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Alex Peters: Team Sky's new blood

Alex Peters
Mark Bailey
9 Nov 2015

At 21, Alex Peters is the latest signing for Team Sky. He tells us of the challenges ahead and his dreams of Grand Tours.

Young footballers dream of signing for Manchester United, teenage singers pray for the patronage of Simon Cowell, computer wizards fantasise about a job offer from Mark Zuckerberg, and the world’s finest young cyclists aspire to a contract with the global cycling powerhouse that is Team Sky. For Alex Peters, a gifted and determined 21-year-old from London, that coveted offer from Team Sky arrived this summer, opening the door to a world of opportunity and adventure. 

After two years honing his talent at the British team Madison-Genesis and a year at the Holland-based SEG Racing Academy, Peters – at the age when many of his friends are just graduating from university – is preparing to sample the speed and drama of the UCI WorldTour with the sport’s most famous team. He is already wearing the black Team Sky kit and riding a Pinarello Dogma F8 on training rides, although he wonders what the London cycling community makes of his immaculate on-brand appearance. 

Alex Peters portrait

‘It is so funny when I’m riding out in my Team Sky kit now,’ says Peters with a giggle. Lean and lithe, the cyclist is sipping a cappuccino in a café close to the north London home where he lives with his family. ‘Normally, I put my hand up and I get a thumbs-up, whereas now I get this weird reaction, like, “Who is this guy in all that Team Sky kit?” I’m still a bit self-conscious, waving and smiling, knowing I’m wearing my full Team Sky helmet, kit, bike and gloves. They must think, “Who is he? What is he doing?”’

The sky is the limit

Peters signed as a ‘stagiaire’ (cycling’s version of an internship) with Team Sky in August but will commence a full two-year professional contract with the Manchester-based outfit at the start of 2016. He is awed by the team’s size, reputation and attention to detail. ‘The first time I pulled on the kit, I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face,’ he says. ‘I was at the Rapha HQ in the King’s Cross area and I was getting some custom kit made. I learned all about the high-tech skinsuits, the heat regulation in the clothing and the specific technology in the weave. The kit looks black but the material behaves like white so it reflects the heat. I just thought, “Wow, this is cool, this is the big time.”’

The Londoner was thrilled to make his Team Sky debut in his home city at the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic in August. ‘I got to go on the Team Sky bus for the first time and it was pretty cool heading to the start on that thing,’ he says. ‘They were explaining all the little technical details to me, like the frosted glass by the meeting room which you can turn on and off.’ He also raced for Team Sky at the Tour of Denmark a few days later but crashed out on stage three. His first ruined Team Sky jersey has been proudly hung up outside his bedroom, along with a colourful collection of former team and winner’s jerseys. 

Having just represented Great Britain at U23 level at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, USA, Peters is now looking forward to some winter training camps in Mallorca with Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. He admits he will feel a bit shy training – and racing – with such famous names. ‘I am not comfortable asking lots
of questions,’ he reveals, ‘but I think it will be a very professional atmosphere and I won’t feel their position is so daunting that I can’t say anything.’

Alex Peters Team Sky

On signing for Team Sky, Peters said in a team press release that it was ‘the best platform for me to listen, learn and develop’. He is too smart to make grand claims about future ambitions, although coaches and riders whisper that he has the talent to go all the way to the top as a general-classification rider. Reserved but confident, humble but ambitious, Peters knows he has been given a golden opportunity – one which his talent richly deserves, but which represents only the start of his career journey. 

‘It is a special time, but it’s like a process. Now that I’m here, it’s not like, “Wow, I’m content, I’ve made it.” It’s about, “Let’s see how far I go in cycling.” The next few years are about learning and developing. It’s all an unknown to me. Everything will be bigger, the racing will be more intense, and everything is faster. I just want to make sure I am healthy and I can perform at a very high level for the whole season. I don’t want to get ill and seem like I’m a bit flaky. For that first year, I just want no problems. In the second year, I would like to push on and show I’m more capable.’

Ask Sir Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish about their childhood memories and they will talk about watching bike races and reading piles of cycling magazines. The story of Alex Peters is quite different. As a child, he had little interest in cycling. He hated rugby and football, too, but he loved running. ‘I was pretty active,’ he recalls. ‘When I was five or six, I was always running around and getting injured at school and the ambulance and fire service would be called every now and again. Teachers would say, “He is overactive, he can’t stop fidgeting and moving around.” So my mum enrolled me in running to use my energy in a positive way – and I loved it. I wanted to be a marathon runner.’

Over time, the subject of stamina began to fascinate him. ‘I was intrigued by endurance sports like Ironman races, triathlons and marathons; the idea of pushing your body for that long, that hard.’ But an injury to both his knees at the age of 11 curtailed his running ambitions. ‘The consultant said, “You can’t run any more, you are damaging your bone.” So I started cycling and I never looked back.’

Peters enjoyed mountain-bike rides along the canal with his father, often venturing out to the Docklands or Hertfordshire, and trained regularly on his cyclocross bike. He didn’t buy a road bike until he was 15. After joining the Lee Valley Cycling Club, he started racing on the Eastway circuit at weekends. ‘I’d sometimes ride with my dad along the canal and then ride with the other kids at Lee Valley after a 50-mile bike ride. I used to want to ride more and more.’ 

Getting the bug

Alex Peters interview

He later competed in cyclocross races, mountain-bike events and the national under-16 road series, and represented Cycling Club Hackney. By then, he was besotted with road cycling. ‘It’s like an addiction,’ he says. ‘It was pretty simple for me to jump on my bike and ride for miles but it was hard for me to sit in school for six hours. I don’t care if you are going hard and it is bad weather, I would still rather be riding my bike.’

Even when Peters was at school – a relatively short time ago – cycling wasn’t as appreciated in the UK as it is now. ‘Cycling is so separate from the rest of the world. Once you’re inside there, nobody thinks twice about your shaved legs. But then you go back to school and it’s all about the normal sports. You don’t have schooldays when you’re all out cycling and people didn’t sit at school and talk about the Tour de France. It was still a minority sport.’

For a young athlete, Peters is strikingly composed and articulate. Only when asked about family pride at his progress do his cheeks flush with embarrassment. ‘Erm, yes, I don’t know what to say,’ he says bashfully, but he admits the support of his parents and his older sister was a huge help during his formative years in cycling. ‘Dad is very pessimistic and realistic and Mum is really optimistic, saying I can do anything I want to do, so I think I’m somewhere in between.’ 

Peters studied psychology, biology and economics for his A-levels and it’s hard not to believe he chose those subjects with one eye on a future career in professional cycling. During the first part of our interview, at his family home, he was most animated when discussing sports science. Tim Kerrison, Team Sky’s head of athlete performance and the mastermind behind the team’s innovative training protocols, may find Peters his most willing athlete yet.

‘I’m fascinated by human potential,’ Peters says. ‘I want to understand it inside out. For me, it is like torture because I want to know why I am going out on the bike for six hours, at this pace, with these intervals, and I want to know about the insulin spike and glycogen resynthesis after training. I want to know about the oxygen travelling to the muscles and the mitochondria in your cells. I can’t blindly follow something. I need to understand it.’ 

Listening to Peters talk about training science – he also speaks at length about how he has experimented with a range of different nutritional plans to maximise his glycogen storage and fat-burning potential – you get a glimpse of the inner drive and thirst for knowledge which makes him such a serious prospect. His physical talents may have earned him an opportunity at Team Sky, but his inquisitive mind could be the quality that elevates him above his peers in the future.

Going solo

Alex Peters Team GB

In contrast to most young British riders, Peters says he was never interested in joining the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme in Manchester – the traditional pathway to the top for young British talents – because it would have involved serving an apprenticeship as a track rider. ‘I was totally for endurance on the road so I have not been in British Cycling’s sights. I won a few races but I don’t know their process for picking national selections for World or Nations’ Cup races [international junior competitions]. I always wanted to do them but it used to be only people in their squads so I always felt like I was never a part of the Great Britain team. But they changed their selection method so I did race in a few Nations’ Cups.’

At 18, Peters began to forge an alternative path to the top, spending two years racing with Madison-Genesis, with whom he earned second place and the young rider’s classification at the 2014 An Post Rás (Ireland’s biggest pro cycling race, run over eight stages), before joining the SEG Racing Academy. A highlight of this season was finishing second overall at the 2015 Tour de Normandie. He also won a stage of the Tour de Bretagne with SEG, and finished 12th overall at the Tour of Britain, racing for Team GB. He has also spent time training in Girona, Spain. 

‘The SEG management, staff, teammates, race programme and training… everything is so well-drilled,’ says Peters. He saves special praise for coach Vasilis Anastopoulos. ‘He’s crazy but the best coach in the world. I want him for Team Sky! He calls me every day and he is so enthusiastic. If you are in a bad place one day, he will lift you up. The mental side of bike racing is so hard. To have someone always there gives you so much reassurance. If you are happy on your bike, you train faster and harder and you race like you want to win.’

Teaming up with Sky

When Team Sky announced the signing of Peters, their head of performance operations, Rod Ellingworth, revealed that the team had been monitoring the young rider for years.

‘My agent had been contacting me throughout the year so it wasn’t really a shock when it happened,’ admits Peters. ‘It wasn’t a case of, “Team Sky want to sign you. Go, go, go!” It was a process where Team Sky had been talking to my agent and me for a while. But it feels nice that they have shown this faith in me. Now I’ve got to deliver.’

As part of the recruitment, Peters spoke to Team Sky’s highly respected psychiatrist Steve Peters (no relation). ‘We were on Skype for a long time when I was in Girona, so there has been a lot of contact. They are trying to understand me and my goals. It’s a very professional way of dealing with things. I’ve not had contact with [team principal] Dave Brailsford yet, but he is the boss, isn’t he? So he makes all the decisions and he is getting all the information about me.’

At the Tour of Britain, I burned 35,000 calories in a week.

Despite Peters’ excitement about the years ahead, he admits not all aspects of the life of a young pro cyclist are easy. Training isn’t straightforward in London and he will have to spend more time training abroad. ‘I have got this one corridor where you head out to Epping Forest and then into Essex or Hertfordshire. I can’t head south because it’s a nightmare hour through traffic. I can’t head west or east because of the traffic, either. But if I take that corridor it’s 35 minutes of traffic lights and then you’re into rolling terrain.’ 

Neither is it easy for a lean man to force down food for the tougher races. ‘The food is a challenge,’ he says. ‘I’ve just finished the Tour de l’Avenir [annual stage race for rising young riders in France] and the Tour of Britain and I’m so hungry. At the Tour of Britain, I burned 35,000 calories in a week. One morning, I ate a fry-up, a big bowl of porridge and so many cinnamon swirls it was ridiculous.’

The prospect of racing in Grand Tours is what keeps Peters focused. You sense that at this stage in his career, tough training and endless travel feel more like privileges than sacrifices. But the rider has the talent, dedication and support network to reach the highest level. ‘That is my dream: Grand Tours,’ he explains. ‘But it is one thing to ride a Grand Tour and another thing to be a contender. The dream is to be one of the contenders.’

Cycling fans will be hearing more about Alex Peters in years to come – which, for him, means more interviews. ‘The media work can be hard because I don’t like talking about myself,’ he says. ‘The thing is, I just think, “Who cares about what I have to say?”’ 

If this talented young British rider continues to learn, develop and improve at Team Sky, the answer could one day be many millions more than he thinks.