Rab Wardell: A celebration

Rab Wardell: A celebration


It was with shock and deep sadness that everyone connected to Scottish Cycling learnt of the passing of a man central to its community, Rab Wardell, on Tuesday 23rd August 2022.

Rab was a friend of many, no matter your discipline or role in our sport. “Bikes are gid” he would say. An elite mountain bike rider who had just turned professional, Rab was a gifted cyclist no matter the bike he was riding, be that road, track, bmx or cyclocross.

Rab was also a coach, a former Scottish Cycling member of staff, and an advisor to the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships. He was a son, a brother, a partner, a friend and an all-round good guy, who just loved cycling and everything it offered to so many people, from all walks of life.

In the words of long-time friend, James McCallum:

“Legacy is a word that is used too often, but I think legacy and legend are two words that people will nod their heads at when they think of Rab.”

A fitting tribute from a figure also at the heart of our sport, and there is no doubt Rab influenced, and will continue to influence, so many cyclists in Scotland, young and old, racers or recreational riders and everyone in between.

Born to Gill & Jack on the 15th June 1985 in Dunfermline, Rab was riding bikes from a very early age, and already the joy he would get from the freedom they bring was evident to see.

Whilst it hurts that Rab is no longer with us, the fact that Rab’s racing career went full circle is something to cherish – his Scottish XC MTB title as a senior just two days before his passing marked the end of a racing career that really took off after victory in the same event at a junior level back in 2002.

Wardell’s career was only just getting started at this point and he would go on to make his UCI Mountain Bike World Cup debut at elite level two years later, before representing Scotland at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, riding both the mountain bike and road races.

As already noted, Rab wasn’t just a mountain biker – far from it – and would compete in virtually every cycling discipline available, both as a developing youngster and throughout his senior career. You can probably count on one hand the number of top level XC mountain bike riders who can also do a backflip on a BMX!

Whilst Wardell’s racing career probably didn’t follow the path he hoped post Melbourne, and he would eventually make the decision to step away from elite racing for quite some time, he continued to achieve great success in other roles within the sport.

In fact, in 2007 he took his first job with Scottish Cycling, taking up one of the newly created Regional Development Coach positions, with responsibility for the West. Amongst that cohort of coaches were Paul Newnham, Keith Stocker, Mark Young and Bob McFarlane and there have been many tales shared of the laughs and jokes they had along the way.

At this time there were far fewer youth clubs in Scotland than there are today, and that team of coaches set about creating and bolstering the youth network across the country. Rab was instrumental in the development of Glasgow Riderz, getting bikes to Bellahouston in order to help the club on the path to being the highly successful club it is today.

For the off road community, Rab was also one of the founders of the infamous Dirt Crits – the idea behind them reflected that Scots have great skills but often struggle with race craft and speed. So by introducing regional based evening races, which were short and sharp and not too technical, it moved on the level of mountain biking and look at the success our mountain bikers are having today.

On working closing with Wardell, and counting him as a friend for many years, Newnham would recall:

“His enthusiasm for sport was always inspiring – he just loved cycling. We had some great times coaching together and training together - group road rides with Rab were always entertaining, as he was a great storyteller – we’d spend about half of a four hour ride laughing.

“It’s hard to capture Rab’s life and impact in a couple of sentences, but it’s safe to say he packed more adventures and achievements into 37 years than most people could fit in two lifetimes.”

Wardell’s role with Scottish Cycling also saw him facilitate a number of school sessions, but he and the team quicky realised it was more fruitful doing this through the club network. On one occasion, he put out an advert for a coaching session and had 80 people turn up – managing that one was all about adaptability!  

Cross sessions at Nether Pollock were another highlight, with some small portable floodlights used to make the sessions viable in the dark winter evenings. Amongst the cohort attending those, were the likes of Anna Shackley and Jack Carlin! Rab was Jack’s first coach and the man who put him on a track bike, playing a key role in the Paisley man’s Olympic success.

After six successful years, Rab’s next challenge was joining Dirt School in the Borders, where he would spend five years coaching mountain bikers of all abilities. Rab was an outstanding mentor to the BASE College students he worked with, a highly knowledgeable coach, but most of all knew how to make riding bikes fun – and that’s exactly what it should be.

In the spring of 2018, Rab moved back to Glasgow for a second stint with Scottish Cycling, where he took on the role of Glasgow Go-Ride Coach. Rab’s role, alongside fellow coach Jim Goldie, involved getting kids across Glasgow excited about cycling, specifically BMX, MTB and Track, something that hardly seemed like work for Rab. His coaching skills were unquestionable, however anything office based was perhaps not as much his forte. Tales have been recounted of how Rab would turn up to the office with his sheepish, yet cheeky grin, at least 30 minutes late for whatever meeting he was having – usually bearing a cup of coffee as a peace offering!

But as soon as Rab rocked up in the branded van and bounced out, fist bumping and high fiving kids, everyone was captivated. It’s hard to capture the impact that Rab has had in cycling, and none more so than in this role where he taught kids from across Glasgow to ride bikes for the first time, and more importantly, taught them that cycling is for anyone and everyone. 

Latterly Wardell transitioned into a BMX coaching role before leaving Scottish Cycling in early 2020 to set up his own coaching business. Over the following years he grew his business at some rate of knots, working with people of all abilities and from all walks of life, to help them fulfil their cycling goals. Whether that was teaching someone to go over a jump for the first time, or preparing a rider for elite level racing, Rab would come at it with the same energy and enthusiasm, exactly how he lived his own life.

Rab loved adventure so whether it was racing Cape Epic, setting the West Highland Way record, or leading a charity group through Race Across America, he knew how to get the most out of life. His charity work extended to supporting CALM, the mental health charity he was a strong advocate for, by bikepacking from Scotland to Belgium to race a cyclocross race – only Rab would be crazy enough to do that! 

2021 saw him make a return to elite level, having rediscovered his love for top level mountain bike competition. He would fight it out at the sharp end of the UK National Cross Country Championships, finishing eighth, before taking sixth in the Marathon equivalent, earning himself a Great Britain call up for the World Championships at the age of 36. As his most recent series of films made in conjunction with Wahoo would note, he was ‘old enough to know better’ by this point! 

Almost as heart-warming as his recent Scottish title, which he had worked so hard to claim, was the news that he knew he had been selected to represent Great Britain at the UCI MTB Marathon World Championships next month – his ultimate goal for the season.

In trying to sum Rab up, Scottish Cycling Board Member, former racing companion and lifelong friend, James McCallum, said:

“It’s hard to describe how awesome a person he was. I think everyone that knew him got so much energy from him and he was a standout beacon of hope and determination to anyone in our cycling community. He was always such a happy, outgoing and understanding individual – I felt like he was my little brother and I’m sure there are plenty of other people in the community who feel the exact same. It’s so surreal to think that, just now, I’m discussing him not being here anymore.

“I think if there’s one thing we can take away from the way Rab lived, it was that he wanted to squeeze everything out of life and make sure every day was a day that you could remember. In doing that he’s taken every opportunity to enjoy his life and have great people round about him and just be such a nice, gracious friend and loving character.”

A celebration of Rab’s life will take place at 1.15pm on Wednesday 7th September at Dunfermline Crematorium – all those who loved Rab are welcome.

There have already, unsurprisingly, been suggestions of a memorial race for Rab, and so Scottish Cycling are working with his family to honour his legacy in a way that they see fit, at a time that is right for them.