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God’s own countryman: Tom Stewart interview, part 2

Lincoln Grand Prix winner on being one of the most experienced riders on the team, taking on a road captain role, the importance of good team environment, what motivates him and his future ambitions

One of riders to watch in 2019, 29 year-old Tom Stewart proved he’s still as motivated as ever when he won the recent 2019 Lincoln Grand Prix, the most iconic one-day fixture on the British calendar. He adds this wins to a palmares that already includes wins in top domestic races (2016 Lincoln Grand Prix, 2016 Velothon Wales) and impressive international performances, such as his 6th place in the Dubai Tour in 2017. Last season’s overall win at the savage Tour de Normandie was arguably his best result to date.

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.

In this second part of a two-part interview, we spoke to Stewart about being one of the most experienced riders on the team, taking on a road captain role, the importance of good team environment, what motivates him and his future ambitions.

You can catch up on Part 1 of the interview here.

We don’t go to a race motivated by a pay check. We go to races motivated by the fact that we want to be successful for the benefit of the people we’re here with and the people who’ve made sacrifices

HSBC UK National Road Series – Chestnut Homes Lincoln Grand Prix – Tom Stewart of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes wins. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

You’re 29 now, the second oldest rider in the Canyon team. It’s a fact I find quite surprising because in many ways you still seem quite young to me, someone that still has room to develop…

Yeah, it’s very strange. For many years, I’ve been the one taking advice. And then it dawned on me at the training camp this year. There were a few jokes, and people saying “You’re one of the older guys”. It was totally light hearted, but I did realise I’m now the one who can help lots of the other riders out.  I’ve been the road captain for several of the races this season and it’s something that I think I can be really good at. I’m enjoying that role. I’m 29 now, and I’m not an aspiring young rider, I’m a pro that’s been around for quite a few years now. I’ve definitely got something to offer to my teammates who are a bit younger. That doesn’t mean I haven’t got ambition and plenty more to learn and develop myself, but it’s definitely a side to the job that I’m enjoying.

When we interviewed Tim Elverson earlier this year, he picked out Jacob Vaughan as a rider that has similar characteristics to you and that you could be someone he can learn from through the season. Is that a kind of a role that Tim wants you to take on?

I think so. It’s one that you just fall into. It’s a social situation where you’ve got different people at different stages in their career, different age groups, personalities. It’s bloody good fun that. There is stuff that I can learn from Jacob, he’s a very smart rider. He’s been on Lotto last year, it’s a big team. But yeah, there’s plenty he needs to learn as well. He’s a good lad. There’s lots of really good young lads in the team, and I think that there’s several figures on our team who are a bit older and bit more established.

There’s certainly a few younger riders that I would like to think that I can help. There’s a few lads on the team, where I can see them motivated by the same things that did, and still do, motivate me. And they’re making the same mistakes that I used to do. It’s a really good fun environment in the team actually.

When a rider feels valued, it’s a very powerful motivation. And so that’s why I feel like there’s a good environment in this team

HSBC UK National Road Series – Chestnut Homes Lincoln Grand Prix – Tom Stewart of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes being interviewed by Rebecca Charlton, cyclevox. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

What makes it such a fun environment do you think?

It probably stems from Tim’s enthusiasm. He is extremely enthusiastic. One thing that I’ve always been very grateful for in teams is honesty from mangers. It’s not a World Tour team, so it’s not a job where you’re motivated by the pay check. Your motivated by people, and you have to have relationships with people in order to be motivated by them.

I stay at Tim’s house, I know his children, his wife, and we share meal times together, and all the other riders are the same. I stop at Alex Richardson’s house, or whoever, and it’s those kind of relationships that make people successful at this level of sport.

We don’t go to a race motivated by a pay check, or the status of riding for such and such team. We go to races motivated by the fact that we want to be successful for the benefit of the people we’re here with and the people who’ve made sacrifices. Such as the mechanic, the swannies, Tim, and your teammates.

It’s not something you can fake or manufacture, it’s something that has to happen through spending time with people, and I feel like that’s something that this team is very good at. It’s very open, very honest. I can ask Tim anything about this team and he’ll tell me. He doesn’t keep things away from younger riders, he’ll tell them if they want to know and that makes you feel very valued as a rider. When a rider feels valued, it’s a very powerful motivation. And so that’s why I feel like there’s a good environment in this team.

Tom Stewart celebrates winning the Lincoln Grand Prix with the team. Photo: John Smith / Same Old Smith Photography

Some people I’ve spoken to suggest that the Continental scene can be quite cut-throat – you can have riders competing against each within teams and fostering a team ethic can be quite a challenge. Would you say that’s true? And, if so, what is Canyon doing differently compared to other teams?

I think certain environments can help limit that sort of behaviour. But ultimately I think it’s down to certain individuals that create that kind of cut-throat environment. You don’t find that in certain teams, but if you put certain types of riders in a team, you would get it anywhere. So it’s a bit of a balance, it’s about having a good team environment, and that’s Tim’s job, and it’s also about the individual and whether you’ve got the right people on the team.

Having several people in the team that want to achieve at bike races doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be a strength, if done properly

I don’t think it’s as bad as people probably make out. But by the same token, it’s not something that should be shied away from. People have ambition and aspiration of personal victory and personal glory and that’s fine, that’s good, that’s healthy. We have several people who can sprint on our team. We have two or three, in particular, and we’ve gone to several races with two or three of them, and it’s up to those riders to chat in a race, it’s up to Tim’s chat during the race, to decide who we’re going to sprint for at the end. And it’s about people being honest with teammates.

There have been several races this year where, during the race, I might have been the captain on the road, and the plan will have changed and we’ve decided to ride for someone and I’ll go around to the riders and I’ll say “Look this is what we’re going to do. But I want you to tell me if you’ve got a different ambition, I want you to tell me if you fancy your chances and if you do, and if I feel like that’s something we can work into the plan, that’s what we’ll do.”

When Richardson won the Omloop het Waasland, I asked him to do a job, and he said to me “Tom, I feel really good today. I really do. And I’m happy to ride for someone else, but can I have this opportunity to try this?” And I said “That’s fine, I’m going to change the plan. You try that. And we’re going to back Hennessy for the sprint.” And the outcome of that was that Alex won solo, and Hennessy won the sprint behind and we got a one-two.

Having several people in the team that want to achieve at bike races doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be a strength, if done properly.

HSBC UK National Road Series – Chestnut Homes Lincoln Grand Prix – Tom Stewart of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

And the road captain role is something you’ve been enjoying…

Yeah, definitely. It’s like a game. Take Alex Richardson, for example. His job at the Circuit des Ardennes was to try and get in the break on the last day. I said to him afterwards, “There were things that had to happen in order for that breakaway to go, and you have work out, it’s like a puzzle you have to unravel.” We can’t sit there in the pre-race meeting and decide exactly how other teams are going to race. On the road you can start to see, “Right, this needs to happen and that needs to happen in order for a break to be successful”. So you have to start to make those connections, and they’re things that have to be done on the road and it’s part of the fun. Very rarely the strongest guy wins a bike race. It’s a combination of strength and tactical nouse. So it’s definitely something that we have a bit of fun with.

And the fact that you’re taking on a road captain role now, is that a compromise for you, in terms of your own personal ambitions in some races?

I must say, I’m not always road captain, Andy Tennant really is the ‘go-to’ road captain in the team. I don’t want to tread on his toes, I’ve just been the opportunity to try that in certain races when he’s not been there. And I’ve enjoyed it. And yeah, sometimes it’s nice to mix it up a bit. I think that traditionally the protected rider isn’t the captain, because often it’s difficult to make a call about what to do tactically when it’s for your own benefit, that’s something that isn’t always the best combination. Ultimately, like I say, you’re racing with a bunch of people that are (a) friends, and (b) professionals. Plans change and people normally get on board with them, if that makes sense.

And where you live, in South Yorkshire, it seems like you have quite a community of pro riders to accompany you on training rides…

Yeah definitely. It’s always been a bit of a hot bed for good cyclists, in the Doncaster and Sheffield area. It’s like any industry really, when there’s lots of successful people in one area you all get more successful together because you push one another and the bar is raised locally. We’re very close friends too and it’s always good to have friends in bike races. I very much enjoy living here.

The more friends you have in a bike race, the more easy it is to beat people

2019 Tour de Yorkshire Stage 2 Barnsley to Bedale – England – Thomas Stewart of Team Canyon DHB P/B Bloor Homes and Fabien Grellier of Team Total Direct Energie ride in the breakaway. Photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com

Friends in training, but not so much in the races?

You always want to be the one that crosses the line first but that’s a journey that might require alliances and certain friendships along the way. The more friends you have in a bike race, the more easy it is to beat people. If I’m in a race and Connor’s with me and we’re in a breakaway together, we’ll be looking out for one another. And then when push comes to shove we’ll be hopefully sprinting it out together. It’s not a case of switching on and off friendships, a bike race is definitely an environment where you can have a friend.

In terms of your coaching and your training, do you aim to peak for certain races? How do you manage that side of things?

Not necessarily certain races, just certain windows of time. I’d like to think I was coming in to good form now to be honest. I’ve been going well for the last few weeks, but again, the races we’ve been doing, they’re not the kind of races where you can make a mistake, recover, get a mechanical, and then come back. They’re the kind of races you need to ride tactically very smart, you need to be in extremely good form and you need to kind of have a bit of a clean run. So I’m just kind of waiting for all of those three things to line up.

And speaking of things lining up, do you still have a hope of stepping up to Pro Conti or World Tour level Tom?

If the opportunity came along, absolutely I would love to. I’m beginning to realise I can just enjoy the racing that we’re doing now. If I had a Pro Conti contract, apart from maybe potentially getting into a couple of classics, I probably wouldn’t have a much better programme than the one I’ve got right now. I’d probably be earning more money and live in a different country, but other than that, race programme-wise, we’d be doing races like Tro Bro, Yorkshire, Le Samyn and so on. So I’m enjoying it for what it is, and we’ll see what happens…

Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com HSBC UK National Road Series – Chestnut Homes Lincoln Grand Prix – Tom Stewart of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes wins. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Catch up on Part 1 of this interview here.