A little taster of what professional cycling life could be like

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As a parent, I should never live my dreams through my children, but I will do everything within my power to let my children live their dreams.

It’s no secret (on this blog and elsewhere on social media) that I have two sporty teenagers. My youngest loves his team sports. He runs and cycles too, but he lives for his football and hockey. My eldest is a cyclist. No question of that. His bio says it all: “Matt Wilson. 17. Cyclist.”. Discovering cycling has changed him. Not just the self-taught bike maintenance or his athletic performance, but his social life and his general confidence too.

Self-development

Matt came to the sport quite late (he was about 13 when I took him to a Team MK Youth Coaching session) but quickly took to racing cyclo-cross. He missed out on British Cycling Regional Schools of Racing (RSRs) because of Covid-19 restrictions, but he took advantage of the extra training time whilst school was home-based. He worked hard. He started to win some races.

Last summer he tried his hand at cross country mountain bike (MTB XC) racing. This summer he has focused on the road. He gained his 2nd category race licence after early season success at Deux Jours de Cyclopark (2nd on the podium). He raced some more road races to get experience of riding in the bunch. He rode E12 mid-week crit races at our local circuit (Milton Keynes Bowl). And he “nearly” scored a national point at the Bath Road Club Junior Road Race (came in 23rd, but needed top 20). The culmination of his final season as a Junior rider was to be the Junior Tour of Wales.

Why Wales? Well, there are only two multi-day stage races for Juniors in the UK: the Tours of Mendips and Wales. We were on holiday when the Mendips took place. And Wales is our spiritual home (my father was and my wife’s father is Welsh), even if we were unable to click the “Welsh Rider” box on the entry form because Matt was born in Milton Keynes.

The SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales

Back to its full format for 2022, the SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales (@juniortourwales) is a four-day, five-race road cycling event which features time trial, road and criterium stages. Run mostly on public roads, it has the full experience of a major multi-stage event. That means the rolling road blocks, race convoy, medical backup – the full works. Basically as close to the pro peloton as a Junior rider can get. I’ve also seen it referred to as “the hardest Junior race in the UK”. Regardless, I can now say that it’s an awesome experience for around a hundred 16-18 year-olds each year. (Because of the way British Cycling age groups work, this year’s “Juniors” were those born in 2004 and 2005.)

SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales 2022, Stage 5, Abergavenny, Wales
“Let Stage 5 begin” [image © David Partridge 2022, embedded from the British Cycling Photographers‘ Flickr Photostream]

Initially, it didn’t look like Matt had got in, and then, a few days before the race, I got a call from Richard Hopkins, the race organiser. Matt was on the reserve list, there had been some cancellations – did he want a place? Yes please!!! Even as he was resting, recovering from a stomach bug, there was no question – he would be on that start line on Friday!

Preparation

Bike preparation started. More spare parts were purchased. Two cyclo-cross bikes were set up for road, with another spare set of wheels taken from my road bike, just in case.

For those wondering about why he was using cyclocross bikes – that’s all Matt has, apart from his mountain bike. As it happens, 40×11 is perfect gearing for junior restrictions. Next year those restrictions are going away so 53×11 will be the norm and race speeds will go up.

I already mentioned that Matt does his own bike maintenance. It’s not that I can’t – it’s just that he’s faster than me and it’s good experience. My role for this race was to be Driver (to/from the race start/finish) and Soigneur.

I’d already booked hotels “just in case”, so my attention turned to what we would eat. Carbs. Lots of them. We quickly increased our supplies of Matt’s preferred in-race nutrition (McVitie’s Hobnob’s snack bars, Clif Bloks and Torq gels). Pre/post race there’s also High 5 Zero Electrolyte tablets and an SIS Rego Rapid Recovery drink that he decided to try. Then there was the supermarket visit: Weetabix; fresh pasta; malt loaf; scones; hot-cross buns; Eccles cakes; milk; and fruit. We would be eating from a cool box in my car for a few days (with a frozen home-made Bolognaise slowly defrosting) and we had plenty to keep us stocked. I also bought some spare water bottles because they always get lost on races.

Of course, there was a minor hiccup with the bike prep. The night before we left, Matt test rode his preferred bike, with a new chain. And then we found we needed a new cassette too (that’s not unusual but it wasn’t long since we’d changed the small cogs). Luckily a local independent bike shop had one and would be open for us to collect on our way to Wales the next morning. Competitive cycling is not an inexpensive hobby.

4 days as a Soigneur

I always over-prepare. There was no way I would allow Late Summer Bank Holiday weekend traffic on the drive to Wales make us miss the event. So we were there hours early. No bother. Plenty of time to recce the route, check into the hotel, and head over to race HQ to sign on.

And then it hit me. Most of the riders were on teams. Matt was one of the individual riders. I’d seen that in the race manual the night before but that meant most riders had support cars with Team Managers (Directeurs Sportif), mechanics, spare bikes and wheels. We needed to find the neutral service car and – because Matt’s on 40×11 gearing – make sure they had a wheel for him because a Junior (14 tooth) cassette would be a major handicap!

In addition, I would need to stay at the start of each race stage until the last possible moment and then drive to the feed zone, be ready to pass a bottle or provide technical support, and then drive to the finish.

Not only was Matt getting a taste of life in the peloton, but I was getting a taste of life as a Soigneur. With the added stress of being a parent thrown in!

The racing community

Of course, I’m wasn’t alone as a parent of an individual rider. 98 riders started this year’s Junior Tour of Wales. Even if they were on a team, most had parents/guardians/family friends to help them. Over the years, I’ve got to know many of those people too – it’s always good to say hello as we’re waiting for our children to race past. Some have kindly provided Matt with technical support at times too.

And then there’s the race organisation. The team running the event were, without exception, friendly and helpful at all times. Rich Hopkins responded to emails in record time when we needed to know if Matt had made the cut-off after the disastrous stage 4. And there’s a huge team behind Rich too: Commissaires; Drivers; Motorcycle Safety Officers (from the National Escort Group Wales); Timekeepers; Judges; Race Director; Neutral Service; Safety Officer; Marshalls; Route Managers; Stage Preparation; First Aid/Ambulance; HQ Management; Gear Check; Registration Team and – my favourite job title – the Director of Things. The SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales is a pretty big undertaking! There were also four official photographers and I highly recommend checking out David Partridge’s stunning event photos (a couple of which I’ve embedded in this post from the British Cycling Photographers Flickr Photostream).

So, how did it go?

Well, let’s use Matt’s own words for this:

“A great experience for my last race as a Junior and if it hadn’t been for one shocking stage a Top 40 would have been possible. Instead, [I] came away with the Lanterne Rouge

Matt Wilson

He’s right in everything he says there, but I’ll throw in some more details. This blog post is mostly about this marvellous event for young cyclists – some of whom will go on to ride in the pro peloton. But it’s also, like everything else on this blog, an aide memoire for me to remember the highs and lows. Because, for me, Matt’s 2022 Junior Tour of Wales was an emotional rollercoaster.

Stage 1: Brynmawr-The Tumble (Individual Time Trial)

Results
Matt’s verdict: “My first ever time trial. When I saw the result thought I’d messed it up but no – I rode my best ever 15 min power and just was completely outclassed.”

Lesson learned: believe in yourself. A good chunk of the competition were on TT bikes. Matt was on a cyclo-cross bike with road wheels and clip-on TT bars. [Don’t subject Dad to a mardy teenager all evening until you look at your power numbers on Strava/Garmin Connect.]

General Classification (GC): 57/97 (+1’52”)
Stage 2: Abergavenny-The Black Mountain (Road Race)

Results
Matt’s verdict: “Hit the mountains, felt comfortable in the group all race but hadn’t taken on enough salts and cramped badly on the last climb but held on all be it in the saddle up the Black Mountain”.

Lesson learned: take the electrolyte drink on hot/hilly races!

GC: 61/95 (+5’48”)
Stage 3: Pembrey National Closed Road Circuit (Criterium)

Results
Matt’s verdict: “Crit race. Back to what I’m used to. Extremely sketchy but came away with 26th.”

Lesson learned: cyclo-cross skills can help when avoiding crashes!

GC: 56/93 (+6’54”)
Stage 4: Pembrey-Nantgaredig (rolling-flat Road Race)

Results
Matt’s verdict: “Eventful stage. Caught in a early crash then chased hard. Then the race was neutralised and when we went off it was so fast and spat me out the back. Finished but lost 30 mins”

Matt’s being very matter-of-fact about this but the stage was a disaster (for his overall results). Despite getting caught up in the crash shortly after the race was de-neutralised, he wasn’t badly hurt but he did lose his water (sadly at least one rider ended up in hospital and several had major mechanical issues, including at least one broken frame). He rode hard to catch the race only to learn that it had been neutralised. Later, when the race was stopped, another rider spotted that Matt had worn his tyre down to the beading (when skidding into the crash) so he switched wheels, and then had problems with skipping gears. Next day, we learned that was due to chain damage in the crash. Once Matt had lost the bunch and dropped out of the race convoy he was caught up in normal traffic/road conditions and was losing time. He showed tremendous mental fortitude and made it across the line with seconds to spare before he would have been lapped by the winners!

Luckily, the race jury extended the cut-off time (he was only just outside) but this stage effectively finished any chances of a good place on the GC.

GC: 80/82 (+35’26”)
Stage 5: Brynmawr-The Tumble (Road Race)

Results
Matt’s verdict: “All I can say is the Tumble wasn’t that bad – the earlier climbs however were pain!”

I was worried about how this race was going to go with tired legs, a warm-up interrupted by the need to change a chain, and then an exploding inner tube on the rollers (after last night’s tyre swap). Matt was concerned that the fast roll down the A465 dual carriageway could easily end up in a crash. Luckily, neither of our fears were realised.

Actually, he looked pretty comfortable at the feed zone, and I think he paced this race well. He also got a buzz from managing to keep pace with some of the faster and more experienced riders.

Finishing 39th and only 3’39” down on Josh Tarling, was a pretty impressive result after the previous day. Yes, the Lanterne Rouge was disappointing, but completing the Tour was an incredible achievement.

GC: 71/71 (+37’56”)
SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales 2022, Stage 2, Abergavenny, Wales
“Snaking” [image © David Partridge 2022, embedded from the British Cycling Photographers‘ Flickr Photostream]

Postscript about “the socials”

There are a lot of posts on my Twitter (and Instagram) feeds about this year’s Junior Tour of Wales #JToW #JTW22, including one where I post how proud I am about Matt’s performance to even finish the race, regardless of position. It may seem a bit narcissistic, but it’s not meant to be – it really is my way of sharing my excitement, sorrow, joy, pride and host of other emotions. A place to ride this year’s tour meant a huge amount to us both and to be given that chance as an individual rider on a reserve list place was really special. It’s great to see other parents of some really successful riders liking my posts because we’ve all had a shared experience too. (Even if their kids are at another level and winning stages, and even landing pro contracts!)

Special mention here to Kate Cole (@KKPreserves) who saw me at the feed zone on stage 5 and said “are you the #CyclistsDad?”. It’s nice to hear that someone likes my posts to hear what’s going on!

And, if you’re reading this and you’re the chap who came up to Matt by my car at Race HQ after stage 5 and said “That was an incredible ride today – especially after yesterday” – thank you. I don’t know who you were (It would be good to know!) but that comment was lovely to hear. I really appreciated it (as did Matt). Actually, it made my day.

So I’m afraid I’ll keep on posting pictures and unofficial commentary, until he says “Dad, stop it, you’re embarrassing me”.

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