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God’s own countryman: Tom Stewart interview, part 1

The 29-year-old reflects on his 2018 season, his scramble to find a team after JLT Condor folded, why he's as happy at Canyon as he's ever been, and his hopes for the Tour de Yorkshire this weekend

Tom Stewart is one of the best domestic riders never to have made it beyond the Continental ranks. His palmares includes wins in top domestic races like the Lincoln Grand Prix and the Velothon Wales (both in 2016) and impressive international performances, such as his 6th place in the Dubai Tour in 2017. And last season’s overall win at the savage Tour de Normandie was arguably his best result to date.

He nonetheless found himself scrambling for a contract at the end of last season when JLT Condor folded. Luckily, as he says himself in this interview, he’s landed on his feet at his new team, Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes.

Now 29, he’s the second oldest rider at Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes. He has begun to take on a road captain role in races, a role he says he enjoys. But he still harbours hopes of stepping up to Pro Continental or World Tour level. He so nearly made it in 2017 with One Pro Cycling but they had to step down to Continental level after they lost their bike sponsor.

Hailing from Doncaster in South Yorkshire, Stewart is lining up in his home race this weekend. It’s a race that suits his punchy style, demonstrated by his 11th place in the 2016 edition. If things go his way, he thinks he can go even better this year.

There are some big riders there, and you have to have (a) really good form, (b) a tactically fantastic race and (c) a bit of good luck on your side

In this first part of a two-part interview, we spoke to Stewart about how last season went, his scramble to find a team for this year after JLT Condor folded, why he’s as happy at Canyon as he’s ever been, how his early season has gone and his hopes for the Tour de Yorkshire this weekend.

Photo: Hugh McManus / Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes

How did last season go?

I think I’m always a bit critical of how things go. But I mean, looking back it was a good year and I think my season with JLT was quite a different experience than previous years because of the amount of stage races and international races we did. So it was a massive learning curve for me.

We went to several different continents. Australia, Japan, Canada and races in Europe, a lot of the British programme. So, it was a lot to manage and I was quite proud of how we went, really. It’s not a game of football where even if you are not going to win 50% of the time, you are going to at least win fairly regularly. Even the best cyclist in the world is going to have a pretty low hit rate. So, I just have to remind myself that going home from a race that I haven’t won is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I am going home from races quite disappointed about the result, but then, when I look back, actually things went pretty well.

Did you go into last season thinking maybe you’d win more than you did then?

No, not really. I think every bike rider just goes into the season wanting to do as best as he can. I know that’s a bit of a cop out but I was pretty proud of the way we rode in several different races. Obviously, there were races where I was the team leader and other races where we were riding for other people. I took a lot of pleasure in helping other people out.

So, if you look at JLT as a team, I am proud of the results that we got. Not necessarily the wins that I got but just in general because I felt like a part of that asset. We were such a successful team on the road last year and that’s due to everybody, not because we had one or two particularly good riders. It’s a team effort and I think we achieved a lot. I am proud of last year.

Tom Stewart with Matt Gibson and the 2018 Tour de Normandie. Photo: JLT Condor

And your Tour of Normandie win last season. How does that rate in terms of your achievements so far?

It is definitely the biggest result in my eyes. I have got a lot of results that have probably been bigger on paper but, yeah, it is the Tour of Normandie win for me – it’s a rider’s race. No one can ever take that away from me and I will always be proud to be able to say I’ve done that. I think some races come and go where as that is just so well established and so well respected by the riders. It is not a famous race in the public’s eyes. There wasn’t much coverage of the race. Friends and people that I went to school with didn’t really see much about the result. But when you speak to the cyclists, it isa race that you get a lot of respect for getting up there in. So, I think that will always be pretty special.

09/04/2019 – Cycling – Tour Series Brooklands Grand Final Launch – Brooklands Museum, Weybridge, England – Jacob Hennessy, Tom Stewart and Alex Paton of Canyon dhb P/B Bloor Homes pose for a photograph during the launch. Photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com

And overall last season you did a lot more UCI race days than you’d done previously. Looking back at your results, you did over 50 UCI race days last season. What were the pros and cons of that for you?

The pros are that you don’t have to do as much training! I think that I had done 3 or 4 stage races before the Tour of Yorkshire last year. You do a week-long stage race, come home for a week and then you go to the next one. You are just about recovering, enjoying time at home, getting back on the road with your mates. 

I think people think that a day off the bike is a rest day when that is not necessarily the case if you are travelling

I quite enjoyed the number of race days. I certainly learned a lot. I made some mistakes with regards to not respecting the travel enough. I think people think that a day off the bike is a rest day when that is not necessarily the case if you are travelling. It is not a rest day. It is not a training day but it is still a stressful day when you don’t ride. I think that is one of the reasons that I got sick before the Tour of Yorkshire but again, it is all part of the learning process. Ultimately, I only missed one race last year due to illness and that was the Tour of Yorkshire. That was unfortunate, but it still wasn’t too bad a run.

You just have to ask yourself some serious questions about what you are trying to achieve, what it is about the job that you enjoy and why you want to carry on

How did the move to Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes this season come about? 

To be honest, it was very last minute. I wanted to stay at JLT. I was very happy there. I thought that the team would continue. We were kept very much in the loop as to how conversations were going with JLT. John [Herety, JLT Condor team manager] was very open with us and we were never promised anything or never led to believe something that wouldn’t turn out to be true. It’s just that I just stayed loyal to them, I suppose. I wanted it to carry on so I just blindly believed it would.

When I actually realised it wasn’t going to, I tried to speak to teams. As we all know, it was all a bit up in the air for a lot of different teams and it was very difficult to find a team. To be honest, I had a couple options and ended up speaking to Tim quite late on. 

I was extremely fortunate for the way things worked out. It’s not like I contacted Canyon in July and wanted to ride for them or anything like that. It came about quite by accident. But I am so lucky that it ended up happening the way that it did. The race programme they have is great. The team now – I am as happy here as I have been at any other team. I can genuinely sit here now and if I could send a message to myself back in November I would say, ‘Look, just don’t worry because it is going to be all right.’ 

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 04/09/2018 – Cycling – OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 3: Bristol to Bristol – Tom Stewart of JLT Condor.

So, it was quite a mad scramble for lots of you…

Mad scramble is one way of putting it. You just have to ask yourself some serious questions about what you are trying to achieve, what it is about the job that you enjoy and why you want to carry on. That’s why some riders haven’t carried on and some riders have carried on. It’s just bike racing. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s complicated. Last year, it was complicated. It has always been complicated.

Normally I have had a lot of options from very early, whereas last year it was a bit frustrating. I had such a good year and got to the end of the year and didn’t have many options. But I realised that it wasn’t something that I should take personally; it was market forces and it wasn’t the result of anything personal. I mean, Connor Swift was in the exact same position. Obviously, he had spoken to some bigger teams but ultimately he was scrapping around trying to get back into Madison at the last minute. It is just the way transfer market unfolded last year. For a lot of people, it was a rocky road but I am just extremely fortunate things have worked out the way they have really.

Do you find it challenging moving teams? You went from One Pro to JLT and now Canyon. Not through your own choice perhaps, but you have kind had to switch about a bit.

Yeah, it’s not that I’ve ever wanted to leave an old team. It’s more the fact that I’ve had to. I had to leave Madison if I wanted to step up. I had to leave One Pro because it wasn’t what it was supposed to be. I had to leave JLT because it wasn’t continuing. But, while it all sounds very negative, I’m as happy now as I have been in any other team. So thankfully for me it keeps working out when I have to move teams, but it’s always a stressful time of year, no doubt about that.

So, you’re settling in well at Canyon, as happy as you’ve ever been. How’s it all been going this season, on and off the bike for you?

It’s been going well. I mean, I suppose I’ve not really got any big results yet this year.  I’ve got up there in a few races, had a few good runs. Had a bit of bad luck here and there, which is starting to get a little bit frustrating, but that’s just bike racing. And we’re doing it as a team, we’re winning and we’re getting those big results. That’s the game, it’s part of the bigger picture. The results don’t have to necessarily come in my name, they can come in other people’s names. We’re racing properly, we’re doing things right.

At the Circuit des Ardennes with Dan Pearson, 2019
Photo: Hugh McManus / Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes

In Tro-Bro, for example, we got absolutely nothing out of the race. Apart from Alex [Paton] getting in the break. But we were proud of how we began the race and what we did, and we’d do it again, we just got unlucky. So, we keep saying, if we do everything right and keep racing properly then the results follow that. So it should be a case of keeping focused.

Tim’s very ambitious and it’s quite infectious really

And the race programme we’ve got it’s a very serious race programme, I can’t remember how many 1.1s I’ve done already this year but I think it’s got to be about eight or nine. I mean that’s incredible. I don’t think there’d be another Conti rider out there who’s done that many races at that level so far. So we are racing at a very high level and you still have to go to them wanting to win, but maybe you have to shift your expectations a little bit to respect the races and the riders you are riding against.

We’ve done a hell of a lot of racing so far and it’s been fantastic and we’ve got the depth in the team to keep doing what we’re doing. Tim’s very ambitious and it’s quite infectious really. He’s so charismatic and wants to go off and do these races, like we all do, so it’s a good little environment yeah.

You say you’ve have a bit of bad luck. Were there particular races that you were aiming for so far this season where things didn’t quite pan out?

Le Samyn. Le Samyn was going really well until I basically parked up with about 50ks to go. Got in what was the winning break away and then didn’t have the legs at the end. So that was a race that was sort of bitter sweet. And then we’ve done Volta Limburg. I punctured there just as the race was getting to the business end and never got back on again. And the same on Monday at Tro Bro again really, another puncture right at bad time really and just couldn’t get back in. But they’re excuses really, the team has had a lot of success so far, so I do feel like we’re doing a good job.

Were you disappointed not to go back to the Tour de Normandie this year?

At first, yeah, I was pretty disappointed. And then I thought “Do you know what, I’m wasting energy here being disappointed” and I just thought “Fuck them, like, if they don’t want us back then that’s fine, we’ve already won the race, let’s go and do something else.” And Tim got us into 1.1s the following weekend where Rory got third, which is a massive result for the team and so that was the end of it really. I wasn’t disappointed. I just thought “Stuff them, if they don’t want us, if they don’t want the team there, the team’s never done the race before, they don’t have to invite us. That’s that, no point wasting anymore energy on it, I’ve won the race once, let’s go and do something else.” And we went and did some absolutely fantastic races in France.

At the 2019 CiCLE Classic (left). Photo: Hugh McManus / Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes

You got 13th in one of those, the Classic Loire Atlantique…

Yeah. Again, that doesn’t sound like much, but I was pretty pleased with that really, it was a good result. A very difficult race, another experience done.

I think it’s such a fantastic country to race a bike in, the races, the style of the races, they suit me

What about the rest of the season, what are your ambitions going forward? Are there particular races you’re targeting for the rest of the season?

It’s basically the Belgian races. I think it’s such a fantastic country to race a bike in, the races, the style of the races, they suit me. Le Samyn was one that I wanted to go well in. And we’ve got several more in Belgium again. Some of those races I’ve done well in in the past, so they’re the races that I’m quietly motivated for. We’ve got some fantastic British races as well, like the Lincoln Grand Prix and the Tour of Yorkshire.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com – 15/05/16 – Cycling – Motorpoint Spring Cup Series – 2016 Cycle Lincoln Grand Prix – Lincoln, England – Tom Stewart of Madison Genesis takes vicotry in the Lincoln GP.

The Tour de Yorkshire –  is that a race you’ll leadership responsibilities in? Have you talked to Tim about the plan for that race yet?

I think a couple of us are going to go for the GC. There’s a lot for British teams to get out of that race, so we’re not going to put all our eggs in one basket so to speak. There’ll be plenty of other riders there with ambitions, team ambitions, trying to get jerseys and win stages. And then me and probably one other rider will have a bit of protection for the last two days, and on that last day in particular. But yeah, we’re not riding a whole team just for me, there’s a lot up for grabs over four days. We’ll be getting stuck in.

So you’d definitely see the last two days as being the significant ones?

Well you never know. It depends on two things. It depends on who comes from the bigger teams, whether they bring sprinters, and how motivated those sprinters are to have a big bunch sprint. And the wind. I mean, stage two, alright, doesn’t look that hard, but it just travels in a straight line from south to north, and if you get a westerly wind there the race could be split to pieces if someone tried to take it on, so you never really know. Obviously stage four will be so decisive, that’s a given. But whether stage one and two are as well, you don’t know until the day.

You got 11th there in 2016? Is that something that you think is achievable again, getting towards the top ten, if not higher?

Yeah, When I got that 11th I think the field was pretty well stocked. I was quite proud with that result to be honest. One result that I’m probably more proud of quietly than some other results that might sound better on paper. This year, there’s not as many World Tour teams. It’s still going to be an extremely hard race but what I’m trying to say is that it’s definitely achievable, to go quite a bit better than that. But it’s still a big race, there’s still some big riders there, and you have to have (a) really good form, (b) a tactically fantastic race and (c) a bit of good luck on your side. So we’ll see. 

Read Part 2 of our interview with Tom here.