It was not the ideal route to national attention. Last Tuesday afternoon, in the office of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in Manchester, Darryl Webster was described by his old team-mate Shane Sutton as someone who grew cannabis and was bitter at being insulted after his wife had left him.
Sutton, the former British Cycling coach, was correct only on the first count. “I actually left my wife, so Shane got that wrong,” Webster explains with a laugh, speaking from the caravan he calls home in rural Carmarthenshire.
Cycling fans who remember the British racing scene of the 1980s will be familiar with Webster, but really his name should resonate far beyond that modest community. For this 57-year-old was among the most gifted riders of his generation, an outlier talent who could win races over almost any distance, and who should have gone on to impress abroad had only his fiercely outspoken streak and – by his account – resistance to doping not held him back.
It seems appropriate, then, that his name should crop up when the British cycling elite is being linked to a performance-enhancing substance, with Sutton appearing at the explosive hearing in which the former British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman faces charges over testosterone he had delivered to the national velodrome.
“Cycling has always been like the mafia, right to the top,” Webster says, “and I was very anti-establishment. If you're someone who speaks as you see it, it means you're being honest in a sport that is very corrupt.”
Sutton had been giving evidence because Freeman said the Australian bullied him into ordering the testosterone. In trying to discredit Sutton, Freeman's QC referred to unattributed testimony that said he had doped as a rider.
Sutton incorrectly suggested Webster was its source and went on to strongly deny the allegation, pointing out that he had been tested “around 100 times” in his career without testing positive. He also rejected the bullying claim.
What no one could deny, however, is that doping was as much a problem for the sport then as it has ever been. And according to Webster, if you tried to tackle the problem as he did, it only counted against you.
“I remember I was a riders' representative and went to an AGM of the Professional Cyclists' Association,” he says. “I said that the attitude to drugs was getting a bit cavalier and that we needed to do something about it. This was a time when money was tight and a drug bust could have been the nail in the coffin for a team – because sponsors would have run a mile."
He felt nothing was done. “I think it just p----d other riders' off. It was like banging my head against a brick wall.”
Though rarely told, the story of Webster's career is useful as a cautionary tale. It highlights the risks involved in submitting to what has famously been an often unscrupulous and especially ruthless sport.
He emerged as a teenager racing in and around his hometown of Leicester, soon making it on to the national squad and winning bronze in the team pursuit at the junior world championships. He went on to claim 23 senior British titles, including seven in 1985 alone, though his stand-out effort came three years later during the season he spent on the PMS-Dawes team with Sutton.
You can watch footage of Webster’s victory on stage three of the Nissan Tour of Ireland on YouTube. It depicts a solo attack destroying a world-class field that included such talents as Sean Kelly and the great Belgian Johann Mesuuw. “I spent the evening before stuffing my face with food and drank a couple of pints of Guinness,” he told Pezcyclingnews.com. “I attacked 30 miles in, and still had three-and-a-half minute lead at the line.”
The feat should have been the springboard for a career on the continent. Instead he was discarded after one season with the Spanish team Teka to find no one on the less prestigious British circuit would take him on. He had burnt bridges, it seemed, and quit the sport aged 28.
“My character didn’t help, sure, but I just didn’t fit in with what was going on. My attitude to doping on the British scene was: why? We're not riding anywhere near hard enough to need to dope. If you do, then you shouldn't be a pro rider.”
Without naming anyone, he admits it has been difficult to watch certain contemporaries remain employed in cycling, assisting the sport’s boom over the past two decades. “I have been a little bitter about that, seeing the people who I knew cheated getting the plaudits that they got and the financial compensation that they got. But I wouldn't want to be them. What you've done is wrong. That's more important than renumeration.”
Webster’s life after cycling has not always run smooth. He tried taxi driving, then opened a bike shop with his brother before studying counselling. Though it failed to lead to a new career, it helped him to develop coping strategies for the depression that emerged after he stopped racing.
At its worst in 2001, he twice tried to commit suicide. Thankfully it has never been as bad since. “Now I am able to spot it before it gets to that overwhelming place.”
His mental health issues led to the cannabis conviction that Sutton mentioned. In 2013, Webster was sentenced to 300 hours community work after 37 cannabis plants were found divided between his home and his partner’s property. Police estimated the drug had a street value of £24,000. Webster insists that he grew it for personal use because it alleviated stress.
The root of his problems were inevitably complex, taking in his upbringing and the death of his father, as well as the struggle to adjust to life after elite sport. It was not so much that he missed the bike, but that competing and training obsessively meant "there was no room for depression to manifest itself”.
In other words, cycling offered him an escape. "That's why I liked at as a teenager. Cycling appealed because it didn't mean f--k-all. You won the race or you didn't. Everything else was irrelevant. It's an honest premise and had an honest appeal. The problem is that we don't live in an honest world…”
Today, Webster has found balance in a simple life, having moved into the caravan with his partner, Ros, so that they could care for her elderly parents. They live in an adjacent property.
Carmarthen, the nearest town, is six miles away and he admits to feeling isolated at times. He spends much of his social life online, often contributing to Real 80s Cycling, the Facebook group he set up after years of wanting nothing to do with the sport.
“When I returned to cycling through social media, I found a lot of riders from my time – not the top riders, the clubmen – seemed to have a lot more respect for me than they did the top riders. I seem to be held in a lot more esteem than I ever thought. And that means a lot.”