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The director's cut: Israel Start-Up Nation DS Cherie Pridham profile

8 Jul 2021

As the first female sports director of a men’s WorldTour team, Cherie Pridham recalls the twists and turns of her journey to the top

Words: Maria David Photography: Alex Wright

Cherie Pridham has had a busy few months. As she settles into her new role as sports director at Israel Start-Up Nation, she has had her hands full getting to know the riders and understanding the flow of the WorldTour calendar.

There has, however, been some early successes to celebrate too: Pridham got a victory in her very first race, care of Mads Würtz Schmidt on Stage 6 of the 2021 Tirreno-Adriatico. When Cyclist catches up with Pridham at her Derby home shortly after the race, she is understandably on quite a high.

‘It was great. I never imagined we would get a victory that soon. On Stage 1 we had a rider in the break, and I would have been happy with just that, but we ended up getting riders in the break on four out of the six days.’

With that positive start as momentum, she is looking forward to working at the Tour of the Alps, where Chris Froome and Dan Martin will be racing. It’s all a long way from a year ago when Pridham was battling to hold together British Continental squad Vitus Pro Cycling Team p/b Brother UK, where she was the general manager and sports director.

She couldn’t save the team, which closed at the end of 2020, and Pridham had to say goodbye to 10 years of hard work. But it was that career setback that paved the way for her to became the first female sports director at a WorldTour team.

‘So many people have told me that, in life, as one door closes another one opens. I’d think, “Yeah, right,” but that’s kind of how it happened in my career.’

From racer to manager

Pridham was born in Plymouth in 1971. Five years later she moved to Cape Town after her father was posted to South Africa with his job in the Royal Navy. On her 18th birthday Pridham took her bike bag and, with £25 in her pocket, said goodbye to her family and boarded a flight to London in pursuit of her dream of becoming a professional bike racer.

Having shown promise in South Africa, Pridham was soon selected for the GB national squad and moved to Leicester, close to the cycling Centre of Excellence. Once women were able to have professional status, her first UCI contract was with Geneva-based Equipe Mazza. ‘The team launch was outside on this boat on 2nd January. We were in skinsuits and it was absolutely freezing,’ she recalls.

Further stints with European teams followed, and Pridham would race in the Giro Donne (the women’s Giro d’Italia, now the Giro Rosa) and La Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale (the women’s Tour de France). She holds particularly fond memories of the latter: ‘As a bike rider there’s nothing better than finishing the Tour Féminine on the Champs-Élysées. Nothing compares to it. There’s no better feeling.’

When Pridham’s riding career was coming to an end in around 2006, she began to consider her options post-retirement. She had already begun coaching young riders and found she had a talent for it.

‘My partner Eddie had been a pro cyclist and a team manager. He was junior national road coach for British Cycling at the time, so I saw what the role was about. Back then I would sit with him in the team car when he was driving and I would see what was happening in the convoy. He used to take me along to team managers’ meetings so I got a feel for the role, even at a time when I didn’t realise that was the direction I was going to end up going. I’d thought I was going to be a masseur or soigneur if I was going to stay in the sport.

‘I never gave it a thought until I started coaching younger riders and realised I had a knack for it,’ she adds. ‘After my racing career was cut short by a hit-and-run accident while I was out training, I got more into coaching and management.’

The rise and fall

Pridham managed a few domestic teams before landing the role of sports director at Team Raleigh in 2010. Three years later she went one step better and bought the team.

Now as owner and sports director, Pridham enjoyed success in the UK at events such as the Tour Series and in Continental races overseas with riders such as Tom Scully, Yanto Barker and Evan Oliphant.

‘I can’t compare my Team Raleigh with the iconic days of Team Raleigh when they were winning stages of the Tour de France, but no one can take those achievements away from me,’ she says.

Later on the team became known as Vitus Pro Cycling and riders such as Ed Clancy and Scott Thwaites joined the roster. Pridham continued to enjoy success at Continental level, but running a domestic cycling team proved to be tough, even without the added burden of a global pandemic.

During 2020 Pridham fought to keep the ship afloat, but it proved to be an unwinnable battle. ‘Coronavirus was a main contributor to the situation in 2020, but when I look back and reflect over the last two years with the Continental team, it was probably already coming to an end,’ she says.

‘Companies we were talking to that looked fruitful for three-year deals to the end of 2024 were giving us hope, but as the Covid situation continued we started losing sponsors. I still needed to look after my riders and pay the staff. Around mid-August I still believed I was going to take my team to 2021. I thought I could get a job as a postwoman and manage the team in parallel. When you’ve had something for so long, it’s not an easy job to give up and I just didn’t want it to end. But things just kept going south.’

It proved to be a difficult time emotionally for Pridham, especially as she had to alert her riders to the situation, and her own job-hunting was proving to be a slow and fruitless process.

‘I think I applied for nearly 50 jobs and I must have had probably four responses; that was really upsetting me. I was thinking, “OK, I know I’ve not worked in the real world, I’ve only been in the cycling industry, but what am I doing wrong?” Those were really dark times, and I was thinking, “Bloody hell, I’m losing my grip on my dream here.”’

A door closes; a door opens

Fortunately Pridham was able to rely on her own coping mechanisms as well as her support network of friends and family.

‘During difficult times I take myself away and deal with my own thoughts. I tend to fight my own corner, alone, and don’t really reach out unless I have to. In the world I’m in you have to be incredibly strong from the outside and also know how to handle some of the feelings and thoughts that you have when you are alone.

‘You also do need to be able to reach out to one or two of your closest friends, and I’m fortunate enough to know where to turn,’ she adds. ‘I have staff members I’ve known over the last decade who have become good friends of mine.’

In the end it was actually her failure to find a mainstream job that spurred Pridham on to refocus her efforts on team management, where her strengths lay.

‘I thought to myself, “Why can’t I reach out to WorldTour teams?” There were four or five teams that I actually liked and wanted to be involved with. I liked their interaction on social media, their philosophy and the mission of the team, so I just sent emails out.’

Pridham received a couple of responses from those men’s WorldTour Teams and the first one to call her was Kjell Carlström, Israel Start-Up Nation general manager.

‘To this day I credit Kjell for taking time out at the Tour de France to ring me and have a long conversation. It wasn’t a “let’s see your CV” conversation. If he was talking to me, he already knew about me, and there’s no doubt he’d spoken to other directors. I didn’t have to sell myself in terms of what I’d already done as a sports director.’

However the trail then went cold for about three months as teams were focussed on completing the condensed racing calendar in 2020. Meanwhile, Pridham was still in talks about the future of her Vitus Pro Cycling team.

‘By November we’d had a meeting with the board to look at the options. I’m not sure I had the fight left in me to continue motivating these poor bike riders that had nothing to look forward to. There would also be that constant push of keeping sponsors happy when really you’re just hanging on to a bit of Zwift and social media.

‘I also had to think about my own happiness,’ she reflects. ‘Would I really be happy being a postie or in some other normal day job, then driving bike riders three or four hours to do a town centre race, then going back to work at 8 o’clock the following morning?’

Following the board meeting, Pridham had to face the harsh reality that the team had to close. Once she had come to terms with that, she informed all the parties concerned and regrettably closed the door on a 10-year era of successful racing. Yet, incredibly, within a few hours a new door opened. Pridham remembers the day vividly.

‘It was a Wednesday, just gone half past six. I sat down and opened a bottle of wine. At about half past nine an email came through from Israel Start-Up Nation with a contract offer. There is no way they could have known that was the same day I had shut down my team. It had been a pretty emotional day and when this email came through I just cried like a baby. It was just like, “Oh my word.” Literally, it was one door closing and another door opening.’

Welcome to the family

It had certainly been an emotional rollercoaster. And while Pridham was looking forward to starting her role with Israel Start-Up Nation, she couldn’t help but feel sadness and guilt at closing down her team.

‘Everything I’d worked for over most of my managerial career, I was letting go. And I was more concerned about what people would have thought, because it could have looked like I was just giving up one thing for a better option. But it genuinely wasn’t that way.

‘Last year was probably the hardest year of my professional career. If you know how hard teams work in current times, regardless of Covid, it’s very emotional. It was tough shutting the door on the service course and handing the keys back.’

Fortunately for Pridham she has been quick to settle into her new team, whose experienced roster includes Chris Froome, Dan Martin, Alex Dowsett and Sep Vanmarcke.

‘To be honest, I wasn’t apprehensive going to Israel Start-Up Nation. When I went to my first meeting with them in December and I met everybody they made me so welcome, and I genuinely felt part of the family straight away.’

Even with the team’s early success this year, Pridham is under no illusion about the challenge of her role, and accepts that she is still on a learning curve.

‘I was asked what a successful season would look like, and I said a podium or a win by the end of the year would look good. I did it in my first race. The pressure is on now.’

The long climb

A snapshot of Pridham’s journey from racer to WorldTour DS

1971: Born 22nd May in Plymouth  
1976: Emigrates with family to Cape Town  
1983: First bike race – wins her age category  
1989: Moves to the UK to be a bike racer  
1990: Enrols in the GB Cycling Centre Of Excellence  
1994: Turns pro  
2006: Begins coaching  
2008: Retires as a racer  
2009: Becomes DS of Merlin Development Squad  
2010: Takes DS role with Team Raleigh   
2011: Forms Cherie Pridham Racing and partners with Team Raleigh   
2018: Team gains new sponsor to become Vitus Pro Cycling Team p/b Brother UK  
2020: Closure of Vitus Pro Cycling Team  
2020: Takes role as DS at Israel Start-Up Nation

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Pridham on…

The job of sports director ‘I don’t see myself as a female DS, just a DS. If you start seeing yourself as different you are already putting yourself on the back foot. It’s a progression – you have to learn the job over many, many years – and I see it as a hell of a privilege.’

Dogs ‘I’ve got Rocky the Rottweiler, who we’ve had for about 20 years and now weighs 60kg; Sasha, a long-haired German Shepherd dog – an ex-police dog; and two miniature Dachshunds. I love dogs. They are our family. It’s such a nice feeling when I get back from a trip and the sausages are there in the car waiting to see me.’

Managing riders’ egos ‘Every bike rider has a personality that you have to manage. You have to know how to handle a difficult rider or a rider who might not have his own way in a race, or who struggles when the form is not there and the results are not coming. That comes with experience.’

Being a woman in the cycling world ‘Cycling is a very male-dominated and traditional sport. It’s not that long since women weren’t allowed on the Tour de France, so we’ve come a long way. I’ve always taken the view that if they don’t like me they’re just going to have to deal with it. Nowadays 90% of the teams will treat me as I am – one of them.’