This time last year, Mark Christian was supposed to be riding the Tour of Britain. His team Aqua Blue had recently announced their decision to close, leaving him without a 2019 contract. Like many of his teammates, he was hoping the Tour of Britain would provide him with the ideal shop window to find a new team. But when Aqua Blue then decided to withdraw from the race, he found himself not just without a team, but without a platform to showcase himself to prospective suitors.
Thankfully for 28-year-old Christian, his former team, Team Wiggins Le Col, stepped in to save him, giving him a spot on their roster for 2019. Despite having to adjust to racing a mostly domestic programme again, he has put together a very solid season. 15th overall at the Tour de Yorkshire was a notable start to the season. And 9 top 10s in the National Road Series helped spur his team on to Tour of Britain qualification. Perhaps his most impressive results so far this year though were at the National Road Championships where he finished 10th in the time trial – despite crashing in the final kilometre – and 8th in the road race.
As with this time last season, the Manxman once again finds himself in search of a contract for next year. But this time he has a ride in the Tour of Britain, is in great shape, and is determined to make the most of the opportunity.
Nothing is sorted [for 2020] at the moment so it’s a great chance to really show myself
In this first part of a two-part interview, Christian reviews how his season has gone and discusses his objectives and hopes for the Tour of Britain…
How’s your season gone? Has it been an adjustment getting used to racing on the domestic scene again?
Overall, I’d say it’s gone pretty well. Like you say, I’ve come back to the British races. For the team, the main aim of them was to get qualified for the Tour of Britain, which we obviously managed to do.
I was able to set out some targets at the start of the year: the Tour de Yorkshire, the Nationals, and the Tour of Britain. The main races where you really get the opportunity to show yourself against the big teams.
There’s a lot of talk about teams closing down and negativity about British scene in general. But the actual standard of the races, they’re not easy races at all
And then I had a lot of domestic races in between those. It’s been good to get stuck into them as well. The level’s quite high I think in the UK. There’s a lot of talk about teams closing down and negativity about British scene in general. But the actual standard of the races, they’re not easy races at all. I think the standard of the riders is actually quite high. Which reflects how well teams like Canyon dhb have been able to compete at a high level on the continent as well.
And I’ve got a nice target coming up now, with the Tour of Britain, which hopefully I’ll be peaking for.
Did you know what your race programme would be like when you signed with Team Wiggins Le Col?
Yeah. I thought it was going to be a bit of a mix really. In an ideal world, I would have preferred a bit more UCI racing as well, just to be able to show myself at that kind of level. UCI race days have been a bit short on my side, but to be fair, the majority of the team is under-23 and that means the team is focused in a lot of under-23 races. That kind of development route. So that was to be expected as well.
Has the domestic scene changed much since you were last racing Prems?
To be honest, I’d say it’s quite similar. Obviously, there are a few new faces on the scene right now and guys that have moved on and stuff. But I’d say in general, that style of British racing is still there. It’s just attacking all day. There isn’t the same sort of structure to the races that you get in Europe, which makes it hard as well.
I think in general the scene has maintained itself quite well. I mean even with JLT Condor stopping at the end of last year, and it was looking all doom and gloom in October, November, it then sort of turned out quite well I think. It ended up with six good-standard continental teams for 2019. And I think even below that level, some of the guys on the British scene on the elite teams are strong as well. It’s all pulled together quite well it seems and I think there is quite a decent level to be honest.
Coming back into the team this year, rather than being one of the young development riders, you were the elder statesman, as it were. Did that involve some adjustment for you?
A bit yeah. You don’t really realise it at the time. And I don’t think I was brought in specifically to pass on my experience. But it kind of naturally happened anyway. Some of the young riders are always asking about the Ardennes or what’s it like riding a Grand Tour or doing the worlds. And then you find yourself giving off advice just by having general conversations. I’m probably not the type of guy to come in and start saying “Oh this is how you do it”, or anything like that. But if they’re asking questions anyway it’s nice to pass on a good bit of experience as well.
What have been the highlights for you this season?
I think Yorkshire’s definitely up there. It was good because I hadn’t had many races before Yorkshire, so that was pretty much my first race of the year. I did the first of the National Road Series races [the East Cleveland Klondike GP] but I wasn’t really sure how I’d be going, just off the back of training really. I was in the front group on the hard days where it really split up, so it was nice to be right in the mix there. I couldn’t have really done much else with the way the race went. I was happy with how I was going anyway.
And I think Nationals were good as well. Because that was a race I’d targeted, I was really disappointed with the time trial where I had a crash after suffering a mechanical. It cost me a lot of time and I could’ve had a better result. But then I was able to follow that with a top ten in the road race as well. It was nice to be at the front and mix it with the World Tour guys, especially as it wasn’t off the back of the type of calendar I’ve had the past couple of years.
You still got a top ten in the time trial despite your crash?
Yeah it’s annoying, but that’s the way it is in every race. The results didn’t tell the picture, didn’t tell the full story. I had a mechanical problem with my handlebar and if it wasn’t for the last kilometre I’d have probably got away with it. But in the last kilometre there was this one corner where I crashed because of the broken handlebar basically. It’s difficult to estimate how much time I lost but I’m guessing I would’ve been a bit further up the result sheet. Not that I would have got a medal, but I think even on paper to have been in amongst some good company, that would’ve been really nice.
I’ve got another opportunity to show myself in the time trial coming up in the Tour of Britain, so I’ve just got to be focused on that now
But I don’t really want to dwell on that at all. I’ve got another opportunity to show myself in the time trial coming up in the Tour of Britain, so I’ve just got to be focused on that now and hopefully pull a good result together.
What are your goals going into the Tour of Britain? Are there stages you are hunting? Are you going for the GC?
I think I will have an eye on GC definitely. So with that there will be certain days I’ll be looking to pick out. I think Stage 4 will be the first of the big GC sort out. The only problem is if you go in with too much focus on GC, you can sometime hold yourself back a little bit as well. So I don’t really want to get caught in that trap where I focus on GC and then I’m not really being aggressive and getting stuck into the race as well – you head into conservative mode. I’d like to pick a few days out and open up and show myself at the front of the race – be aggressive as well. I think if I can do that – and if stage 4 goes well – then I will know where I’m at in GC and I can see how it goes from there.
What are the big stages for you? Have you looked at the roadbook in detail yet?
Stage 4 is the one that jumps out as being the big GC day. There is the time trial on stage 6. And then there’s the finishing circuit at Burton Dassett Country Park on stage 7 – there could be big splits there. So that will definitely be one to keep an eye on.
And how will it work within the team? With several of you, or even most of you, wanting to show yourselves at the race, especially with riders looking for contracts for 2020, is that challenging?
Yeah. It can be a slight problem with development teams I guess, although a lot of teams find that too. But this team always works really together. You have to give and take a little. People are happy to commit to someone else knowing that they’re going to get opportunities themselves too. I think everyone’s on the same page in that respect. We’ve got a good mix of different riders with different strengths. So different stages ought to see different riders. Everyone’s going to have a good chance to shine.
This is a big race for you. Are you still looking for a team for next season? Is that at the back of your mind going into the race?
Definitely. Nothing is sorted at the moment so it’s a great chance to really show myself. And if I could come away with a result it would definitely go a long way. It’s a great chance for me to go up against high-level teams with a good mix of World Tour and Pro Conti teams. I think the standard of the field’s going to be really high. So I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and giving it my all.
Have you been tapering specifically for this race? And is this kind of your final race of the season?
Yes, it will be. Even before the qualification was confirmed, I’d pencilled it in. And then as soon as it was confirmed, I was completely focused towards it. So I’ve been building up to it for the last few weeks, months even. So hopefully I’m going to come to a nice peak for it.
And you’ve been fine tuning things out in Belgium? You got good results in the pro kermesses out there. Was that a good block for you?
Yes, we wanted to get out and be quite aggressive, race positively, and get stuck into them. You can gain a lot from those races in terms of form. It’s nice way to top the form off. The races out there provide aggressive racing that are just nonstop the whole time. They are always a hard day out. It was ideal getting that final race prep. We did five races in total, in just under two weeks. I really hope the block has given me that last couple of percent form-wise…