Cyclist James Oram says that like all kids, in every sport in which he competed he had an idol and dreamt of being the next Wynton Rufer or Roger Federer, but “maybe not Jonah Lomu!” Though he admits to being a quiet, modest, “almost nerdy” child with braces (“not the big stud of the school by any means!”), sport always took precedent over academia.
“Sport allowed me to tap into a competitive, almost aggressive side, that I wouldn’t have otherwise shown,” continues the cyclist. “My parents were, and are always, proud of my achievements big or small, so I think that meant from a young age it’s always been self-motivation rather that someone having to push me that’s driven me on.”
It was during James’s last year at Auckland’s Westlake Boys High School that his thoughts seriously turned to a cycling career, in part due to sports coach Scott Guyton who he hails as an “amazing role model” for all the boys. “I had my heart set on racing and working a part-time job instead of heading straight to university,” says the 25-year-old. “I have to thank my parents for being supportive of this, but I think they knew more than I did that it’s all I wanted to do.”
The Kiwi athlete is now part of the One Pro Cycling, a British-based UCI Continental men’s cycling team founded in 2015, having spent four years with an American U23 team that was formerly Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong development team. Signing with the British setup meant a move to Europe for the competitive season, where in parts, James tells me, cycling’s popularity is almost on par with major sports like football and rugby: “Plenty of top Kiwi cyclists are superstars in Europe, but wouldn’t even get a second glance being passed on the street back home.”
Do you get homesick?
“In my earlier years away, the excitement of adventure and the great feeling of independence was too strong for homesickness. However, now I’ve been on the road for a few years, and have a partner at home, unless I’m busy, it can get really hard.”
Cycling seems like it could be lonely sport?
“It’s quite the opposite. Many people see it as an individual sport, but the comradeship in a team is massive. Most aren’t aware that it’s eight cyclists riding for one to get the best result for the team. And at most events there are past teammates or friends from other teams who you can catch up with and share a joke when the race isn’t going full gas.”
James cites other cycling misconceptions such as “we don’t pay our rego”, “it’s for middle-aged men who can’t play golf”, and, on a more serious note, that “we all dope like Lance”. The sport’s reputation has taken a serious battering in recent years and I ask the cyclist what effect it has on the competitors and if enough is being done to combat drug use.
“I’m fairly sure, to date, cycling is one of the highest tested sports by WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency], and the bans in our sport are by far the heaviest. A rugby player who fails a drug test will likely receive a four-month ban whereas a cyclist in the same situation will receive two years. But there are still questions being asked as it often seems there is not enough clarity, as with the recent Froome case.”
I ask James what he most loves about cycling and he reveals that there is no better adrenalin-rush than hurtling down a hill, while the sport also seems to attract some “amazing people”. It has led him to “unreal places” along with the meeting of his partner. Standout memories include the Commonwealth Games and “being agonisingly close to a huge result at previous world championships”: “Any chance I get to race in NZ kit is something that I relish.”
Do you have favourite cycling spots in New Zealand?
“The Coromandel is beautiful—Kuaotunu, Hot Water Beach and around Whiritoa. However, the atmosphere at the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge is hard to beat. That’s the best part of cycling, no matter the level, it can be enjoyed by all.”
Now more than halfway through the season, James expresses his disappointment at not yet nailing “that first elusive win”: “They say the first is the hardest, so I want to get the ball rolling soon. This will help with the bigger goal of signing for a World Tour team to progress further in the sport.”
In order to deal with professional disappointment, James adopts the philosophical approach of “taking the good with the bad” because that’s what makes the “wins, breakthrough moments and sacrifices worth it”: “If you let anything bring you down, it affects everything—your mental motivation and your physical ability to train and exert yourself,” he says. “I definitely have an amazing support team, from One Pro to friends, family and my partner back home. They keep me grounded.”
James will be back home in Auckland in October once the season has wrapped up, where he will continue working with Team Skoda “in our quest to improve cycling in New Zealand, and where possible, give back to a sport that has given me so much”, before heading back to Europe next March.
He also singles out “inspirational” Craig Geater for particular praise for his work behind the scenes in the development of Kiwi cycling. “Craig puts in thousands of hours into New Zealand Cycling as a sports and logistics director at the world championships and many other events,” says James, “but he won’t be standing on the podium at the end of the day. It’s people like him that are the true heroes of the sport.”