As the Commonwealth Games’ greatest cyclists flew around Wolverhampton on their £10,000 superbikes, the scent of glory in their nostrils, a 48-year-old doorkeeper at the Houses of Parliament was doing his best to keep up – and, in his own small way, to create a legacy of his own.
While gold in the men’s time trial was won by Australia’s Rohan Dennis in 46min 21.24sec – with England’s Fred Wright and Wales’s Geraint Thomas taking silver and bronze respectively – Ghana’s Chris Symonds could take considerable pride in his performance, despite finishing 16 minutes back.
Not only because Symonds, who turns 50 next year, had men more than half his age behind him as he came 47th out of 54. But also because he has kept in shape by riding from his home in Edmonton to the Palace of Westminster, where he works as a doorkeeper, responsible for both security and ceremony.
“The journey into work is about 12 miles on a hybrid commuter bike,” he explained afterwards, flanked by his Slovakian wife Lucia, and his kids Jakub and Lukas. “You try to work up a head of steam, but it’s not easy with all the traffic lights.” His bike is not parked in the House of Commons, however. “It’s safer in the House of Lords, to be honest!” he said.
Asked about his job, Symonds had a glint in his eye as he explained: “I’ve been a doorkeeper for 20 years, since Gordon Brown and David Cameron were prime ministers. We keep the doors to the chamber, to make sure people like you don’t get in. I’ve barred entry to a few famous people, but I’d better not say who.”
Symonds is able to compete at the Commonwealth Games because cycling is an open event with no qualifying time. Not everyone is happy with having cycling Eric the Eels in Birmingham. But Symonds, who was born in London to an English father and a Ghanian mother, believes he and others are inspiring the next generation of riders from Africa and elsewhere who don’t necessarily think cycling is for them.
“The Commonwealths get a full spectrum of athletes and if countries are to develop and get alongside the likes of Australia and Great Britain, they need these types of races to learn,” said Symonds, who is the oldest road cyclist at these Games. “How to set up a bike. What wheels to use. All that type of stuff. Training programmes.
“You need to do these events to get better and better and better. So maybe in 10 or 20 years, maybe the smaller nations will be able to compete with the bigger nations.” One place above him was another history-maker, 46-year-old Jim Horton, who became the first cyclist to compete for the Falkland Islands. His average speed was 35km/hour – far slower than Dennis, who sped around the course at 48km/h. But as Horton pointed out afterwards, his £2,700 bike was the heaviest in the field, while the position of his gear-shifter meant he had to adjust his riding position in order to change them.
“I’m sure I’m living the dream,” he said. “I think there is a place for the Commonwealth Games, I think there is a place for amateurs who train hard and get to the top of their game. I think this is the exact place for it. I think there are other places for professionals, the Grand Tours, the world championships, this is a home for both, I think it works.” Horton also revealed that he had approached his idol, Geraint Thomas, to wish him all the best. However it wasn’t the best day for the Welshman as he crashed in the opening two minutes of the race after skidding on the road paint and into a barrier.
“The recon I did in traffic so there’s no barriers up or anything,” Thomas said. “So I was thinking it’s a sweeping left but suddenly there are barriers in the way and their legs sticking out and it’s like: ‘Oh shit.’ It is never straightforward is it? However Thomas’s mood lightened when asked about the likes of Symonds and Horton competing. “They say it’s a friendly Games, don’t they?” he said.
“It’s been good to sort of mix with all sorts of different nations. Do not disrespect, but some of the nations I’ve never even heard of, you know, so it’s been nice. It’s kind of strange when you have people come into the pen asking for photos that you’re racing against. But it’s such a great atmosphere and a great event and I’m really happy to be here representing Wales.” Symonds, meanwhile, is already thinking of his next Commonwealth adventure.
Asked whether he will be back for Victoria in 2026, when he will be 52, he looked at his coach. “Coach, will I be back?” I have asked. “Four years’ time? Australia?” “Most definitely” came the reply, as Symonds broke out into a wonderful smile.