The French amateur racing scene has proven a successful launchpad for many promising British riders over the years. Adam Yates, David Millar and Robert Millar, to name but a few, all raced in France for French clubs before stepping into the professional ranks. It seems this potential path to the pro ranks is more popular than ever. In 2019, there are over 20 British male and female riders based at French amateur clubs.
One such rider is Welshman Owen James. He’s now in his third season in France, riding for the Breton team Côtes d’Armor Marie Morin. He’s teammates with another Celt, Scottish rider Stuart Balfour (one of our U23 riders to watch this year). James started out on his French experience with support from the Dave Rayner Fund. Now no longer an U23, he’s self-supported.
He made a few waves recently winning a stage of the tough Tour de Bretagne (UCI 2.2), one of just a handful of UCI race wins by a British Continental or elite level rider this season.
We caught up with him recently to find our more about him and his experiences of living in racing in France, his recent Tour de Bretagne win and his advice for other British cyclists contemplating a move across the Channel.
For readers not familiar with you, can you tell us about a bit about yourself?
So, I’m 23 now and in my third season in France. I’m deeply into the French scene now; baguettes for breakfast, the works.
I’ve been in the sport for a while now. I started racing in the UK at about 13. So I experienced those 6 hour drives up North and countless nights in Travel Lodges. Most UK cyclists will get that one.
I was lucky enough to be supported by Welsh Cycling when I was younger. It was with them that I got my first taste of racing abroad.
How would you describe yourself as a rider?
As a rider I still don’t know yet. I love a breakaway where it’s hard all day, or even a day of crosswinds; obviously that’s if I’ve got good legs. I have a decent kick in a sprint too. I never know how to answer that question and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of riders.
I did what I could doing building work during the week and racing all over Britain on the weekend
Before you started racing in France, you raced for Zappi Racing and then Catford. How did those two seasons go?
Yeah, only a select number of riders can understand what Zappi’s is like. To put it simply, Flavio knows what it takes to make it and he will give you everything you need, but if you if you don’t tow the line, well, don’t expect it to be easy. I’ve never met someone so passionate about the sport. I still say it was by far the most beautiful racing I ever did, and if I could go back to Italy and do it again I would.
I’m still super grateful Catford for helping me out in 2016. It was just after I signed with a team called Dynamo Cover Pro Cycling. I may as well have signed some toilet paper and flushed it. That folded a week before Christmas which left me in a massive hole and considering jacking it in.
But Mike Morgan from Catford I think understood my situation and helped me enormously out with everything I needed to go racing in UK. So I did what I could doing building work during the week and racing all over Britain on the weekend. I managed to race well and get some decent results.
How did your move to France in 2017 come about? Why Côtes d’Armor?
The move to France was mostly on impulse. I got in contact with someone I knew through the pro team I signed for. He found me Côtes d’Armor who were just moving up to Division 1. I have Dave Rayner Fund to thank for helping to support me to move abroad.
I drove my car to France and if I said I didn’t think about turning around and going home I’d be lying
How did you find it first of all, living and racing in France?
Obviously it was hard at the start. I drove my car to France and if I said I didn’t think about turning around and going home I’d be lying.
The language was really hard to start especially with the older riders who would rip into you and you would have no idea what they were saying. Dinner time was the worst. But I think they knew I was a lad.
I raced hard and earned the team’s respect pretty quick. I was also lucky enough to have Stuart Balfour there too. Been living together for 3 years now and got some good stories to share.
And since then, how would you describe your experience of living in France?
Since then it has got easier. I learnt the language and feel like a bigger player in the team.
Can you tell us a bit about the team you ride for?
So the team is a Division 1 unit [the highest level of amateur racing in France], racing mostly in Brittany but throughout France in UCI and French Cup races. Plenty of riders have passed through the team’s system and made it into the pro ranks.
The French system in my opinion just makes sense
And for those who don’t know the French racing scene, can you tell us a bit about what it’s like? How does it compare with the UK scene for example?
The French system in my opinion just makes sense. They split it into divisions just like football. So the French Cup is where you score points and can potentially progress or drop a division if the team has a bad season.
Obviously money and budget play a big part too but so many teams have such good support from sponsors. Mostly just local businesses. And you have 22 teams like mine, with the same budget if not more than most Continental teams in the UK.
You then have your Elite National, UCI and ‘toutes categories’ races and there is without doubt no shortage with races all over.
How did the racing go out there in your first two seasons? What were the highlights and lowlights?
The highlight for me the first season was the progression I made and was pleasantly surprised with my level because going out there I had no idea. There were obviously lowlights too. Being away from home or when a race doesn’t go well or even being sick really sucks.
The second season was my best. I went out there with confidence and established myself as one of the best riders on the team early on in the first races of the season.
Again though, it all had to come to an end. A crash in the Tour de Bretagne set me back and I struggled for a while to get back up there. But it came, and I finished the season well.
Why have you stayed out in France? Have you thought about, or tried, returning to a UK team?
The main reason for staying in France was that opportunities have potentially opened up, with our team being a feeder team to the Israel Cycling Academy.
I did want to come back to the UK as it’s a really good level there at the moment, but it seemed like every team my agent spoke to was folding. So it was a safer bet was to stay here even with it being a harder way of life.
And what about this season? What are your objectives and hopes?
I’m not going to lie, the start to the season had probably been the most testing one. Being the third year I Just felt like I wasn’t progressing and didn’t start the season well. I don’t know if I was lacking confidence or riding differently. I got really sick with flu just when I started getting some form.
It was a weird one I feel stronger than last year but just not having the results. But I knew I was in good condition and the Tour de Bretagne was a big target . I really wanted to do well there.
And you ended up winning stage 4. Can you talk me through how that happened?
I basically slipped away with a guy from Natura4Ever – Roubaix Lille Metropole. We took time out pretty quick. We decided to wait for an Arkéa-Samsic rider who was riding accross solo. Then we worked really well together. I had great legs but from the beginning had no faith that it would go to the finish.
We arrived on the finishing circuit with about one minute advantage but then gradually it started coming down. Even my DS told me to carry on but that it would probally come back together. I think it worked well for me because I had no stress. I was just waiting to be caught. But it was the type of circuit where the bunch coudn’t bring back time, as it was so technical.
On the last lap I had the first sign it could be my day as the Arkéa rider hit the only stone on the bend and punctured, which left us down to two. I could see the bunch closing but carried on. The Roubaix Lille rider took the last bend but didn’t really accelerate after.
After taking a look over my shoulder I could see the peloton so thought, ‘OK. now or never’. I hit it with 500 metres to go. I looked behind, expecting the rider to be on my wheel, but he was gapped. I couldn’t believe it as I crossed the line.
I was over the moon. But now I’m back to the grind and trying to back it up.
If you go for a haircut, expect the same one you had when you were in lower school. They’re still using Shockwaves Gel…
What would your advice be to any young rider weighing up an opportunity to ride for a French amateur team like Côtes d’Armor?
I’d say, ‘hell yeah, give it a go’. The worst thing that happens is you come home experiencing a new culture.
One thing though: the French banter is not the same and if you go for a haircut, expect the same one you had when you were in lower school. They’re still using Shockwaves Gel…