Rab Wardell is the cycling equivalent of a chameleon and having competed in almost every cycling discipline has started his own setup.
Wardell Cycle Coaching is Rab Wardell’s two decades plus of Elite level racing experience. One of a few riders who can cut it at the sharp end in most disciplines, or just rock up to a sketchy Christmas MTB ride on a cyclocross bike and make it down the hill faster than most…
How hard was it to call time on racing full time?
It was both easy and hard. It’s a long time ago now, but I made a come back to racing full time in 2012, having first retired at the end of 2006. I felt I had unfinished business and gave myself until 2014 to make a serious attempt to turn professional and make a living from racing my bike. I had a few good years but, in the end, I wasn’t able to make a big enough impression to sign a legit pro contract.
I was earning money but not enough for racing to be sustainable. Add in some serious illness at that year’s Cape Epic and the decision was made for me really. In that respect it was an easy choice, but it was a difficult time.
Will you still be racing domestically?
I’ve really never stopped racing, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just that I race at a different level than I used to. Last year I medalled in Scottish Championships in MTB XC, Road Criterium and Madison on the Track.
Since setting up my own coaching business I’ve actually been able to train a lot more consistently. I’ve been training 5-6 days a week for the last 5 months and I’m in the best shape I’ve been since around 2013. I’ve got a few projects in mind for the future and I still have a few races I want to tick off the bucket list, so there is a good chance I’ll be pinning a number at home and overseas too.
Had you done any coaching before you hung up your racing boots?
I’ve been coaching since 2007. I retired from racing at the end of 2006 aged 21 and applied for a job with Scottish Cycling as a Regional Development Coach, working with young people in Glasgow and the West of Scotland. It was a multi-discipline coaching role with the goal of getting young people on bikes. There have been some real success stories off the back of it. For example, Jack Carlin.
I first met Jack as a young mountain biker from Paisley, and he is now a World Champs medallist in Track Sprint and a Team GB Olympic hopeful. Marc Austin is another kid I worked with and he has gone on to win Commonwealth and World Championships medals in Triathlon.
It was while working at Scottish Cycling that I got to know Chris Ball, who had just retired from downhill due to a knee injury. When I was racing, Chris was an inspiration to me as he was one of the leading Scottish riders racing with ambition and riding the World Cups. I am a few years younger than Chris and I had the same ambition, albeit in Cross Country racing.
Chris was now working with Scottish Cycling, running the Scottish Downhill programme and coaching young Scottish Downhill riders towards the 2007 World Champs, as well as establishing Dirt School, his commercial coaching business.
At the end of 2011 I had the opportunity to return to racing full time. At the same time Chris and Andy Barlow gave me the opportunity to work as a freelance coach at Dirt School. I did freelance work for Dirt School until 2014 when they gave me the opportunity to come on board as a part-time member of staff, which later developed into a full-time coaching role. I worked for Dirt School in the Tweed Valley until 2018.
It was a great job and I loved being a part of the development of the company over the years. I learned so much from Chris and Andy, not just riding and coaching. They are both ambitious, extremely hard working, and have great ideas which they see through to completion. It was a pleasure to work with them and I value that time greatly.
I used to commute to the Tweed Valley from Glasgow 3-4 times a week, sometimes more. After a number of years the travelling really got on top of me and I had to choose between moving to the Tweed Valley or staying in Glasgow. In the end my decision was to stay in Glasgow, and I took a job with Scottish Cycling as a Go-Ride Coach. My commute went from 90 minutes or more, to 10 minutes.
I was then promoted to be the Pathway Coach for BMX for Scotland. Recently, I decided that it was time to make a change and work on my own coaching projects, and this is when I decided to set up Wardell Cycle Coaching. It hasn’t been long, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to postpone some of my services, but otherwise things are going well.
Was coaching part of the plan for winding up racing?
Yeah, since I was a teenager, I planned to become a coach. I love mountain biking and cycling and it’s something I felt I could be good at. I enjoy working with people, helping them to learn, be more confident and achieve goals which they have set.
How did you decide to go down the more experienced side of coaching?
I work with more experienced riders as well as new riders too. Long term I would love Wardell Cycle Coaching to offer a complete pathway of coaching for riders from novices to professional in all disciplines. For a new rider looking up to pro level racers it can seem totally daunting, but the reality is that a lot of the same simple processes apply for riding, no matter how experienced you are.
Was Cathkin Braes the obvious choice to offer coaching?
Cathkin Braes is probably the best mountain bike facility for coaching and learning in Scotland, and it’s based in the biggest city in Scotland. It’s a no-brainer to deliver coaching at Cathkin and I hope the venue continues to develop over time.
It’s a great coaching venue because the scope for progression is massive, and it is such a compact area that you can get from the skills area to big jumps to flowing singletrack to rock gardens in minutes. There are even some ‘secret’ loamy trails springing up too.
However, Cathkin is only one venue I am looking to utilise for now. My goal is to offer some big mountain day classes on mountains like the Cobbler and Ben Lomond, as well as a regular steep and technical class in Aberfoyle.
I’m also planning to offer cyclocross, road, track and BMX sessions too.
Was getting support from brands easy or did you have to fight for it?
I’m in a great position where I have long established partnerships with brands I believe in. I’ve not approached any new brands since setting up Wardell Cycle Coaching, and I’ve not asked for any additional support on top of what I already receive as a brand ambassador.
On a personal level I have support from Santa Cruz Bicycles, Endura, Wahoo Fitness, WORX UK, Continental Tyres and Juice Lubes. My focus is to establish Wardell Cycle Coaching as a reputable coaching provider that brands I represent want to be associated with.
Are there classic mistakes that you see riders making?
Yeah there a few, and I think we are all guilty of making classic mistakes from one time to another. Generally, it’s that riders are too keen to ride fast or progress to more difficult trails. On the flip side some riders need the support to have more self-belief.
There’s no short cut to being able to be a confident bike rider. You need to work at it and it usually takes persistent effort over time, whether that’s fitness or technique. You need to have a goal, ride or train with purpose, and you need to reflect on what you do. Think plan, do, review.
For example, if you always brake in corners then you need to slow down before you can speed up. If you always blow up in a cross-country race then you need to learn how to pace yourself.
Also, crashing regularly doesn’t mean you’re ‘trying hard enough’. It just means that you’re out of control.
Did it take long to set up a client base?
Well, I’ve been around for a while. I guess over the last 20 years, through getting to know a lot of riders in a lot of disciplines, I’ve grown a client base without knowing it.
I’ve had a number of riders come to me to say they are looking for guidance in improving their fitness and skills, have limited time and want to keep their riding fun. It appears that they think that I am the man for that job.
How did the Cathro setup come about?
It came about organically. Ben is subcontracted by Scottish Cycling to deliver coaching to youth downhill racers, and I was working on a few of the sessions with him last year. He mentioned that he was looking to return to World Cup racing, and I had recently started looking after the Kerr twins in preparation for the 2020 Downhill World Cup season.
Ben asked me to coach him and signed up to one of the packages I offer on my website. He didn’t ask for a discount and I’m not ‘sponsoring’ him through coaching. I coach him the same as I coach all the other riders signed up to my programmes.
It’s an awesome opportunity and I’m really excited to see what we can achieve. The current situation is both a blessing and a curse, as it buys some more time for preparation, but it limits opportunities to score UCI points for qualification. I have faith that Ben has the skills and the speed to do the business.
He showed a lot of promise at his first race of the season in Spain, but I think the pressure may have gotten to him. I had planned to fly to Portugal to support him for a race the following week, but that was cancelled. Fingers crossed the next time he gets in the start hut I can be there and help him to stay calm, confident and focused on the process and not distracted by the outcome.
Favourite moments so far?
There are so many. Innes Graham winning races and leading the BDS back in 2016 while I was coaching him is one. Seeing riders I’ve worked with over the years improve, win races, get on podiums and achieve their goals is another. One of the best things is getting feedback from riders saying that I’ve helped them progress, and that they still reflect on things we covered in a session or on a programme years before.
Most recently it would be going to Berlin to help my girlfriend Katie (Archibald) racing at the Berlin 6 Day track cycling event. She cleaned up in the Omnium, Madison and Scratch Races and toppled the reigning World Champions in the process. Although I can’t take any credit, she is a boss.
For sure, there have been a few low points. For a number of reasons I’ve burnt out over the years, in my training, racing and work. I’d like to think I’m learning from this and that I grow wiser as I get older.
The biggest disaster must be my DNF at the Cape Epic in South Africa in 2014. I had to withdraw from the race on the final day, which should really be a procession to the finish line. I collapsed in the morning of the race, which was caused by a culmination of factors. It was a serious time where I was admitted to intensive care and spent a week in hospital. Ultimately, I feel it could have been avoided if I had focused on my preparation, pacing strategy and recovery better.
People to thank?
Absolutely, there are a lot of people to thank. Family and friends are top of the list, as well as those who have given me the opportunities to get to where I am today. Riders who put their trust in me to help them in pursuit of their passion. Sponsors, partners and fans, past and present. And undoubtedly Andy Barlow and Chris Ball, for having faith in me and supporting me in my time at Dirt School.