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. In part two, Clayton looked back on his 2018 season and explained why he decided to move out of London and back to his family home in Yorkshire. He discussed 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 explained why he joined Ribble Pro Cycling and why he still feels it’s the right team for him.
I’m not naïve, I’m 27, I know it’s not going to last forever. I’m just going to ride the wave until it stops
In this final part of the trilogy, Clayton speaks about his incredible run of form in the second half of 2019 after he joined Ribble Pro Cycling. It was a streak that included his first UCI win at the Grand Prix des Marbriers (1.2), as well as the Bourne CiCLE Classic. Clayton also experienced his first set of racing in Belgium. He reflects on the differences between racing in Europe and racing in the UK. The interview finishes with a look forward, to how he might continue his already extraordinary progression and make the most of the rest of his racing career.
Once you’d joined Ribble Pro Cycling last season, it seemed like almost every race you rode you turned out a top result. From the South Coast Classic at the end of July to the Bourne CiCLE Classic at the beginning of September, I don’t think you only once finished outside the top ten in a race. Did the move to a new team spur you on?
It’s just been fantastic. I think when you move on from a team like Andy Moores, they did so much for me, but I felt like I’d taken another step in at Ribble. In nutrition and kit and bike, it all adds to your confidence. I think confidence plays a big part whenever you go into races and riding a Ribble bike is, I can say hand on heart, it really is a nice bike to ride. Very comfortable, feels fast, feels nice underneath you and again, the kit feels quick.
I like this whole aerodynamics part of the sport. I mean, who’s not going to enjoy free speed at the end of the day? If someone says to you put these socks on and you’ll get more watts, you can do less effort, obviously, I’m going to put those socks on! I love the way that Dan Bigham works, watching in from an outsider’s perspective.
Being able to step up with equipment, more support, nutrition, that’s helping me to take that next step towards developing me as a rider. So I think all that contributed to the progression that I’ve had with Ribble.
It’s just a fun environment to be in and once your enjoying it and happy, I think the results tend to follow
There’s also the sense of enjoyment at Ribble. I thoroughly enjoy riding with every rider on the team and it’s a good ethos. Everyone rides as hard as they can for each other. It’s a team that obviously has extremely strong riders but there’s not that ‘one rider’ than everyone rides for, race in, race out. There’s always like a different plan, there are always several riders that can win a different type of race. So it means you’re not just doing the same things so it’s always quite dynamic. It’s just a fun environment to be in and once you’re enjoying it and happy, I think the results tend to follow.
And the results certainly did follow. You were tenth in the South Coast Classic, tenth at the Ryedale Grand Prix and then you went to Europe where your results were phenomenal. Winning your very first UCI race winner in Marbriers must have been a good feeling. Tell me about that race…
I was really keen to go to France since I was young because I’ve always been told that the style of racing would suit me. And everyone was right. I started the race at the front, so that helped. I ended up being in the front group. I didn’t really know the course well but I did several laps of it, so I got to know it quite well.
A few of my teammates were in groups trying to come over to our group and because I was up the road it gave them the easier ride. When I came up to the steeper parts of the course – they’re not really climbs, they’re kind of more drags – I was coming to them right at the front and then slowing it down, being the last person off of the climb. So I was trying to be as conservative as possible. I had teammates giving me advice at the side of the road and the break was just working really, really well. We got a really big gap without having to any stupid work to get extend it.
There was a sprint for the line every single lap [Ed: for primes], so it was quite aggressive coming into the final climb. I was made aware that something could split there if two or three riders worked well off of the climb and went away. So I positioned myself near the front. Them if it was to split, hopefully, it would be not too much effort to be in it. And then, it kind of did split up in the crosswind section where the feed was. I think I ended up the road with an AG2R development team rider, a Lotto-Soudal development team guy and another couple of riders. But we got hauled back.
I think it was a lap later, with two laps remaining, someone hit it really hard in the crosswind section. I was well-positioned, third in line, and kind of just rode through the middle of them. I didn’t really attack as such, just pushed a little harder and tried to keep the momentum going. Noone chose to hold my wheel and then I came into a more sheltered part of the course where it was quite easy to get away and get out of sight. It was there that I did quite a hard effort to sprint out of most corners and try and get up the road as much as possible. With like a lap to go I had about 35 seconds and then essentially I was just trying to ride within myself to try and take it home from there. And of course, I ended up crossing the line first.
Looking back, I probably rode quite a clever race. I didn’t really ever have to go too deep and was a new face, so I wasn’t marked. Noone really was bothered about me going up the road initially and then I ended up being able to capitalise on that.
And then you went to Belgium for a string of pro kermesse races. How was that experience for you?
Amazing, I enjoyed every second of it. The next race that I did was the GP Lucien van Impe. That was my favourite race to be honest. It was real fun, absolutely full-on, really hard, big effort out of every corner, riding next to Oliver and Lawrence Naesen. You’re basically racing against your idols and they’re talking to you in the race. And I knew a few of the guys in the race, some of the Wiggins riders for example.
It was an aggressive race and ended up being in the breakaway with Kevin van Impe. I didn’t know who he was at the time but listening to the crowd was unreal. I thought that that was going to become my next win but we then got caught and I’d gone so deep that I was just unable to do anything so I finished at the back of a breakaway.
Yeah, the fifth at Kortrijk was a really fun, really hot day, 35 degrees. Again I was kicking myself about that result. I felt like I was good enough for the podium at the time but I really messed up my last lap tactics. So, I feel like that was detrimental to my result. But then again it was a massive learning curve.
And how do the races compare to the National As you’d been used to racing over in the UK?
I just don’t think they really do compare to be honest. The first hour of a National A might be quite hard, everyone’s jostling, people are quite aggressive to cover certain things and obviously everyone wants to be in a breakaway position, so that’s quite hard.
It’s really made me question why anyone would carry on with the UK scene
But, over in Belgium, it’s like the first hour of a National A but for four hours, it’s just always attack after attack after attack. It’s just another level. I think the riders are a similar standard, it’s just the way that the race is raced. It’s a lot more aggressive. Every single move looks like the move so everyone wants to be in it, whereas over here, it’s very formulaic. One member of each team goes up the road. They might not be able to win that race but we’ll let them go because they’re part of our team. And I think the Tour of Britain qualification process nullified the racing, making it quite formulaic and a little bit boring.
And also, in Belgium, you get start money to race, the prize money is better and the culture and the people – the public in general just love cyclists, love biking, so all round it’s just a better scene, I think. That’s from the very small experience I have. It’s really made me question why anyone would carry on with the UK scene.
Strong words! But, you did come back to the UK after that. In fact, you won the Bourne CiCLE Classic, a race which I heard a lot of praise for. So for you it sounded like a good race all round?
It was a fantastic race. I’m always going to be biased though, having won it! The course was busy, I had no idea where I was going half the time because it was just here, there and everywhere, which I thought made it interesting. Even though I had the route in front of me I still had no idea where I was going.
I think it was really well planned, more people came out to see this, there was a lot of public, a lot of support for the riders. The whole festival of cycling aspect of it made something out of it rather than it just being people’s Mum and Dad standing at the side of the road and that’s it. I enjoyed the ad-hoc nature of going through the stately homes and the gravel sections. It’s kind of quite refreshing just to do a race like that.
I’m still new to cycling so I feel like I comment on the sport with very limited experience and quite naive eyes. But, in saying that, I really enjoyed the Bourne race.
You’ve come a long way in a short space of time in cycling. How do reflect on that?
I think I achieved things last year, that in all honestly, I never, ever, dreamed of achieving. I’m always going to put pressure on myself and I always want to win because I don’t think I’d turn up if I didn’t think I was going to win, as big-headed as that sounds. At the end of the day, everyone wants to win and everyone wants to do well so that’s the reason why I turn up.
I don’t get paid for it. I just the love the feeling of crossing the line first
Some people have cycling as a job but I don’t get paid for it. I just the love the feeling of crossing the line first. And when I can cross the line first for a team like Ribble, a team who are just doing it purely the love of it, there couldn’t be a better feeling than that.
Much like riders like Alex Richardson, you’ve come into cycling much later than others. Are you conscious that you’re still at the beginning of your learning and development? Whereas your riding against riders who, whilst younger than you, have been racing and riding for a long time now?
Yeah, massively. I completely admire what Alex Richardson does. I was good friends with him, we still are good friends, from spending time in London together. For me, every single race that I enter, I respect everyone equally and I also understand that they’ve got a lot more experience, a lot more understanding and have ridden a lot more than me. So, I try and learn, I try and kind of take a step back and learn what they’re doing and analyse what they’re doing.
I still feel that sense of being an ‘outsider’
At the same time, I feel that coming to the sport ‘new’, there’s a bit of snobbery, that if you don’t go through the certain channels then certain people won’t look at you as a rider. I still feel that sense of being an ‘outsider’. Which is fine because there’s certain people who I admire and I surround myself with and I think, at the end of the day, if you surround yourself with positivity and you get a more positive mindset yourself.
And how do you see things developing for you in the future?
It’s all about progression really. Progression, learning, enjoying and perseverance. I’m not naïve, I’m 27, I know it’s not going to last forever. I’m just going to ride the wave until it stops basically. Enjoy it while it’s here and enjoy the people that are around me, enjoy the people that I enjoy being with.
I never thought that I’d do a UCI race last season. Ideally, I’d like to do a lot more racing abroad. I’d love to do a lot more Belgium, maybe some races in Holland and more UCI races. A wild dream is to do the Tour of Yorkshire, that might happen, I’m not sure. I think each year I’ll try to step it up to a bigger standard of race and just keep pushing myself and the people that are around me. Let’s see where that may take me.
Featured photo: James Huntly