'Dave would think this was marvellous' - Rayner Foundation Dinner sees continued support for Next-Gen British talent

Annual Rayner Foundation Dinner takes place in Leeds, as vital funds are raised for the next generation of British cyclists

Clock20:00, Monday 13th November 2023
Ollie Knight of Cofidis was handed the Lewis Barry Award for Rider of the Year, before being congratulated by Lizzie Deignan (Lidl-Trek)

© SWpix.com

Ollie Knight of Cofidis was handed the Lewis Barry Award for Rider of the Year, before being congratulated by Lizzie Deignan (Lidl-Trek)

"Like a boy band gone wrong," is how Harrison Wood describes Cofidis, as fellow Rayner-funded rider Ollie Knight prepares to become the second Brit on the French WorldTeam in 2024. Wood's words are said in jest, of course, and immediately draw laughter from the Leeds crowd who have gathered at the annual Rayner Foundation Dinner.

The night is one of celebration and crowned by the presentation of the Lewis Barry Award for Rider of the Year to Knight, who is quick to pose for a photo alongside special guest for the evening, Lidl-Trek's Lizzie Deignan. A former road race world champion, Deignan is the perfect role model for the young male and female cyclists in the room who are plying their trade on the continent.

To help them chase their dreams of turning professional, the Rayner Foundation is a charity that has supported young British cyclists for nigh-on three decades and turned Dave Rayner's tragic death into a heartwarming legacy.

Each year, they provide funds, advice and even accommodation to riders like Knight, Wood and the recent TDT-Unibet acquisition, Charlie Paige, without which many of these young British riders would not have the opportunity to race in Europe.

Read more: 'There are no words for it' - Charlie Paige bags dream ticket to pro ranks with TDT-Unibet

As part of their fundraising efforts, a black-tie dinner is held each year in Yorkshire, at which attendees can rub shoulders with the stars of tomorrow, enjoy a three-course meal and take part in a hotly-contested auction for some exclusive memorabilia.

GCN were amongst the roll call at the Royal Armouries on Saturday evening and were treated to a night of entertainment full of new friendships, goodwill and insightful conversations with Dave Rayner's parents and friends.

‘Lizzie Deignan, heads or tails?’

The British love a good mingle. Whether it be in self-policing queues or airport departure lounges, the opportunity to have a natter with a nearby stranger is always taken up with hearty enthusiasm. And for it, nights like the Rayner Foundation Dinner are all the better. Complementary champagne and beer on arrival help to open the conversation floodgates and before long, the staff would have a job on their hands herding the hundreds gathered in the foyer to their seats.

Once in the event room itself, a cheery start to the night continues as welcome speeches are made by our host for the evening, GCN/Eurosport’s Hannah Walker, before the seated masses, are called to their feet once more to partake in a game commonly known as heads and tails.

The rules (?), you ask. As the ringmaster flips a coin on stage, each member of the audience either puts their hands on their head (to call heads) or their hips (to call tails), with those calling wrong having to acknowledge defeat and sit down. Whilst they might be winners on the road, the special guests for the evening, Deignan, Wood, Sean Flynn (dsm-firmenich) and Lewis Askey (Groupama-FDJ) all struggle - as do most.

Their time will come, however, with after-dinner interviews in the pipeline with all four, alongside Giles Pidcock of Fensham Howes-MAS Design, an elite UK junior team who have been supported by the Rayner Foundation for many years.

First up, though, a three-course meal that lets the tables get to know one another, allows the refreshments to keep flowing and gives GCN a chance to catch a word with those who were closest to Dave Rayner, whose death in 1994 prompted his friends to set up what was known as the Dave Rayner Fund.

Dave Rayner’s story, from East Bradford CC to Tuscany

Sitting on a table alongside Rayner-funded riders Paige, Isaac Peatfield (VCU Schwenheim) and Adam Mitchell (Team U Charente Maritime), GCN is introduced to Dave’s father John Rayner when he comes to greet three of the 24 riders listed as funded riders. Dave Rayner is a name known by all young British riders looking to turn pro, but this is the first time that the trio have met John and his passion leaves all three with an extra insight into the people behind their support.

The Rayner Foundation, as it is now known, was set up almost immediately after Dave’s death in 1994. “It was the idea of Dave’s friends,” recalls Dave’s mother, Barbara Rayner. “They approached us and asked us if we were okay with it

“They wanted to do something, they didn’t know what at first,” adds John. “It has developed into 28 years of this Fund and it has been fantastic, the people who set it all up live in the Bradford area, and they all knew our Dave really well.”

One of those men on the Board of the Rayner Foundation is Bernard Burns Sr, a professional cyclist in his own right in the 1960s, whose son Bernie Burns Jr was best friends with Dave from their youth right up until the latter’s sad death.

“We both joined the same cycling club, East Bradford Cycling Club, when we were 12/13 years old, which was our local club and quite a good club at the time with some good riders,” says Burns Jr. “We both joined as probably the youngest people in the Club and became best friends, rode together after school every day and raced together.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with messrs Burns and Rayner. In Tom Southam’s excellent article for Rouleur 48, John recalls being too young himself to join East Bradford CC as a kid, and having to wait until he was 12 to join the group rides. Now a sports director with EF Education-EasyPost, Southam is one of many riders who benefitted from Rayner Foundation funding at the beginning of his professional career. Back in the 1980s, the idea of several British riders making a career racing in Europe was but a pipedream.

“You wouldn’t have been able to count five British riders when our Dave rode,” says John, with Sean Yates and Pippa York (formerly Robert Millar) the trailblazers.

In their days as juniors, it was Burns Jr who had the better of Dave and opened the door for both boys to start racing in Italy in 1984.

“I was slightly more developed at 15/16, Dave was quite a slim, scrawny rider so he was always slightly underpowered at that age, but as he got older that became an advantage to him,” recalls Burns Jr. “I got the opportunity when I was 17 to go and spend a year in an Italian team, just off the back of my results in the UK and the lad I went with [Nigel Simpson] was homesick. He came home and the team Porcari-Fanini-Berti asked if I knew of anyone who could fill his place.”

The answer was a resounding yes and despite recently becoming an apprentice electrician, Dave’s parents convinced him to move to Italy. Based in Lucca in Tuscany, this was a far cry from Yorkshire but both boys relished the chance to race abroad.

“In the same little hotel we had professional riders living there as well,” notes Burns Jr. “People like Rolf Sorenson, Søren Lilholt, Jens Veggerby and Jesper Worre, who were all world champions and came over to live in Italy. Back then, France was seen as a really hard place to race, whereas you got looked after a lot better in Italy.”

Dave excelled in the three seasons he ended up spending in Italy, and his father John delights in telling us of his battles with then-teammate Mario Cippolini, who would go on to win 42 stages of the Giro d’Italia, 12 stages of the Tour de France and the men’s World Championship road race in 2002.

"They had to split them, you see, send Mario to the races that were flat. They were combatting each other, Mario couldn't get up the hills but Dave couldn't sprint! He's won a lot of races, has Dave, with sprints - but these are long sprints at the end of a lumpy course."

After toing and froing with Cipollini as a junior, Dave would go on to enjoy a successful career with Raleigh-Banana, the UK’s premier team at the time, Buckler-Colnago-Decca, a professional team headed up by Jan Raas, and IME-Healthshare, as Dave enjoyed a period racing in the United States.

But for Burns Jr and all those who had the pleasure of meeting Dave before his death, it was his character that sticks in the memory more than anything else.

“We were best mates. I was a quiet person, Dave was quite loud and we bounced off each other as always the life and soul of the party. I was an usher at his wedding, Gary [Dave’s brother] was the best man and then unfortunately I was there the night he died.”

Grievously injured by a nightclub bouncer in November 1994, Dave would never wake from the subsequent head trauma and be robbed of his planned move to the Saab team the following season. With his life tragically ended at the age of just 27, the Rayner Foundation Dinner evokes a bittersweet sense for his parents who, in the riders that benefit from the funding each season, they see what might have been for their son had it not been for his passing.

“It is just like Dave is still here,” says John. “Every week, we see a Dave Rayner rider has won so it is nice but at the same time it's upsetting."

"It's more upsetting for me,” adds Barbara, “I had him. It doesn't matter how long it's been, I still get upset because he was such a lovely lad as well."

The Burns and Rayner families remain close to this day, and the incredible legacy that has grown from such tragic circumstances is not lost on any of them. “Dave's mum and dad must be so proud,” Burns Jr says. “Off the back of such a sad event, it's brought the opportunity to all these young riders. I've been coming here to the Dinner for years and it's made me cry quite often, thinking of Dave and looking at what has happened since."

Beginning with David Millar, Charly Wegelius, Danny Webb, Paul Moore and Daniel Moore in 1996, the Rayner Foundation has since supported over 250 British cyclists and raised more than £1,000,000 in the process. Of the current WorldTour peloton, Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, Vuelta a Espana champion Simon Yates and yellow jersey wearer Adam Yates are all former recipients, and Dave’s parents believe he would be incredibly proud of what his friends have been able to achieve in his name.

"If David could see this now, he'd think it were marvellous, he really would,” Barbara tells us.

Remembered fondly as an outgoing, humourous character who delighted at seeing fellow British riders at races in mainland Europe, Dave would most certainly have appreciated the funny quips offered up by Cofidis’ Harrison Wood in the after-dinner interviews.

‘Bonnet de douche,’ jokes Cofidis’ answer to Del Boy

With the meals swiftly put away, attention in the Royal Armouries changes once more from the dinner plate to the stage, upon which Walker chats to those who have now become part of the illustrious Dave Rayner legacy.

Alongside the 24 funded riders listed in the night’s programme, 84 junior riders have benefitted from the Rayner Foundation in 2023 and Giles Pidcock of Fensham Howes-MAS Design reveals that three of their nine trips this season would not have been possible without this support - the last of which gleaned a meeting with former world champion Philippe Gilbert.

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Pidcock is quick to note that British riders are well-liked by teams out on the continent because, much like Dave himself back in the 1980s, they are known for their hard work ethic. However, in this room, it is not just the riders who work hard. Indeed, many will be hard-pressed to outdo the efforts of our auctioneer for the evening, who provokes quite a flurry of bids as part of the fundraising efforts.

Up for grabs are items such as an Ineos Grenadiers hospitality experience at the Tour de France, a signed national champion’s jersey from Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious), and a replica Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré yellow jersey - laden with the original, signed bib number from 1961 winner, Brian Robinson. The late Yorkshireman was the President of the Rayner Foundation until his death last year and this item eventually sells for £1000 to its lucky buyer.

Each of the five lots is met by a room full of enthusiastic arms being hoisted aloft in the air as part of the bidding process, with vital funds being raised for next year and beyond for the Rayner Foundation. The auction serves as the perfect aperitif for the introduction of the night’s special guests to the stage – Flynn, Askey, Wood and Deignan – all four of whom are past recipients of Rayner funding.

It is an apt evening for Deignan, who has recently moved back to Yorkshire and has already begun training for next season on her new/old home roads. “You need to change your stimulus,” she says, “you need to do something different. Everything is new [moving back home], everything is different, it reminds me of being a junior.”

The Lidl-Trek rider is entering the final year of her contract with the WorldTeam, but recently spoke to GCN of her intention to carry on riding beyond this season and reiterates her goal of targeting a Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift stage win.

Read more: 'I miss the pressure' - Lizzie Deignan targets Tour de France Femmes and Olympic Games

Deignan’s description of Lidl-Trek as “the animators” contrasts with Wood’s light-hearted description of Cofidis’ cast of Brits as “a boy band that went wrong”.

Wood is in fine spirits as he entertains both his table and crowd alike, having enjoyed an impressive first full season as part of the UCI WorldTeam. The 23-year-old will be joined by Ollie Knight next season and notes that one of his biggest lessons from 2023 is that riding as a domestique is basically “eating and drinking for a living”.

Supporting his teammates in races such as Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia, years of hard work are paying off for the Devon-born rider. Wood’s debut appearance in Il Lombardia came 32 years after Dave Rayner rode to 83rd in the 1991 edition.

Read more: 'Thibaut is God for us' – Spending a day with the Collectif Ultras Pinot at Il Lombardia

Just as British riders have always had to suffer through since the days of Robinson and Tom Simpson venturing out to the continent, Wood has had the hard task of trying to learn the lingo as part of his new team.

Wood is a natural joker, much like Dave, and is quick to compare his linguistic efforts to those of Del Boy from the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, who notoriously had a very loose grasp of the French language. “Bonnet de douche,” laughs Wood from the stage, a classic Del Boy line that the character insisted meant ‘French and impressive’, but actually translates to ‘shower cap’.

As the night’s entertainment is drawing to a close, Wood’s comments raise a cackle of laughter from the room and sum up an evening well spent amongst friends both old and new. All that is left is for Joscelin Ryan of the Rayner Foundation to announce the recipient of the Lewis Barry Award for Rider of the Year, which has a star-studded list of past winners including Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ), Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) and James Shaw (EF Education-EasyPost).

Following a year in which his sensational form for AVC Aix-en-Provence has led to a two-year contract with Cofidis, Knight is deservedly crowned the latest winner of this award and sports a proud grin as he quickly thanks his family, friends and the Rayner Foundation for their support in his journey to the WorldTour.

Rayner Foundation prepares to enter its 30th year, as the support of British riders continues

As Knight and his fellow funded riders venture off into the night air to celebrate another successful season, the annual Rayner Foundation Dinner draws to a close. Some riders, like Knight, Paige and Tom Portsmouth (Bingoal WB), will now bid adieu to Rayner funding, as their dream of a professional contract comes to fruition, whilst others will look forward to another season of hard work, language practice and European racing.

From David Millar to Ollie Knight, the support for British cyclists has come a long way. Whereas once it was the dreams of a small handful of riders that the Rayner Foundation supported, now it is a steady stream of athletes who are making the move from domestic racing to the UCI WorldTour.

"I grew up in an era where very few riders went to Europe,” Burns Jr tells us. “It was expensive, there wasn't the funding in the UK, British Cycling had no money and I used to go to Belgium to race for a few weeks – but it was out of your own pocket. Whereas now, British Cycling has money and the Rayner Fund enables these young lads to at least have the opportunity to chase their dream.”

With Knight, Paige and Portsmouth now on professional terms, attention turns to 2024 and the Rayner Foundation’s 30th year. By now well established as vital to the British cycling scene, the Rayner Foundation is held close to the heart of many, as is the memory of Dave Rayner, whose short but well-spent life has now inspired countless careers in the peloton.

With 2023 in the rearview mirror, one question remains: who will be the next British youngster to live out their dream supported by the Rayner Foundation?

To discover more about the Rayner Foundation, their Etape du Dales fundraising event and the plans for Team Rayner in 2024, click here to visit their website.

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