Stagiaire - Excitement. Expectations. Experience.
Updated: Jun 8, 2018
In any walk of life, all you can control is yourself. I try to avoid scenarios that are out of my control because there is literally nothing I can do about it. It took me a long time as not only an athlete but as a human to figure that one out.
"Experience is something you wish you had five minutes before you needed it"
If you give everything, and you still fall short of your goals, that's ok. Trust me, it happens a lot. It's not failure, it's experience; a learning curve if you will. That's when we need to pick ourselves up and go again. Experience is invaluable and someone very close to my heart told me. "Experience is something you wish you had five minutes before you needed it."
Apart from the factors that are directly under my control from the decisions I make [me], there is nothing I can do about the rest [everything else], it's all a lottery.
The term 'Stagiaire' translates directly from French as "Trainee".
"The position of stagaire gives riders a chance to prove they have the necessary talent and determination to be fully fleged professionals." (SBS)
I was more than aware that in years passed the pro-team had reached out to the development team to take a rider or two as a stagiaire for the remainder of the season. I would be lying if I said that wasn't in my mind, of course that was in my mind but I knew that for this to be even a slight possibility then I needed to give absolutely everything, perform and to do so consistently. Do everything that was under my control. Luckily for me giving everything is what I always do and would always strive to do no matter who is watching, what and/or whether anything is on the line. It is in my nature to work hard and leave everything out there.
When I was informed that I'd move up to the pro-team as a stagiaire I was over the moon (I still am by the way; on cloud-9). It had come off the back of a very busy first half of the season that saw racing in the Dominican Republic, Thailand and came straight after returning to the Isle of Man for Summer break from a stint of European races in Ukraine, Romania and Poland. In Europe, I'd finished with some decent results in some of the one day races with the highlight coming in Romania with a top 20 overall finish.
"Like a small kid on Christmas day"
For a few days I kept the information to only a few people, some close friends but mostly family. It wasn't a formality but it was the next step to not only prove myself but also a step towards the bigger goal of achieving a professional contract. I was almost convinced someone was pulling my leg, knowing in full confidence they weren't. I tried to put the news to one side, until I could focus more on it as I still had one more important race until a small mid-year break, The British Championships, but who was I kidding. I was like a small kid on Christmas day; I was grinning ear to ear - bursting with excitement.
The next week saw the Island prepare to host the British National Road Race and Time Trial Championships. I couldn't wait, nothing beats racing and the opportunity to race a national championships on home roads in front of a home crowd was a once in a lifetime occasion. My performances were good in undoubtably the most competitive field I'd ever raced against. It was utterly fantastic and I'd love to take this moment to thank every single one of you out supporting, shouting my name as well as those supporting from home who couldn't be there in person. With the road race and time trial done and dusted it was time to prepare for my first race with Team Novo Nordisk pro-team. The Tour of Utah.
The anticipation was real. Plans were coming together and I was to be heading out to Park City, Utah three weeks before the race to acclimatise to the altitude. I was fully aware it would be different, I'd never really been at altitude let alone raced there. I'd heard stories, read articles and listened to first hand accounts of other people's experiences but it was all completely new, something I'd only be able to experience first hand; for myself. It took longer than I expected but slowly I started feeling better at altitude. Soon enough it was race time.
"America's Toughest Stage Race"
The Tour of Utah. Penned as "America's Toughest Stage Race", my first professional race was going to be brutal. No fewer than 1 World Tour Team, 6 Pro-Continental Teams (including us) as well as 9 strong continental and American elite teams. It would take everything I had plus more including all the experience I'd accumulated until now.
How 'tough' could it be? It's just a bike race, right? In terms of racing at this level I obviously had zero experience to call upon. Everyone in the race could pedal hard, something that I often relied on in amateur races. The characteristics that I saw as a strength, that I felt defined me as a rider, were now the norm. It was a huge step up in level. That didn't phase me, I was there for a reason.
Standing on the start line and listening to the announcers round up their pre-race chatter, as the American national anthem rang out to deafly silence from the spectators I couldn't help but feel nervous. But my overriding feeling; I was excited. I couldn't wait. A few moments later and we were off.
"One day at a time"
What were my expectations? Was it to survive a stage or two? To scrape through time cut? For me, in honesty I was looking no further than the stage in front of me. One day at a time. To get to the next one I knew I had to conquer the one before. One challenge at a time. Over the next few days my confidence grew, I realised I could hold my own and although I was still taking stage by stage the thought evolved more and more that I could finish this race.
Good performances in the individual Time Trial and a long stage finishing in and around Bountiful with two accents of the Bountiful Bench (approximately 2km, averaging 10% with a maximum gradient over 20%) put me in good stead towards the final couple of stages. One of which was a short but fearsome 99km queen-stage with a long challenging climb early on culminating in a summit top finish to snowbird ski resort (just over 10km, averaging 8% with steepest gradients of more than 12%). That one hurt!
The second was the final stage which was a tough 11-lap circuit race in downtown Salt Lake City. Each lap finished with a climb up to the Utah State Capital building (500m averaging 8%). That one hurt even more! It was no walk in the park and needed just as much if not more respect than the other stages. Over the 11km lap there was zero flat, it was up and down. Like a yo-yo. One mistake and falling off the back could mean no finish as the pace was unrelenting. But as the last lap rang I fought hard for that feeling I knew would be there on the finish line.
Riding over the line on the last lap was so surreal. Its not until after that I could completely take in the achievement. It was tough, more than I could imagine. There were a lot of emotions. I suffered; a lot. I pedalled; hard. I chewed a lot of stem but I also got to push my boundaries doing what I love.
"The Inaugural Colorado Classic"
The next stop in this whirlwind reality was the inaugural Colorado Classic. The race, a direct replacement of the US Pro Challenge, would showcase four stages. Three circuit races and one out and back stage.
The new format was designed to encourage the state to interact with the cycling world by including music and arts festival. It was a fantastic atmosphere. One thing that stood out to me before the race and that was the aggressive nature of the race. Reduced team sizes from the Tour of Utah (8 riders to 6) meant for a more explosive, exciting and unpredictable race. Less riders made it harder for one to team control the peloton. On top of this, the parcourse of the race was short and sharp with lots of climbing and tough terrain including dirt roads. With more World Tour teams participating this was to be a brutally tough, challenging and fast paced race.
Stage One began fast, and didn't really stop. Due to the short nature of the stages there was an unrelenting pace. That mixed with on and off rain shook the field up completely.
Stage Two took us beyond 3000m of altitude (and that was the starting line). A short challenging 10-lap 10km circuit that included 5km of climbing per lap with 1km at over 10% incorporating pitches at over 25% and the whole climb averaging 7%. It was, in my opinion, probably one of the toughest days in the saddle. Ever. I stuck to my guns, one day at a time I reminded myself and got to work. I climb with the group for 5 laps until the race exploded. There were riders everywhere.
On to stage three and the fast pace remained. Through the first climb the race split up through crosswinds. Another tough day riding but so much experience gained in a very extensive field; there was no messing around here. It was unforgiving. Before I knew it stage four was upon us.
The closing stage was a city centre circuit through Downtown Denver. Suffering is an art form. The legs were hurting but I had the biggest smile on my face, maybe it was a grimace. Whatever it was I was having a ball and holding my own. The race was realitively uneventful, but it was great to have teammate Fabio in the break for most of the day. Midway through lap 6/10 the technical city park section approached. What made this sector even more technical was the feedzone. The next thing I knew another rider was falling through my front wheel. A quick tumble later I found myself fumbling around on the grassy park floor. Luckily I'd managed to move across the road enough to make the softer green surface to the side. A rapid pat down, check of my bike, chain back on, nothing broken and I was back on my way through the cars. I had such desire to finish that it didn't take long to reconnect to the pack. Crossing that line brought back the same elation from Utah. A great base to build from.
"A Professional.... A dream come true"
The next week or so was a step into the unknown. I wanted to race straight away. However at that moment in time I wasn't sure whether there would be much racing on the horizon with only a few races left on the teams calendar. A few days later I was informed I'd travel home to prepare to race in the Tour of China I & II the following month. I was ecstatic. Let's do this was my feeling. At the same moment I was handed the best news of my life. I was offered a Professional contract with Team Novo Nordisk for 2018. A dream come true.
On to China, and I'd heard stories of how the race had been with many people (mainly teammates) advising me to pack tins of tuna. I was a bit apprehensive, wondering that if I turned up with numerous cases of tinned fish they'd have burst into fits of laughter. It soon became apparent it wasn't a joke and I was happy that I'd heeded their warnings.
Tuna aside. I was happy to be there and to be racing. Looking for more crucial experience in the world of cycling and experience is exactly what I got. Maybe not the experience you're thinking though. A different world. Completely. The race is known to have lots of transfers. Tour of China I was spread over eight days with five stages and three travel days. There would then be another rest/travel day before Tour of China II began the following day. The second tour was again five stages but spread over six days with a transfer between the penultimate and final stage.
"Challenges faced and overcome"
I'd had a small glimpse of Asia Tour racing earlier in the year at the Tour of Thailand. It was fast and simply crazy. This was no different. Every day was fast, attack after attack with no one wanting to miss a break away it meant each stage was fast. The racing was challenging, don't get me wrong, but probably the most challenging aspect was surviving the transfers. Tour I totalled a combined bus transfer time of 50 hours with over 3500km driven. There were a lot of climbs in the first tour, more suited to an out and out climber. There was a lot to take from the eight days, not the result I was hoping for but some great team work, tough challenges faced and overcome.
Tour II, bar stage one, was designed for the sprinters. I guess that's fair. The average speed excluding the first stage was run off at roughly 48km/h. Fast! The best thing for me about the second tour was the opportunity to experience and support our sprinters at the business end of the race. With limited to no chance of a break getting away let alone staying away, (albeit a close one for teammate Stephen on stage three who almost stayed away) it enabled me to experience the cut and thrust of the chaotic art form that is lead-outs and sprinting.
"a flightless pigeon"
The overall race was as much as over following the hilly stage one. A short stage culminated in a 16km HC (out of category) climb followed by a fast 20km descent to the finish. That left four chances for me to provide a platform for the sprinter to get results. Stage two was up and into the final 15km and reassembling the team to begin our assault on the front. Bang. 10km to go and I was flat. I remained calm, changed wheels and fought my way back to what felt like an impossible task. On my way back through the cars, helicopter roaring above, I glanced up and as I did a flightless pigeon was coming straight at me. I'm not going to lie, I closed my eyes and winced as a thud hit my bars. I opened them to nothing. I managed to get back in, pull a short turn but I was empty. Unable to help more than to give my vocal support as I drifted backwards.
The following three days, minus the pigeon, were really more of the same. The final day saw us make a breakthrough and gain a top 10 finish. Fantastic. A great way to end the tour for the team.
The Tour of China was meant to signal the end of my season but a change of plan and for me it's now back to business. Upon my return home I was informed I was on the roster for the Tour of Hainan (2.HC) beginning on the 28th October. I can't wait, as I said earlier I love racing. It's what I train for. A tough 9-stage race on the Chinese island province of Hainan.
Although It has been a long season, but I don't want it to end. I've had an absolute ball. I am so excited to see what 2018 has to offer but for now It's back to China.
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