Britain’s clean sweep of the Grand Tours in 2018 deservedly stole the headlines in the cycling media and beyond. But the success of British riders at Continental level and below also deserves attention. While Froome, Thomas and Yates rode to a historic treble, their Continental-level counterparts achieved an impressive haul of 27 UCI race wins on international soil.
Amongst these wins were Tom Stewart’s overall win at the notoriously hard Tour de Normandie, Matt Gibson’s sprint victory in the ‘under 23 Tour de France’ (the Tour de L’Avenir) and Ed Clancy’s win in the prologue of the Herald Sun Tour in which he bested World Tour opposition.
But, for our Twitter followers, it was Stevie Williams’ feats that stood out more than any others’ in 2018. Riding for SEG Racing Academy last season, all four of his UCI wins featured in the final of our Twitter poll on the best international win of 2018 by a British Continental or U23 rider. His dominant Ronde de L’Isard performance (where he won two stages and the general classification) was ranked tied second. But it was his solo mountain-top win on stage 7 of the Baby Giro that most impressed those who voted. His performances last season also dazzled Bahrain Merida, who offered him a World Tour contract for 2019.
Below, we explain how his win in the Baby Giro happened. We then hear from Stevie Williams himself on what the win meant to him, and how he’s feeling about starting 2019 as a World Tour rider.
How the race unfolded
The Baby Giro – or Giro Ciclistico d’Italia to give it its official title – is one of the key races on the under 23 race calendar. The 2018 route was a particularly punishing one, including three very hard summit finishes and a pursuit-style individual time trial on the final stage to decide the Maglia Rosa.
Stage 7 featured the third and final hard summit finish. It thus presented the final opportunity for the climbers to gain time ahead of the stage 9 time trial. Starting in Schio, the stage was 137 km long and included two categorized climbs before the final climb to Pian della Fugazze. This climb was 11.3km long at a 7.3% gradient. The early slopes were relatively gentle, meaning the final kilometres were much more biting (at between 9% and 14%).
Williams started the stage in third place overall, over two minutes down. He had in fact been leading the race after stage 5, only to lose it the following day after a breakaway of four dangerous riders (including Britain’s Mark Donovan, who took the race lead after stage 7) had managed to steal nearly two and a half minutes from Williams and the rest of the chasing pack. This had left Williams bruised, but determined to claw back some time on this final mountain showdown.
The early part of the stage saw a break of 19 riders go clear. This included Williams’ SEG teammate, Edoardo Affini. As the break hit the final climb, Affini dropped back to set the pace for the first part of the climb before Williams’ right-hand man Jan Maas took over and helped to splinter the main group. As they approached the final five kilometres, Williams launched a powerful attack on one of the steepest sections and went solo, putting the Colombian race leader Alejandro Osorio into difficulty.
Going early is always a risk, but with the legs I had that day I was confident I could go to the finish solo
He reeled in the remaining riders from the breakaway and crossed the line 26 seconds faster than his nearest rival (eventual race winner Alexandr Vlasov), despite celebrating for the length of the finishing straight. Williams remained third overall after the stage, but just 57 seconds down on the Maglia Rosa. He eventually finished the race fifth overall.
What are your memories of that stage win? Can you talk me through how you won it?
It was perhaps the best I’ve ever felt on a bike. Having lost the Maglia Rosa the day before, I took my anger out on the stage. My teammates set a tempo at the bottom which stung everyone. I attacked really early, I think seven kilometres from the summit. Going early is always a risk, but with the legs I had that day I was confident I could go to the finish solo. With three-quarters of a kilometre to go, I had 40 or more seconds on a group of five or six. That’s when I started to believe I could win the stage.
There’s always something special about winning solo on a mountain-top finish, but doing it in Italy in a prestigious race like the Baby Giro makes it even better
What did the win mean to you at the time, and why?
The win meant everything, I always wanted to take a stage win out of the under 23 Giro. Having raced well in France a few weeks before I wanted to prove that I could do it in two different countries with different racing styles. Also, with all the hard work I had put in over the months before, the win made it worthwhile.
Where would you rank that win in terms of your performances across the season? How does it compare to your victories in the Ronde de L’Isard for example?
For sure it’s one of my favourite wins, there’s always something special about winning solo on a mountain-top finish, but doing it in Italy in a prestigious race like the Baby Giro makes it even better. L’Isard and the Baby Giro were raced completely different. It’s a lot more controlled in France, and a lot more hectic in Italy, so both wins meant a lot to me at the time.
What role do you think that stage win had in earning a World Tour contract with Bahrain-Merida?
Winning races is important to make the step to World Tour. But I think the consistency I showed from March through to July was crucial. I’m happy I showed enough ability to join Bahrain Merida.
It’s exciting and a touch nerve-racking, but I’m looking forward to 2019 with Bahrain Merida.
Finally, how are you feeling about stepping up to World Tour level next season?
I’m over the moon to move up to World Tour. Being in a team with some of the best riders in the world will be perfect to aid my development and gain experience. It’s exciting and a touch nerve-racking, but I’m looking forward to 2019 with Bahrain Merida.
Featured photo: Andrew Peat / Espoirs.World