For the last 20 years he has served as a doorkeeper in the House of Commons, maintaining the security of MPs in his traditional uniform of black long-tailed coat, white bow tie, and silver-gilt waist badge of office. On Thursday, Chris Symonds, a 48 year-old British-Ghanaian who trains by commuting the 12 miles from his home in North London into Westminster every day on his hybrid bicycle, went shoulder-to-shoulder with Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas.
Symonds finished more than 16 minutes behind the Welshman, who took bronze in the Commonwealth Games men’s time trial. But that was hardly surprising given he is nearly 50 and had to save up for his own bike.
“It was about £2,000 for the frame and the wheels are about £500-600 for the front and almost £1,000 for the back,” Symonds, whose father is English and whose mother is from Ghana, confided to reporters at the finish. “My wife Lucia bears with me. She is from Slovakia. She is a tough woman.”
Symonds’s story is one of those colourful tales you only really get at the Commonwealth Games, where rank amateurs from far-flung corners of the globe can mix it with the world’s best.
Thursday’s time trial, which started and finished in West Park in Wolverhampton, also featured an immigration officer from the Falkland Islands who originally hails from Walsall.
Symonds has been working as a doorkeeper at the Houses of Parliament “since the days of Gordon Brown”. The role of doorkeeper dates back to the 1300s, when the Palace of Westminster also served as a court and they served as prison guards.
Grinning, Symonds told reporters his job was “to make sure people like you don’t get in.” “I’ve barred entry to a few famous people, but I’d better not say who,” he added.
He counts a number of MPs as friends. “Mike Freer, the MP for Finchley, has been out on a few rides with me and I’ve had a few good-luck messages from MPs, including Stuart Anderson, who’s an MP in this area,” Symonds said. “He met up with me earlier and wished me all the best.”
Asked who the fittest MP was, Symonds laughed. “No comment – I might make a few enemies if I get it wrong.”
Birmingham 2020 is actually far from Symonds’ first competitive outing for Ghana. He first represented the West African nation at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in triathlon. He switched to cycling in Delhi four years later. “Basically I was told I was too old for triathlon,” he recalled. “So I decided to focus on time trialling.”
With mixed success. At last year’s world time trial championships in Flanders, Belgium, Symonds finished dead last, 18 minutes behind the winner Filippo Ganna of Italy.
In his defence he was the oldest rider ever to compete at the championships and had paid £800 out of his own pocket to be there.
Training, he conceded, was difficult given his day job. “We work long hours,” he added. “Sometimes you can do 50 hours in a week, and train on top of that as well. That can be hard.”
Symonds commutes into work every day and rides out into Hertfordshire on his days off. “The Little Alps, as we call them,” he said. “The journey into work is about 12 miles. I use a hybrid commuter bike – Boris Bikes are too heavy.
“You try to work up a head of steam, but it’s not easy with all the traffic lights.”
Symonds, who joked that he preferred to park his bike at the House of Lords as it was “safer there”, said he loved his job, including the uniform. “Yeah if you see Downton Abbey, that is what we have to wear. One of those Edwardian evening wear.”
He may have finished well down the pecking order – 47th out of 54 finishers – but Symonds hit back at those who say amateurs have no place at the Commonwealths, arguing it is vital for smaller nations to gain experience at a major championships.
And he added that he was already eyeing up another outing in four years’ time, potentially with older son Jakub, 12, who was in Wolverhampton supporting his father along with younger brother Lukas, eight.
“Jakub is into his cycling and rides at LeeValley Youth Club. He does mountain biking at the moment. I am getting him ready so he can do some damage.”