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Behind the talk around Filippo Ganna and Wout van Aert, Chris Symonds was making his own headlines at the world championships.
At 47, Symonds is almost twice as old as the double world champion Ganna and eight years older than the next eldest competitor, Muadjan Halmuratov of Uzbekistan. In fact, he is the oldest competitor in the whole world championships.
Born in London to a Ghanaian mother and an English father, Symonds is the only representative for the country at the world championships in Flanders. Symonds would finish last at 18 minutes behind Ganna, but he loved every second of it.
“It was absolutely fantastic. You’re racing so you can’t savor it too much, but the crowds were fantastic and really supportive. It was unbelievable,” Symonds told the media at the finish in Bruges.
There’ll be no rest for Symonds after the worlds. He returns to his job at the House of Commons (the lower house of the UK parliament) in London, and will take part in a 10-mile time trial by the end of the week.
The worlds in Flanders are Symonds’ second appearance at this level after he made his debut in Yorkshire in 2019. With the challenges posed by COVID travel restrictions, Symonds has been unable to race in Ghana over the last year and has had to rely on submitting his times from events in the UK to earn selection.
Selection was only the first challenge, and he has had to find the cash to get him to Belgium, too. Thankfully, he has had the support of clothing and accessories manufacturer Endura.
“I submitted my times throughout the season, and he was happy with my times. I was going under the hour, so he [the team manager] was happy with my fitness, and he was happy for me to come and race,” he said. “I’ve already spent about £800 on this trip out of my own funds. My wife, who is from Slovakia, she’s here and she’s very supportive. She has to be my team manager.”
Symonds took up cycling after beginning his sporting career in athletics and then racing in triathlon. He first represented Ghana in cycling at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and hopes to compete in the event again when it comes to Birmingham in 2022.
“I loved the feeling that you could hurt yourself on the bike. When you do cycling, you’ve got to want to enjoy the pain. If you can take the pain, then you’re halfway there. The older you get, the easier it is. Running gets harder, but riding your bike gets easier,” Symonds said.
The beauty of events such as the world championships and the Olympic Games is the diverse representation that you don’t always get elsewhere on the UCI calendar and the opportunity for a wider variety of nations to compete at the top level. As well as testing himself on the pan-flat course at the worlds in Bruges, he hopes that his ride will prove an inspiration for others from Ghana to race.
“Shaaban [Mohammed] is the team manager and he has been very supportive,” Symonds said. “He wanted me to compete to put Ghana on the map because everything starts somewhere, and you could be 20 or 30 years later down the line and someone is going much faster than me, and they are looking to someone else for inspiration. That’s what you want.”
At the elite level, cycling is still largely the purview of white Europeans with big barriers to those from outside the sport’s heartlands. Symonds would like to see more diversity and better representation within the sport, something he thinks could make it much more competitive and exciting to watch.
“With cycling, it’s mainly the big nations that do well in cycling,” he said. “It would be great to see more diversity in cycling, just for the competition. It would be much harder and much more interesting, perhaps. If you look at it now, there are five or six guys that you know are going for the medals really. When it comes to 100 countries competing for just three medals it makes it more interesting for the viewers.”
Symonds says that more could be done in the media to tell a broader range of stories from within cycling to promote diversity as well as making cycling safer on public roads that more people feel able to ride their bikes, whether it’s for sport or has a more functional purpose.
“If the media put it out there and show different kinds of people do ride and race, then that can inspire others to get on and do it,” he said. “I did athletics and I trained with world-class athletes in Enfield and all different shapes and colors. Everyone was inspired by that.
“I think the press can do a bit more about promoting and putting out stories about people of different races, women, and different ages. It’s diverse, cycling is diverse. You come to Belgium, and you’ve got all sorts of ages on the bikes and in Britain, it’s not always like that. There are more women riding her in Belgium, so that’s something I’d like to see in London, women feeling safe to ride.”