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'You aren't a follower of me if that's what you believe': Jake Stewart on a whirlwind first year as a pro

15 Sep 2021

It's been a rollercoaster first pro season for Groupama-FDJ's Jake Stewart, with its fair share of incident and injury but also some impressive results on the road

Words: Robyn Davidson 

Cyclist: I’ll tell you what, let’s start with a quickfire round. Dogs or cats?

Jake Stewart: Dogs.

Cyc: Tea or coffee?

JS: Coffee.

Cyc: Classics or Grand Tours?

JS: Classics.

Cyc: Finishing second or finishing fourth?

JS: Finishing second.

Cyc: Disc or rim brakes?

JS: Disc.

Cyc: Twitter or Instagram?

JS: Twitter I reckon.

Cyc: Do you have any tattoos?

JS: Yes – I've actually got another one planned actually in the off season.

Cyc: Favourite race?

JS: Tour of Flanders, even though I've never finished one.

Cyc: Well, me neither. What is your favourite local ride around?

JS: Probably what we did today: up over Snakes Pass, Abney, over to Eyam and then Tideswell, back side of Long Hill, Whaley Bridge and then a cafe stop just before home. On a nice day when the weather's good in the Peak District, I don't think there's anywhere better.

Cyc: I'd actually back you on that. Turbo or outdoor session in the winter?

JS: Outdoor session. I hate going on the turbo. Horrible.

Cyc: So, on to the bigger questions. Where are you based at the moment?

JS: I grew up in Coventry with my parents, but I moved up north in March to outside Hayfield, on the west side of Manchester. In the Peak District it's dead easy to get out training.

Cyc: And congrats on your contract extension. What was it that encouraged you to re-sign with Groupama-FDJ?

JS: I'm pretty accustomed to the team and know all the staff and riders really well. Throughout my progress in the Conti team through to the WorldTour team, I have always had good support and they've always had the confidence in me on the bike. It felt natural to renew with them and carry on working towards our future goals. They’ve given me good opportunities this last year and I'll have more responsibilities going forward so it'll be nice to try and win some races.

Cyc: What's it been like learning under Marc Madiot, whose teams are known to be quite French-centric?

JS: Obviously when I went to the Conti team, I was moving from the GB programme, away from a GB setup and going into a new development team with Groupama-FDJ, a French team that has been around for 20-odd years. A lot of people questioned why I was doing it, and whether it was the right move for me.

But actually, the Conti team is probably one of the best development teams in the U23 peloton. And on the WorldTour level, it's nice that there's a team in the peloton that still kind of has its original identity.

I think a lot of that is down to Marc [Madiot] and the way he presents the team and presents himself. Groupama and FDJ obviously have a lot of confidence in Marc and it's nice that it’s a team that still speaks French, has stuck to its roots and supports French riders alongside international riders.

Cyc: Do you speak some French?

JS: It’s getting there. I did French in school but when you learn French at school, it's just to pass an exam, so was pretty useless when I went to the team. Now I can just about get by. I can have a decent enough conversation with the staff and riders and not just about cycling, but life as well. It makes it a bit nicer when you're at races; you've got stuff to talk about other than racing.

Cyc: In terms of your season, it started exceptionally well when you placed fourth at Étoile de Bessèges behind people like Michał Kwiatkowski and Tim Wellens overall, and also topped the youth classification

JS: I didn't really know what to expect coming into the season, just because it was my first year as a pro, coming out of U23 racing and still being an U23 in my first year.

It was kind of complicated, especially with Covid over the winter. I didn't get the opportunity to go to training camp because of the restrictions with Spain, so I wasn't really sure how I was coming into the race. It was a surprise that I was going so well, but not a huge one. I'd been training well through the winter and I'd put in some good blocks. It was nice to start the season with a decent result and show myself right at the start.

Cyc: And of course there was also your second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. How did you feel after crossing the line?

JS: It was pretty bittersweet because I came so close to winning, something I've never done at UCI level. Omloop was a really good opportunity but probably just showed my lack of experience really in the finish. It cost me because I came in so fast to the finish closing on Davide Ballerini. It was bittersweet when I finished, but when you look back at it, actually it's a pretty impressive result.

Cyc: Pretty impressive indeed! People were already making memes about you at that point as well. You were – are still are – a very popular rider to people on social media

JS: When you get good results, you get a bigger following. I've always kind of had a presence on social media and getting a big result brings you to the forefront of more people's minds. Everyone likes to kind of support… I guess an underdog kind of thing?

Cyc: On the subject of social media, the sprint at Cholet-Pays de La Loire and the clash with Nacer Bouhanni. You couldn’t have predicted the racist backlash he received but despite your disagreement over the incident itself you were quick to condemn it

JS: Yeah, I just think racing incidents are racing incidents.

When I posted that tweet criticising him it was just in light of the fact that it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. But obviously at no point did it cross my mind that racism was going to be a factor in this situation, because it shouldn't be a factor in the situation. It's got nothing to do with the matter. Then there was a lot of racist backlash.

I had some people on Twitter mentioning me and saying I was part of the reason he was getting the racist hate. That's something I obviously don't stand for, so I felt I had a purpose to tweet something and condemn it. Especially since a percentage of my followers were probably among those directing the racism towards Bouhanni.

Basically I was saying that if you think that this is correct, and if you think that racism is something that is simply allowed, then you don't belong in this society and you aren't a follower of me if that's what you believe.

Cyc: Looking forward, it was announced this week that you're part of the British Cycling team for the UCI Road World Championships. What are you most looking forward to?

JS: It is a privilege to be riding with the team that we've got this year. We’ve got such a good mix of youth and experience. To be riding a World Champs with Cavendish and Luke [Rowe], and also Hayter and Pidcock are flying at the same time, I think it's a really good opportunity. Certainly, we're going into the race with a possibility of bringing home a medal. It's nice to be a part of that.

Cyc: If you compare when you first started with Groupama-FDJ to now, how would you say you've changed and developed?

JS: When I signed with Groupama-FDJ it was with the Conti team and the development team, so I didn't really know what was going on in the WorldTour team compared to that. The Conti team was beneficial to me because at the time I obviously wasn't ready to move up to the WorldTour team.

Going to the development team for two years allowed me to learn in a professional environment and then use those skills at WorldTour level. More than anything, I've just become a more rounded bike rider and I think stepping away from a British Cycling programme into an international environment gives you a whole other set of experiences and you learn a lot of new skills and ways to communicate with different people.

Cyc: What would you say has been the biggest lesson that you've learned in your first year as a pro?

JS: There has always been a perception that when young guys go to the WorldTour they learn a lot of new things but actually we're already pretty professional. More than anything, learning how to be a professional bike rider is about the experiences, the learning in races, and especially for a Classics rider like me, knowing the parcours and knowing the race inside out.

The experiences that you gain, which you can then take forward into the future is the main learning point. Once you know how to race, and where you can win and lose a race, that's when you can start competing for the win.

Cyc: What would you say has been the best moment for you throughout the season?

JS: It's been a season of highs and lows. I started the season off so well and then I had the broken hand. After I broke my hand I came back and raced the Tour de Romandie then had tonsillitis after that and was off the bike for two weeks. I came back racing and then had another spell of tonsillitis after that.

My favourite moment through the year from a personal perspective was probably Omloop because of the result. Aside from that, probably the Tour de Suisse when Stefan [Küng] had the leader's jersey. It was pretty cool. A Swiss guy in Switzerland with the leader's jersey, supporting him there for that was probably one of the best moments also.

Cyc: How do you drive yourself when you're out on the bike?

JS: I think this year I've seen a change in my mentality. For the first few years the main thing is trying to make it to the WorldTour. That’s what's driving you. You're putting in this work to get good results on the road, to then step up to the WorldTour. But once you get there, that's when the real hard work starts.

It's not as if you step up to the WorldTour and then just take your foot off the gas and relax. Racing on the WorldTour is completely different to U23 and it's just so much harder. Everyone is working hard, and everyone's doing the maximum they can do to be the best and you've got to keep up with that to stay there. But training on a s****y wet day in Manchester, when it's five degrees, there's not a lot that can really motivate you. You're never really going to be that high on morale.

But at the start of the season, results like I had drive you for the rest of the season because you know what you're capable of. I think once you've got a few good results as a neo pro, you kind of get a taste of victory and that's what drives you going forward. Then if you're in training and you're not going so well, it pushes you on to get back to the level you were before.

Cyc: And lastly, what are you hoping to achieve next year?

JS: It'll be my second year fully pro and obviously I've gained a fair bit of experience from the Classics. The aim is to consolidate on that experience and try to use what I've learned these last few years, to go into next year with a proper focus on the season.

Coming into your first year as a pro, you don't really know what you're focussing on. You're kind of playing each race as it is. You're not really focussing on anything specifically because you're trying to do the best you can through the year. But certainly next year, I want to go into the season fully focussing on the Classics and being as good as I can be. It'd be nice to come away with a win in something like Omloop. I've shown I'm capable of doing a decent enough ride. More than anything, just chasing that first pro victory is probably my biggest goal. I've still got seven race days left this year to try and get that. So if I don't, then it'll definitely be a focus for next year.

Jake Stewart’s next race will be representing Great Britain at the upcoming UCI Road World Championships in Flanders.