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Class of 2021: Britain’s rising pro cycling stars

In-depth
3 Feb 2021
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When Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas were left out of the Ineos Grenadiers lineup for the 2020 Tour de France, it seemed to be a moment of symbolic importance. Perhaps even a pivotol one for the British team.

Only one British rider, Luke Rowe, was in the eight-man squad, and he is a domestique. For the first time in 11 Tour starts, the team would be led not by a British rider but by two South Americans, defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia and Richard Carapaz of Ecuador.

The omission of Froome and Thomas, with five Tour wins between them, was interpreted by some as the end of an era, and not just for Ineos. The period of British dominance – six Tour de France wins by three different riders in eight years – was ‘drawing to a close’, as The Guardian put it. The article went on to predict that ‘what was once a deluge of British success may now become a trickle’.

Then, however, came the Giro d’Italia, won by Tao Geoghegan Hart, and the Vuelta a España, where another British rider, Hugh Carthy, won the queen stage on the fearsome Angliru before finishing on the third step of the podium below Carapaz and winner Primož Roglič.

Young guns

Relaxing at home in Preston a few weeks after the Vuelta, Carthy is dismissive of the suggestion that British cycling fans’ expectations should be lowered in the coming years.

‘I think that statement is totally wrong,’ he says of the claim that the golden era is drawing to a close. ‘I think it’s just different. There aren’t as many British cyclists at the peak of their powers but there are a hell of a lot bubbling under the surface.

‘The Yates brothers [Adam and Simon] are at the top of their game. Tao and me – I think we’re just arriving at the top of our game.

‘James Knox is a year or two away,’ Carthy adds. ‘Connor Swift has taken a different route to the top. Mark Donovan and Fred Wright were both good at the Vuelta. I think it’s quite refreshing.

‘We might not have the big shiny stars, but I’d say we now have the sort of rider you can never write off. Not out-and-out favourites like Froome, but the kind of riders who you’re never surprised if they do something.

‘There are a lot of young riders who are ready to step up. Not just climbers – everyone’s getting bored of climbers now – but Fred Wright is a good sprinter, and another sprinter, Matt Walls, is joining Bora-Hansgrohe. Scott Davies is a good time-triallist. There’s a really good cross-section of riders.’

The stats seem to back Carthy up. The number of British riders in WorldTour teams has been steadily increasing, from 15 five years ago to 24, spread across an unprecedented number of teams. Of the 19 WorldTour teams, 13 have British riders.

And the 2020 season proved a successful one for British riders, even if the established stars – Froome, Thomas and Mark Cavendish – didn’t contribute in terms of results. The website procyclingstats has a league table comparing nations’ relative performances from year to year – this year’s put Britain second.

The UK was beaten only by Slovenia who, with Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar leading the charge, had the highest relative points increase from 2019.

Too cool for school

If a new generation of British cyclists is starting to emerge, then Carthy might be considered an unlikely flag-bearer. In contrast with so many of the established stars, he cannot be said to be a product of the British system.

On the other hand that fact alone perhaps does make him an appropriate symbol of the new wave.

A decade ago, when Team Sky were starting out, the path to the WorldTour for an aspiring young British rider was through the British Cycling Academy and then on to Team Sky. Virtually every British rider who turned pro took these steps. Notable exceptions were Adam Blythe and Adam Yates.

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When he wasn’t accepted by the Academy, Yates went to France, joining a club in Troyes. He did well and in 2014, alongside his brother Simon, who did come through the British system, Adam turned pro with Mitchelton-Scott.

It was said at the time that the reason they didn’t join Team Sky was because Sky only wanted Simon, not Adam. Now, in a curious twist, Adam has joined Ineos Grenadiers for 2021 while Simon has stayed with Mitchelton.

Others have since followed the Adam Yates route to a professional career on the Continent, bypassing the British system. After a spell with British Continental team Rapha Condor, 20-year-old Carthy went to Spain in 2015 to join Caja Rural.

He learned the language, shone in some of the hillier Spanish races and earned a place in a WorldTour team, Cannondale Drapac (now EF Education-Nippo) in 2017.

In 2019 his talent really began to shine at the Giro d’Italia: he was 11th overall and memorably chased down an attack by Vincenzo Nibali on the Mortirolo. After that he won the final stage of the Tour of Switzerland. And then, in 2020, came the Vuelta.

It got underway as the Giro was entering its final few days, with Geoghegan Hart, who became Ineos’s leader when Thomas crashed out on Stage 3, having gradually, almost invisibly, ascended the general classification until he was within striking distance of the pink jersey.

From Geoghegan Hart’s astonishing win in Milan and on to Spain – where Carthy was able to put Roglič in serious difficulty on arguably the toughest climb in any Grand Tour, the Angliru, before finishing on the podium in Madrid – it became clear that these two young Brits (Carthy is 26, Geoghegan Hart 25) should be set to contend for Grand Tours for the next five, six, seven years.

And as Carthy notes there are others. Knox, at 25, is one. He rode in a supporting role for his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate João Almeida at the Giro but still managed 14th overall, after finishing just outside the top 10 at the Vuelta in 2019.

Then there’s Tom Pidcock, 21, who has just joined Ineos. In December Pidcock beat Mathieu van der Poel at his own game, winning the Superprestige cyclocross in Gavere, then telling Belgian media that he wants to win world titles in three disciplines: cyclocross, mountain biking and road racing.

But Pidcock wasn’t done: ‘There has always been a voice in my head that wanted to win the Tour de France, but it was only recently that I realised I really want to and that it might be possible.

‘Many other riders of my generation are already doing very well in the pro ranks. That also gives me confidence that I will be able to do it next year.’

Knox’s friend and Lake District neighbour Mark Donovan, meanwhile, rode a very strong Vuelta, finishing top five on two tough mountain stages. Donovan, who rides for Team Sunweb, is still only 21 and was making his Grand Tour debut.

Sunweb, who will race as Team DSM in 2021, have one of the best development programmes in the world, though Donovan, like Knox, also came to the WorldTour not through the British system but via the Wiggins team.

Finding the right breeding ground

In Marc Hirschi and others, the team formerly known as Sunweb, with its residential training and performance centre in Limburg, has a strong record of developing talent. In 2021 they will have two young Brits, 19-year-old Leo Hayter and 18-year-old Oscar Onley.

Onley is from Kelso in the Scottish Borders, a hotbed of mountain biking, although he has always been drawn to the road. He’s a strong time-triallist and climber, but admits he lacks some of the skill that could have been honed on a mountain bike or on the track.

‘I’ve always had a good engine,’ he says, ‘but I noticed this year with descending in the Alps that my technical skills aren’t the best. Bunch positioning and those kinds of skills you can get away with not having in time-trials and when climbing. That’s just about power.’

It’s clear that in Onley, Team DSM have signed a raw, virtually unproven talent. In this respect he is hardly alone among riders in the junior and under-23 categories who, thanks to Covid, lost most if not all of their races in 2020. It was tough for all riders, but especially for those who only have two or three seasons to prove they’re good enough to turn professional.

Onley signed for 2020 with AG2R’s development team, but due to the pandemic didn’t compete in a single road race in their colours.

‘In 2019 Scottish Cycling took a group of us to France,’ he says. ‘We did a race and it was between me and one of the AG2R riders for the white jersey. I lost it by three seconds on the last day but AG2R told me they were interested in taking a British rider for 2020.’

Onley, as it happened, was looking for an alternative route to the British Academy. ‘I’ve never been attracted to the British programme because the track isn’t something I enjoy that much. It didn’t appeal to me, but I also knew there was a very slim chance that I could even get into something like that.’

The British programme’s focus on the track has historical roots, though it’s also grounded in some common sense. When Lottery funding began flooding into British Cycling in the late 1990s it made sense to dedicate most of the resources to the track, where the bulk of Olympic medals were concentrated.

It was perhaps an unintended consequence that so many of the riders who spent their formative years on the track – Cavendish, Thomas, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh, to name only a few – went on to stellar careers on the road.

But they may well have succeeded on the road because of their track experience, rather than despite it: the track is an excellent place to develop the skill and speed that can win the biggest races on the road.

Still, it’s not for everyone. It wasn’t for Adam Yates or Hugh Carthy, and it isn’t for Onley.

Is the track still the overriding focus of the British Academy? ‘Yeah, I think so,’ Onley says. ‘I know a couple of riders who are having trials for the Junior Academy now and everything they do is track-based and track-focussed. The Senior Academy has a really good road programme as well but there’s still a big focus on the track.’

AG2R, then, seemed like a good opportunity. But then came Covid, and then in May Onley’s coach phoned to tell him Sunweb wanted to speak to him.

‘They asked me what my plans were and gave me some power tests to do. Then they told me that they wanted to offer me a contract.’

Does he know what caught their eye? ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve only done three European races but I was top 10 in two of them and in the Chrono des Nations [time-trial in 2019] I was fifth and the first of the first-year juniors.’

With no road racing results with AG2R to go on, Onley’s new team said in a press release to announce his signing in September that they had also taken note of his performance in the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc cycle sportive, a mountain time-trial on the same course as the final stage of the elite men’s race.

Onley’s time would have placed him 11th on the stage (the Sunweb development team took part in the elite event, with British rider Hayter their best placed rider in the time-trial in 26th place).

‘Last winter I sat down with my coach and I said that I wanted to be at one of the best under-23 development teams, and Sunweb was the first one I mentioned,’ Onley says. ‘Leo had just gone there, and I know him and I know how good its reputation is.

‘I’ll go to the Keep Challenging Center in Holland in January and I’ll be based there with the rest of the development team and the women’s team for the rest of the year.

‘My mum has read about young riders going to France or somewhere and having a hard time, but me going to a team like Sunweb gives her confidence.’

There are other promising young British riders, all seemingly following different paths but hoping to end up at the same place – the WorldTour.

The big change, as Onley’s experience shows, is that the big teams – even one as traditionally and quintessentially French as AG2R – are actively looking for British talent. There are more options for riders like him than just the British system.

This is new. And it suggests that British success in the big races over the next decade should continue. It may not constitute a deluge, but it certainly seems unlikely to slow to a trickle.

Breaking from the bunch

Everyone is uncertain how Brexit will affect travelling and working in Europe – and that goes for cyclists too

As ambitious young British riders looked ahead to 2021 they had two major concerns. One was Covid and what impact it might have on another season after virtually wiping out 2020; the other was Brexit.

While you couldn’t imagine fully fledged professionals having a problem travelling to or living in Europe, aspiring young riders – some paid a little by their teams, some not paid at all – faced uncertainty.

Twenty-year-old Joe Laverick from Grimsby had made arrangements to live in Girona, where he would race a mainly European programme for arguably the best development team in the world, Hagens Berman-Axeon. He was hoping to travel on 6th January.

‘I’m hoping I can claim I am professional,’ says Laverick, ‘but that is an argument in itself – if you ride for a Continental team, are you pro or not?

‘The worst thing that could happen is that I go out there in January and do my 90 out of 180 days, which is what the travel regulations say, and get to March and have to come home and can’t get back out for the season. I don’t think that’s going to happen but I suppose it is a possibility.

‘It all seems quite unclear and uncertain. It’s frustrating, but it seems to be a case of having to wait and see what happens.’