It’s difficult to say precisely what gives Jonny Wale his endearingly singular status in cycling.
It could be that the 26-year-old will compete for Scotland in the kilometre time trial in the Commonwealth Games next week only two years after he first raced.
It could be that he has never been part of any elite programme.
It could be his Graeme Obree-esque relationship with the bike – his making and adapting them a key factor in his rise in the sport.
Or it could be that the Edinburgh-born Derby resident is so upfront about his bipolar disorder and every other facet of his life.
Wale is the maverick’s maverick and someone who you just will to make the podium in the Gold Coast because of his determination to revolve to the speed of his own wheel. In typical fashion, the unknown is convinced a medal can be his.
“I’ll be unhappy if I don’t get a silver,” he said. “The last time I raced a kilo was the Manchester World Cup [in November], and I came fourth in qualifying, did a 1:01.1. And in the last few weeks I’ve found 0.98 seconds in the first 500m so it’s looking pretty rosy.”
The route of the amateur into the upper echelons of cycling has echoes of Cool Runnings, he acknowledges. Which is why they’ve made a documentary about Wale and his three friends and flat-mates Charlie Tanfield, Jacob Tipper and Dan Bigham crashing into the world on their own terms and with their own means: their Team KGF is underpinned by their cycle construction business WattShop.
“We won the national championships two years ago, we literally just bumbled into it,” he said. “We got to the final and we thought ‘f***ing hell, we’re in the final!’. When we won it… You know those great underdog stories?”
“We all just looked at each other and thought ‘Holy f***, we’re four guys who’ve done track for five weeks.’ We posted a 4:04 which would have got us eighth in the Olympics. So we wondered ‘What could we actually do with 12 months of training for this? None of us had ever been on any national governing body programme or anything
“Normally a national governing body, they’ve got every athlete in the country they can pick from. With us, we reverse engineered it. We had to change the way team pursuit was ridden. We’d never have been able to do that as part of a formal set-up because we’d have been drilled to believe ‘this is the way you ride Team Pursuit’. We made our own rules. And the expertise from running WattShop, all the aero-nerdiness we have, has helped. We had wheels, we didn’t like them, so we developed our own.”
As he has prepared for the Games in the Scotland camp, Wale considers his “real life experience” a “massive advantage” to him – if a coach’s nightmare as he concedes he “one hundred per cent” couldn’t fit into a system and how it’s “better” for him that way.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, we’ve had to pack our own bike boxes…’ Mate, I’ve had to book my own flights, everything. We turned up at the World Cup in Belarus and we didn’t even have a hotel booked. This is luxury. It’s the first time I’ve had video footage of my training. I’m looking at it giving ‘Ah, so that’s what I look like…’
“It is head and shoulders above what we have. It’s amazing. I’m used to having one coach across 30 cyclists, here’s it’s one-on-one coaching.
“Yet, if you’re part of the establishment, you have to fit their programme. Whereas in our team, we question things. It’s the biggest thing we do which guys here don’t. They’ve been told by a coach what to do for the past ten years of their lives so they’ll very rarely turn round and ask why.
“I’ve had a few arguments with the coach here because I question everything. And if they’ve never been questioned, it comes across as arrogance from me, but no, the whole reason I’m here is because I did question everything.”
Wale, though, has never questioned his Scottishness, despite moving down south nearly 14 years ago. “I was born in Edinburgh and lived there 13 years, before moving south… bullying explains the accent! My mum and dad were originally from Birmingham before they moved to Scotland, about eight years before I was born.
“This is where I’m from. I’ve always said I’m Scottish and never said I’m English. There are a lot of fake Scots who come around, and I know I could be pushed into that category, but being born here and raised here for 13 years there’s nothing fake about that.”
Wale simply couldn’t put on a front and that extends to admitting his bipolar condition makes it “very, very difficult” to fit in to the Scotland team environment.
“That’s the reason I’ve not competed at a high level,” he said. “The difference with KGF is that they say ‘Right, we’ve got Jonny here, he’s good on a good day, but he’s s*** on a bad day’, so it’s the willingness to open up to that and accept that we’re all humans and all have flaws but there’s a way to get the best out of every individual.”