Big Interview: BMX racer Ross Cullen
Ross Cullen's innocent eyes widened like something his parents had never witnessed before.
Gazing out of the window from the back seat of the family car, the youngster instantly became transfixed by the events unfolding before him.
What had been just a regular ‘everyday’ journey along London Road into Preston town centre from their home in Higher Walton, suddenly turned into a life-defining moment for the Cullens and their young son.
Ross Cullen will always remember that momentous car journey – around eight years ago – because it was the first time that he ever clapped eyes on Preston Pirates BMX Club.
The fleeting glimpse of leather-clad BMX riders flying over jumps at breakneck speed clearly had a captivating effect on the youngster, who was just seven years old at the time.
It was not long before he was pestering his dad Paul and mum Sally to take him down to the race track so he could have a go himself on one of the bikes.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Fast forward to the present day, Cullen – now aged 15 – is widely regarded as one of the sport’s hottest young prospects in the world.
He is a two-time junior BMX racing world champion and has won races across the globe.
His rising talent has resulted in him being handed a place on British Cycling’s development programme and he has been tipped to one day compete for his country on the biggest sporting stage of all – the Olympic Games.
Cullen cannot help but have a little smile to himself as he remembers how his love affair with the sport began.
“I was in my car with my mum and dad and we were driving into Preston town centre,” said Ross, who has an older sister Ella (17).
“The route we go to get into town from where we live went past the track at Preston Pirates and I obviously saw it through the window.
“It’s fair to say I was just a little bit curious. I ended up going down to the track soon after with my mountain bike and just messing around a bit.
“I loved it straight away and obviously had a bit of a thing for it.
“When I first started going down to the Pirates, I would be there for hours.
“They couldn’t get me off the track.
“I am a big adrenaline junkie. I have always been like that. I love to push the limits.
“That Christmas I got my first BMX race bike and from there, it has just been a case of progression.
“It’s been a really enjoyable journey for me so far.
“I have loved every single minute of it.”
From being a total novice, Cullen soon began to pick up the skills required to excel at the sport.
He began to win club and regional races at junior level, before progressing to the national and European stages.
His first big breakthrough arrived in 2011 when he finished fourth in his age group at the World Championships in Copenhagen.
However, the following year he was crowned world champion for the first time when he made home advantage count at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.
He has since gone on to win the world title again – last year in Rotterdam.
“To be able call myself a world champion – it took some getting used to,” said Cullen, who attends St Michaels CE High School, in Chorley.
“When I first won it in 2012, it was quite hard to believe really.
“It just felt like a dream at first. I remember sitting in the car park outside the NEC at Birmingham.
“We went for a meal and then started to drive back home and I just said to myself, ‘I’m world champion’.
“It felt amazing, but I still couldn’t really believe it.
“A few weeks after that it started to sink in.
“To win it again in 2015 was great and to be honest, even though I had won it before, the feeling didn’t change.
“The feeling you get is absolutely priceless.”
What the feeling is like to compete at the Olympic Games is something Cullen is keen to discover.
He was a very interested spectator of this summer’s event in Rio as Team GB riders Kyle Evans and Liam Phillips went gunning for gold.
For Evans, it was a first taste of the Olympics while Phillips is a veteran of both the Beijing and London Games in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
Neither of them were able to win a medal in Rio, but having got to know both Phillips and Evans through various GB training programmes, Cullen admits he was inspired by the duo’s exploits in Brazil.
“That’s my main dream – to compete in the Olympic Games or win an Olympic medal, that is what I’m aiming for,” he said.
“It was great to watch Liam and Kyle compete at this year’s games in Rio.
“To watch the event was quite interesting because there were a lot of crashes, but there were also some amazing races.
“The lads from Team GB did well, although Liam took a heavy crash which put him out of the competition before he had chance to show what he was really worth.
“But I thought Kyle Evans raced really well.
“It was his first Olympics whereas for Liam I think it was his third.
“Watching them made me realise that if I stick at what I’m doing, one day I could in the position that they were in – riding at an Olympic Games”.
While nothing is guaranteed in life, Cullen is determined to become the best rider he can be and sees no reason why a place at an Olympics cannot be his in years to come.
He is hoping to put himself in the frame for 2020, but realistically it will be another four years before he will be reaching his peak as an athlete.
“I will be old enough for the next Olympics, but obviously on the GB programme there are riders above me at different ages and levels,” said Cullen.
“There are a lot of good riders out there – people like Paddy Sharrock, obviously Kyle, Liam, Tre Whyte.
“At this moment in time, you can’t really tell who will be going to Tokyo.
“It all depends on what’s happening at the time.
“Obviously they are going to take the fastest riders. I’ll be old enough but probably one of the youngest and in four years’ time I probably won’t be anywhere near my peak.
“But having said that if you’re fast enough, they will take you.
“I have a shot at going to Tokyo – I can’t really discount that possibility.
“But you’re probably looking at 2024 – that is more of a possibility for me.
“I will be 19 in 2020, which is still very young.
“If you look at most of the riders in Rio, most of them were all in their mid-20s.
“I think that is the age when you’re generally hitting your peak.
“Before then though I will be riding junior and elite races, in Europe and all over the world representing my country and competing for GB.
“I am quite excited about what lies in store – looking at the long-term plan.
“I would love to one day walk up to that Olympic Games gate wearing that Team GB jersey.”
The fact that Cullen is being talked about as a future Olympic pick owes no small part to his family and Preston Pirates.
“Preston Pirates has been vital to me,” he said.
“I have always been at the club – always represented the club in competitions.
“I have kind of grown up there.
“We all get along really well.
“The club is growing and has a good coaching system.
“I look at some of the youngsters who are there, they are all racing around, having fun. That was me once.
“It’s an amazing club with amazing people there.
“People like Ian Brookes, who is the owner of the club. He’s been running the club since I’ve been there and does a great job.
“I guess my parents have had it hard over the years because they have had to stand around in all weathers...snow, rain.
“One of the biggest things you need to be successful is experience and I feel I am so lucky to have two amazing parents who have supported me so much.
“They have taken me to races all around the world – even if those races do not go according to plan, I am still getting vital experience.
“If I did get to the Olympics, it would definitely repay all the effort and hard work my parents and my coaches have put in.
“If I did not have all of their support behind me, I would not be where I am now.
“It’s not just the cost of the sport, but also the mental side of things. Sometimes it can be a hard to get motivated for a training session when you’ve been at school all day.
“It can be hard to go and do a gym session or a track session, but having the support of family and friends is a great help.
“They remind you why you are doing it and what you are aiming to achieve.
“It can really pick you up and makes you quite determined.
“To get anywhere in the sport, it does takes a lot of dedication, but I think you have got to really like what you are doing.
“Some people do something, but they’re not really keen on it, but if you really like what you are doing and you stick at it – then I think you can go far.
“You get that hunger in your stomach which makes you work harder in training.”
No matter what the future holds, Ross admits he has had a great time since taking up the sport.
He has made friendships for life – not just at the Pirates, but around the world.
“For the BMX riders, it’s like having a whole family all over the world,” he said.
“It’s good to go to so many places in the world...Colombia, America, Italy...and know people when you get there.
“Obviously we all get along with each other – we share the same interest.
“It’s really amazing to share such an amazing sport with your mates.
“It’s great to ride with so many great people.
“A lot of them are my best mates now, especially some of the lads at Preston Pirates, who I have known for years since I started out.”
One aspect of the sport which Cullen relishes is coaching.
He is keen to pass on his experiences to the next generation of riders coming through the ranks at Preston Pirates.
“There is a mentoring scheme at Preston where myself and a few of the other lads do some coaching,” said Cullen, who is hoping to take up an engineering apprenticeship when he leaves school next year.
“I mentor lads at the club, who are aged between four and 12.
“It’s totally voluntary, we don’t get paid, but it’s a way for us to give something back to the sport which has given us so much.
“What I have been given by the club over the years, I wouldn’t be where I am now in terms of the coaching.
“So it’s nice for me to give something back.
“It’s really cool when you get young kids coming up to you who have watched one of my videos on YouTube or they come up to me and ask for a photograph.
“I remember when I was that lad looking up to other riders like Liam Phillips, Kyle Evans and Tre Whyte.
“The great thing is these lads who are on the Olympic programme are training in Manchester quite a lot so I have gone from looking up to them and thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get as good as them?’ to ‘I want to be like them’.
“Now I am able to ride alongside them during sessions in Manchester and that is really cool.”
Having been around the sport for nearly a decade, Cullen has seen the BMX grow immeasurably.
He believes it will not be long before BMX racing is on a par, popularity-wise, with all the other cycling disciplines.
“BMX racing has grown so much since it became an Olympic sport in 2008,” he said.
“It is growing all the time, but it’s still a minority sport.
“I am hoping one day the sport could as big as road racing and track cycling have become.”