Rewind to the summer of 2016. Damien Clayton had just graduated as an architect and had little concept of road racing. In fact, he hadn’t ridden more than 10 miles in one go on a bicycle. Full stop. He was very far from the fast-improving, UCI race-winning, road racer he is now.
This three-part interview follows his journey from road racing newbie to UCI race winner in just three years. Part one of the interview followed his initial foray into road cycling, why he quickly fell in love with the sport and his very early successes in road racing.
It’s all well and good being able to do a race, but can you finish it off four hours in? I think I proved I could at Beaumont
Here, Clayton looks back on his 2018 season and why he decided to move out of London and back to his family home in Yorkshire. He discusses how he adapted to training in a structured for the first time, how his race craft and confidence grew in the first half of 2019 and why his Beaumont Trophy podium was a turning point for him. He also explains why he joined Ribble Pro Cycling and why he still feels it’s the right team for him.
How was the 2018 season for you?
It was a kind of a season of two halves really because I was asked to join Kibosh Racing in London and I felt like it was a good decision at the time, to be part of a team like that. Then halfway through the season I had a break. I went to Mallorca and decided to become a private member, so I split ways with Kibosh.
Why was that?
Basically I was inspired a lot by Alex Richardson at the time, who paved the way for a kind of private member ‘do it for yourself’ approach. In 2017 at Regents Park Rouleurs I had got a big buzz from the work that we did as a team, but that was essentially because I was such good friends with three members of the team. I lost that when I went to Kibosh. I lost that camaraderie.
I was happier for him to take the win than myself
Looking back to my time at Regents Park Rouleurs, I remember a time where I could have won this one road race but finished second instead. I was coming up really quickly on my teammate Tom Percival and I just stopped sprinting because essentially he was the reason why I was in the break, he was the reason why I felt so fresh, and he went for the early sprint and I went for a late sprint. I was just so happy. I was happier for him to take the win than myself.
In 2018 I lost that feeling of teamwork, so halfway through the season, I decided to race as a private member. I think towards the end of that season I picked up some better results, especially in the road races. I felt my ability and confidence improving so I tried my hand at the South East regional road championships again, which probably ended up being my favourite race of the year.
How did it go?
I bridged on my own to a break of Rory Townsend, Louis Rose-Davies, Alex Richardson and Edmund Bradbury. I only got fifth in the end, I came last out of that breakaway but I gained a lot from it. Everyone in the breakaway said that I’d rode the best race because I was working full-time, I’d put in the best performance in, et cetera, et cetera. It opened my eyes to what actual racing was because as soon as I got to that breakaway and everyone was working so well, it was like, “I quite like this way of racing.”
It was there where I met Rory for the first time. I started chatting with him and he asked me if I was coached. To which I said, “no, I just ride my bike”. That started a conversation between me and Grinta Coaching and that’s when I thought it’d be interesting to get a coach and see how my winter went.
I was going to ask you about that. Does Rory coach you directly or is it Grinta as a whole? How does it work?
I deal directly with Rory on a one-on-one basis. I think Simon [Holt, assistant DS at Canyon dhb p/b Soreen] overlooks the whole programme but I’ve pretty much had one-to-one contact with Rory ever since the South East regional championships.
It was from then on that I started to do properly structured sessions with Rory. I gave him access to my training feeds, Strava and so on. I think that’s when cycling switched from this social experience of just getting out and enjoying myself to focusing more on proving I could get some results, looking at my performance, and understanding what could my body achieve.
It becomes a lot more like a job and I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve
How’s that been for you mentally, changing from that situation where you were just getting out and riding for the hell of it to having that performance focus?
It makes it a lot harder. It becomes a lot more like a job and I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve, especially if you’re doing the right thing by training properly coming into a race. You’re like, “Okay, I’ve done all this training, I have to get a result.” Or “this has to work”. There comes a lot of self-doubt with it. It’s like, “Did I do that right? Did I do this right?” But at the end of the day, you have to tell yourself you’ve done everything you can.
Once in a race, there are only three things you can control that determine your result: your attitude, your actions and your mood. You’ve got a set of situations beyond your control and you can’t let them get to you or you’ll be on the back foot. I think [structured training] is a lot more testing on the mind because you’re not as free. But when you do get the results it’s a lot more rewarding.
You started getting results quite quickly in 2019. You first came to my attention when you finished second at the Perfs Pedal road race, your first race of the season…
I think that result maybe looked better than it was. Canyon always sends a very strong squad there, they always want to win and always want to set out and prove something at the beginning of the year. I’d just joined the Andy Moores Autocentres cycle team. So I got a new fancy aero bike with new kit and stuff, so I was feeling quite good going into the race. I’d done a bit of training in Calpe beforehand. I’d tried to ride as hard as I could over the winter, not really missing a session with Rory. Then I went into that race and just marked the guys who I knew were going well at the time. I got myself in the breakaway and then just did as little as possible until the point where I actually had to do an effort. I think within the final three kilometres it was just me, Jacob Vaughan and Alex Paton of Canyon.
We all just started laughing. We’d trained together. I’d trained with the Canyon guys a lot together on rides out to Windsor; we called it the Drift Road Chain Gang. We all just laughed each other and said, “this is like Drift Road.” That race was a lot of fun really but Jacob rode amazingly to take the win there, I was really happy for him.
The passion for my bike and being outside was taking over the idea of working in an office, 9-5, every single day
You moved back to Yorkshire at the beginning of 2019 too?
Things changed for the better really. I took a bit of time off in the winter to come home. I was working with my Dad over the winter and built up a bit of pocket money here and there. I then went back to London and just broke down over Christmas, January time. I couldn’t face the daily monotony of office life down there. I was literally living in a place with the cheapest rent I could find. As long as I could put my turbo in my room then I was happy. But, yeah, I was very detached from the real world and my parents could identify the fact that I was very miserable at one point. I was quite down. I asked to move back home and my parents were very welcoming and said, “of course, completely”.
At that time I asked Andy Moores Autocentres about riding for them, because I knew them from back home. The guy there – Andy Bishop – did my first ever bike fit and I’d kept in contact with him ever since. He said he’d love to have me on the team. I moved back to Yorkshire in February and ever since I’ve just never looked back to the London life that I think I was growing out of it. The passion for my bike and being outside was taking over the idea of working in an office, 9-5, every single day.
My outlook on life is a lot clearer
I think it’s that sense of freedom that I’ve got working for my parents, living at home with them. I can train when I need to, with respect to my Dad’s company of course. I started doing a lot of turbo sessions. Pretty much every morning I’d do a turbo session, go to work, then do another turbo session in the evening and then go to bed. So I was putting in a lot of hours on the turbo. I really enjoy that sense of structure with the turbo, the efficiency of it. So I enjoyed that aspect and I just began enjoying life a lot more up here. I think my diet’s better, my outlook on life is a lot clearer. I am clearer about what I think I want. And with the Andy Moore Autocentres team, they just gave me the freedom. They just said, “whatever races you want to go to we’ll facilitate that and we’ll support you.”
As the season went on, I got more and more support and more acceptance from my family. At the beginning of the year, my Mum was quite sceptical and didn’t really understand what I was trying to achieve. But the more I was racing through the season, the more that she kept coming to races, the more that she understood. We’ve come to a point now where they’re quite happy for me to take as much time off as required, without disrespecting them too much.
And then how did the season go for you after Perfs?
I think last year was just all about stepping up from National B races to the National As. I had never done any National As before 2019. I think my first National A was the Klondike Grand Prix and that was just absolutely awful I think looking back. I enjoyed it but I almost quit after Lincoln. There were a lot of people putting a lot of pressure on me to do well at Lincoln. I’d put in a few good results here and there but I feel like I’d never proved myself at a National A level. If I’m completely honest, I still don’t really see myself as a contender at National A level. I still feel like the underdog. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know.
At the beginning of the season, I was talking to Rory about targets and trying to progress through the sport the best I can. We were aiming to try and get a top 20 in a National A, to try and keep consistent. Rory was just drilling home the aspect of consistency at the time. So I was getting a few results here and there but I’d not achieved anything fantastic. I think at the time I was ranked as the number one elite in the country and so for my team that was fantastic, you know, for the exposure that it got the sponsors.
Obviously I had just raced quite a lot and got a few points and ended up at the top of this leaderboard. So it was great for the team but at the time me and Rory were just like, it shows consistency, so just try and keep at it and try and get that top 20 in a National A.
I’d swapped my thinking from ‘trying to be in the break of the day’ to ‘trying to be in the winning break’
I think the turning point of the season for me was the Beaumont Trophy [where Clayton finished third]. Obviously stuff happened during the race, there’s politics around cycling, unfortunately. But whilst that went on I switched off and then went into energy-saving mode and thought “well, maybe if it’s not too hard up this climb then maybe I might be able to get away with something.”
So I’d swapped my thinking from ‘trying to be in the break of the day’ to ‘trying to be in the winning break’ as such. It just so happens that I actually ended up in the winning break that day and I went to the line with those seven, that select group of guys, and then ended up on the podium. I couldn’t have been happier at the time.
So until then in National A races it was about trying to do enough to sneak into the top 20, you were thinking about getting into breaks, but you were never thinking about making a decisive move or being up there on the podium?
No way, definitely not. I think when I started working with Rory I’d always said that I feel like I deal okay with the distance but in the higher-level races, when those final attacks came within the last hour, half an hour of a race, I was completely suffering, I was just on my knees at the time. So we worked a lot on that, doing really hard efforts towards the end of my workouts. I was essentially conditioning my body to adapt to get used to that kind of effort.
But the goal at the beginning of the season was just to get round a National A. Getting round Klondike was a mission, likewise with Lincoln. But then Rory said, “Why don’t you just race these races like you do National B?” He kept on saying to me that I’m always good at the beginning of the race so why don’t I try and be quite aggressive and not to worry where you come. Try and make a name for yourself and try and get your team name out there. I always enjoy a breakaway kind of race. So I tried my hand at that at Lancaster and then the Mendips.
So I decided to race a bit more confidently here and there. And I was able to get in these moves at the time because I was unmarked, no one really cared where I went because I was not fighting for any Tour of Britain qualification points. I was in a really small team, on my own essentially, and was just allowed to go where I wanted. So if I had something in my legs I’d try and go with something. But it wasn’t until the Beaumont Trophy where I thought actually, maybe, I do have intensity in my legs for the final stages of a four-hour race. It’s all well and good being able to do a race, but can you finish it off four hours in? I think I proved I could at Beaumont.
Then not long after, in July, you signed with Ribble Pro Cycling. How did that move come about?
A few teams had approached me, I’d had a bit of interest. I was 50-50 about who to join. But Ribble offered me the chance to join their team for the rest of 2019 as well as 2020. So for three months – August, September and October of this year – I had the opportunity to be able to do some races abroad, which really spiked my interest. I felt at the time – and still do – that Ribble could offer me the most and could teach me the most.
They just felt like the most genuine team, a group of lads that are all just really good mates and want to do well for each other
And they just felt like the most genuine team, a group of lads that are all just really good mates and want to do well for each other. That’s basically what made me sign for them for the backend of the season. They approached me after Lancaster. I’d done a bit here and there in a few National Bs, but it was after Lancaster – a bit before the Beaumont result – where they just dropped me a message and asked me if I was interested. I asked for more information and it led on from there.
Featured photo: James Huntly
Part 3 will be published soon.