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Rainbow dreams: Jake Stewart interview

19-year-old Groupama-FDJ Continental rider speaks about his season, his recovery from injury and his world championship hopes

19-year-old Jake Stewart is one of our under-23 riders to watch this season. He quickly set about proving why this year with some impressive early season results in the world’s top under-23 races. His season was interrupted by a broken collarbone at the Tour Alsace in early August, but he’s on the road to recovery now and has his sights set very firmly on the world championships in Yorkshire later this month.

Supported by the Dave Rayner Fund, Stewart rides for Groupama-FDJ’s newly formed development team this season, something he has combined with making regular appearance for Great Britain. He scored an early season win in the French elite race the GP du Pays d’Aix, and followed that with a string of top UCI race performances. These included 3 podiums and 5th overall at Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux (2.2U), 3rd at the U23 Tour of Flanders, 3rd at the U23 Eschborn-Frankfurt race and 8th at the U23 Paris-Roubaix. His first UCI race win has been elusive however

How would I sum up my season? Close, but no cigar

When we spoke to him at the beginning of the season, he declared that his big target this season was the U23 world championships. He has previous in the worlds, having finished 5th in the junior world championship road race in 2017. Now, following a good recovery from his broken collarbone, he is steadily building his race form at the Tour of Britain. Along with Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter – assuming they can also recover from their respective injuries in time – he is expected to form part of a powerful British team aiming for success in Yorkshire.

We caught up with the youngster from Coventry ahead of the Tour of Britain to find out how his season has gone, how he’s adjusted to living in France, his recovery from injury and his thoughts on the up-coming world championships.

I think we can come away from Yorkshire this year as an under-23 team with a stripy jumper

2019OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 2: Kelso to Kelso, Scotland – Jake Stewart of Great Britain Cycling Team. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

When we spoke at the beginning of the year you were on the verge of moving out to live in France. How’s the experience of living in a new culture been?

The experience has been actually pretty good. It’s one of those things where if you embrace the culture and the way of life, then it’s a lot easier. The main benefit is you’ve got decent weather. The only thing you do miss, of course, is British company, the British way of life. But you need to embrace the way of life here and if you do that, then you’re going to get on just fine.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

It’s just being part of a new team, you know? There are a lot of nationalities in the new team. Whereas if you’re racing in the UK, there are guys that have come up through regional schools of racing, national schools of racing and so on, so there’s a lot more of an understanding of working as a team. This is something that has been a big challenge this year. It being a new team, with a lot of different nationalities, a lot of final year under-23s in the team, there hasn’t been that real team ethic. The biggest challenge is getting everyone to commit to one another. But we’ve been working really hard on it.

What aspects of being based abroad have you enjoyed most?

The weather, I think. You can live in the UK but you never get guaranteed good weather in the summer, whereas in France, particularly a bit further south, you are. That’s what I’ve enjoyed the most because it’s a lot easier to train, it’s a lot easier on the head and it just makes motivation a lot easier to find.

Photo: Groupama-FDJ Continental

What advice would you give to any young Brits following in your footsteps next year and moving to the continent?

Embrace the culture, embrace the way of life and embrace the language and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to fit into your surroundings. That’s one thing that I have definitely tried to try my hardest with, is learning the language. It’s still not great, but it does come, it just takes time. Obviously, you’re not going to learn French in the first two weeks here. But if you carry on trying to learn the language and trying it out with whoever you meet, you’ll improve. Don’t be bothered about making a fool of yourself, because people at the end of the day, they like the fact that you’re trying.

We’re part of GroupamaFDJ as one big family and everyone’s involved, everyone’s engaged

From the outside, it seems the development team has had quite a bit of interaction with the World Tour set up. Is that true? What support and engagement do you have from the World Tour staff and riders?

Yes, to an extent it’s true. We were on camp with them in December and January. We weren’t exactly riding with the World Tour boys, but had meetings together with them and were working along the same kind of training routines. The support and engagement that we have from the World Tour staff and riders is really good. We’re constantly in contact with the performance director, Fred Grappe, and the physios, et cetera. It’s really nice to have that support and not feel like you’re part of a separate team. We’re part of Groupama-FDJ as one big family and everyone’s involved, everyone’s engaged.

I’ve had a load of podiums, but I’ve not quite had that win yet and it’s hard to put my finger on why

And racing-wise, how would you sum up your season so far?

How would I sum up my season? Close, but no cigar. I’ve had a lot of podiums. I went really well at the start of the year. I was focusing on the spring classics and going into those races with good form. We sat down at the start of the year and said these were races that we were targeting. So I’ve been going well. I’ve had a load of podiums, but I’ve not quite had that win yet and it’s hard to put my finger on why. There have been faster boys than me. In the early season races, I was making stupid mistakes, just getting carried away, that kind of thing. But it’s been a good season. I’m really happy with how it’s gone. I’ve shown that I’ve progressed from last year and that has continued throughout the year.

Photo: Groupama-FDJ Continental

It seems like you’ve been ‘close but not cigar’ on many occasions. How frustrating has it been to have been so close to pulling off some big wins this year?

It’s always frustrating if you’re there, but not quite. You know you’ve got the legs and you know you’ve got the speed, and you’ve got the best condition you have coming into these races and you’re close, but not quite getting it.

It’s more frustrating when a race is impacted by things outside of your control. Like in Flanders I had a couple of mechanical problems, a puncture, and inevitably I cramped right at the end at the finish in the sprint. But maybe the cramp could have been avoided if I hadn’t had so many problems on the bike going into that, on that day.

Of course it’s frustrating, but every race that we do, every race that’s not a win, you learn plenty from the race. There’s plenty to take away, to progress on for the future.

What have been the big highlights for you? Are there any results you’ve been particularly pleased with?

My highlights of the season probably would be the races that I’ve done with the national team. It’s always nice putting on the national jersey and racing for the national team in the national colors. And especially now, the fact that I’m moved away from the British Cycling programme. It’s still nice to be involved in the set up and getting invited to ride for the national team.

The atmosphere is really nice and it’s always a pleasure to go to be able to put on the jersey and just have a good time with the boys. We take the racing seriously but it’s always nice to have a bit of fun, have a laugh with the lads and get a good result at the end of it.

Flanders, that was a big result. It could have been better – the mechanical problems, cramps at the end, et cetera – but the way we worked as a team was fluid. Everyone knew the role that they had to play in the team. It was disappointing not to get the win there because I really felt like I had it in me.

Photo: Groupama-FDJ Continental

And then you broke your collarbone at Alsace. How did the crash happen?

At Alsace I didn’t have much luck. I crashed on the second stage. Luckily I came away with that with just a hematoma in my right arm and some pretty bad road rash. That was my own fault, me just being stupid. A lack of concentration and suddenly, the next thing, I was on the deck. But then I was recovering from it, riding for the boys on the queen stage.

Then on the final stage, it was a good stage for me. I had taken fourth from the first stage, so I’d shown that I’d recovered well from my previous block of racing, and the sprint went well alongside some big names. Then on the final day, I tried following some moves at the front of the race, trying to get in the break. You never know how these last days are going to play out. Sometimes a big move can go up the road and you never see it again. It depends on how the yellow jersey’s team’s feeling.

Our move got reeled back into the bunch, I sat up a bit, recovering a bit. I was only 20-25 wheels back and then a rider in front of me hit a hole or something, I really don’t know, but he just crumpled over his bike. He just lost it. Both hands on the bars and he hit the deck, and I was directly behind him. And it just happened so fast that I just had nowhere to go. I plowed straight over him and a broken collarbone was the outcome. Off to hospital and then to the back to the UK and dealing with specialists and all sorts.

How has the recovery gone?

The recovery now has gone really well. The team are really pleased with it, the specialists are very pleased with it. I didn’t have to go in for an operation. The collarbone wasn’t actually displaced. It was broken the whole way through. So it was the best thing that could have happened from a bad outcome, in that sense.

But the recovery has been good. I had a holiday with my family for the two weeks in the South of France because I had 10 days off the bike anyway after the crash. Then I was on turbo for seven days. Just some easy stuff. And then I’ve been back on the road for just over a week. I’m ahead of where the doctors were expecting me to be. Now it’s just a matter of physio to get a full range of movement back. I’ve had a lucky escape.

And the Worlds are on the cards?

Yes, I think the Worlds are on the cards still for me. There’s still a possibility that I can be good for them. We’ve only qualified five places, and so there are still a lot of strong GB lads could be selected. Obviously we’ve had some crashes. Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter at the Tour d L’Avenir. The fact that three of us have injured ourselves, it puts the question in people’s minds whether we’ll be back in time for the world championships.

2019 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 2: The Scottish Borders Stage, Kelso to Kelso – Great Britain’s Jake Stewart and team-mates. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

But for me, the recovery’s gone well, I’m feeling good. The shoulder’s feeling good. So it’s just for British Cycling to put their faith in my recovery and how I’m feeling and how the legs are. But as long as I’m healthy and a hundred percent recovered, then I’ll fight to be on that start line in Yorkshire.

It’s not outrageous to suggest that we can win the world championships in the men’s under-23 race

What are your personal and team ambitions in Yorkshire? What you think you and the team can get out of it?

It’s not outrageous to suggest that we can win the world championships in the men’s under-23 race. There are plenty of strong boys that have demonstrated the ability to win races among the under-23 and professional ranks. It will be a big team effort regardless. It always is at the world championships. It’s never individuals that take the win at a world championships. I guess we’ll weigh up where everyone’s at and how the race suits everyone and it will then be a team effort for the win. I think we can come away from Yorkshire this year as an under-23 team with a stripy jumper.

And who are the big favourites for the U23 road race? Who are the big rivals?

The race can go so many different ways. The parcours is so open. It’s not as if it’s suited specifically for climbers or for sprinters. It’s going to be a grippy race regardless. The weather could play a big part. But there are so many possibilities. You’ve got some big sprinters, like Kaden Groves, Matt Walls of GB, Alberto Dainese, the Italian. You’ve got some real strong sprinters that could potentially be there. But then, you never know. There’s a decent climb, it’s about 12 minutes long, so it could dispatch some boys. It depends on how the race is. It could be a reduced bunch sprint, it could be a small breakaway, it could be a solo ride. There are honestly so many different possibilities. It’s so hard to call out favourites for the under-23 race because the quality of the field is so high.

Any more racing on the cards after the Worlds this season?

My last race should be the U23 Paris-Tours in the middle of October. And then afterwards I’ll start the season and have some rest and recovery and go on holiday.

Photo: Groupama-FDJ Continental

Finally, what are your plans for next season?

I’ll be staying with Groupama- FDJ Continental. I’m still young. I think for me, the best development will come from spending another year in the under-23 ranks. I’ve still got plenty to learn in race craft alone. Hopefully next year I can win some races and then after next year, we’re looking at stepping up to the World Tour.