riders might possibly prove a bigger challenge than preparing physically for a season of road racing. At this, Joe pauses to consider his response. ‘In many ways I’m quite laid back. Whatever happens, happens. People might think I’ll do this or that but, in the end, it’s down to me. That’s something I’ve got to come to terms with and I’ll ride my own race. I’d rather finish last after going really hard than taking it all a little bit too cautious.’
With a goal of moving up to Cat 1 over the coming race season, Joe favours a race with at least one good hill in it. ‘The steeper the better,’ he says with a grin. ‘Within seconds it shakes up the field and, no matter who you are on a hill, you’re fighting something other than the rider next to you. I like to think that I can produce the power and just go.’
Fitting in training around work, Joe suggests, will be another challenge to overcome. Taking his friend and Madison Genesis team professional Matt Cronshaw as an example, he understands the limitations imposed on any ambitious racer balancing a full-time job with race preparation. ‘When Matt turned pro, he didn’t spend more time riding but he could quit his job. He doesn’t have to stand on his feet all day and that’s what separates the professional cyclist from the talented amateur. They have the time to recover.’
Accepting the discipline of a training programme – even though he might not particularly relish the turbo sessions that top and tail each day – when the morning of a race arrives Joe prefers to quietly warm-up on his turbo, headphones in place. ‘It might come over as a bit rude but I need to get in the zone. A lot of people compete to have fun as well as race and that’s great. I want to enjoy it as an experience but, if I can, I’m also there to win.’
Questioning whether results come from preconceived plans or instinctive reactions, I ask if there are certain ‘tells’ from the other riders as the race unfolds. ‘It can be the right place, the right time,’ he explains. ‘But there are certain things. You can look at a person, see if they’re out of the saddle. Some ride a little bit smoother than others, a little bit more souplesse. And that can be a big indicator because you only get that from years and years of riding. With my friend Matt, you can tell that he rides a bike for a living. And if there’s a lot of people like that, then you know you’ve got your work cut out.’
Our coffees finished and the cafe about to close, I ask whether this focus on road racing is part of a bigger plan. If he has certain key goals mapped out? ‘Not really,’ he considers. ‘I don’t particularly aspire to having a nice car, a nice house. I’m not too bothered about the showy kind of things. If you’ve got to a certain age and you look back on your time, I think it’s the experiences you’ve enjoyed rather than all the stuff you’ve accumulated that really makes you happy.’ Pausing to gather his things, he continues: ‘It’s something I think about a lot. And having that bike crash caused me to question a lot of stuff that maybe I took for granted. Questions that you can’t always answer immediately. Stuff that you kind of battle through in life.’
As we say our goodbyes, I’m left with the impression of a young man – honest, open and committed – who through his racing is asking certain questions of himself. In some regards weighed down by the need to balance the expectations of others with seeing just how far he can go to satisfy his own ambitions, I’m in no doubt that he’ll find some of these answers on the road.
All images by kind permission of Matt Randall