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U23 rider to watch: Harrison wood interview

Introducing SEG Racing's Harrison Wood, a Rayner Foundation rider and one of our under-23s to watch in 2020

SEG Racing Academy is arguably the most successful development team around. The under-23 super-team have helped numerous riders onto the WorldTour. Alex Peters, Stevie Williams, Fabio Jakobsen, Cees Bol, Edo Affini and Julius van den Berg are among the riders that have stepped up directly to the WorldTour from the team. Other riders, likes Gabz Cullaigh and Nick Schultz, have also arrived at the WorldTour more indirectly after stints on the team. So when they signed up Harrison Wood for 2020, our interest was piqued.

It’s the kind of offer you simply cannot refuse: an opportunity to join the best under-23 team in the world doesn’t come around every day

Wood, now a second-year under-23, spent last season in France at AVC Aix-en-Provence. Starting on their reserve team, he quickly impressed, winning a stage of La Multipôle de l’Étang de Berre. In June he was second overall at the Spanish stage race Volta a Castelló and then backed that up with 10th in the under-23 time trial at the national road championships. He rounded out the year with 9th in the under-23 Chrono des Nations, underlining his ability to time trial as well as climb.

After this impressive start to his under-23 career, we picked him as one of our under-23s to watch this year. His palmares might not be as extensive as other riders on this list, but he’s a rider with plenty of potential. Relatively new to competitive cycling (he’s only been riding seriously for three years), SEG clearly think the same.

With the 2020 season curtailed, he’s had little chance yet to prove his worth. Nonetheless, a series of top five results in SEG’s own under-23 e-racing series this season shows that he’s not lacking in either desire or watts at the moment.

In this interview with the Rayner Foundation-supported rider, we discuss how he got hooked on cycling through his local chaingang, his daunting move to France as a first-year under-23, his switch to SEG Racing, Adam Hartley’s retirement decision and adjusting to a new team during a global pandemic.

Photo: SEG Racing

For readers unfamiliar with you, how would you describe yourself as a rider?

I would say that I’m an all-rounder with specific strengths in climbing and time trialling. I’m not much of a bunch sprinter at all but I can win from select small group finishes, which I think is a handy asset to have. 

Tell us about how you got into cycling…

I played a lot of different sports until the age of 14. I played football for the local academy side, played some golf, cricket and cycled a bit. Around that age I started riding a bit more. I’d ride to and from my Dad’s watersports company in Torquay and I’d go out with my Mum on group rides. I only really started racing when I was 15 or 16 and even then I was more focused on my studies. So my first ‘proper’ season was as a first-year junior, aged 17.

I got dropped but I used that as motivation to improve

I think I became hooked on the sport when I did my first few chaingangs with Mid Devon CC. I got dropped but I used that as motivation to improve until eventually I could hold for the whole ride!

You rode for your local club team as junior, Mid Devon CC, but also fitted in plenty of racing abroad with the HMT Academy and the Belgian Soenens Boom team. Tell us about how that balance worked?

I was lucky enough to have some great opportunities abroad with both HMT and Soenens Boom. I rode some big junior races and gained a lot of experience here. With Mid Devon CC I rode local regional races and also the Junior Road Series races. They helped out with some monetary support for these without which I couldn’t have ridden them. I also owe a lot to my school, the Torquay Boys Grammar School, for allowing me to take time out for races and find the right balance between studies and racing!

How did the move to AVC Aix-en-Provence come about?

I was working with Mark Barry from HMT about potential contacts and he told me to reach out to Alex Braybrooke who was riding for Aix at the time [Ed: Braybrooke now rides for SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling]. He gave me some pointers and I sent my CV off to the team. They then contacted me and through Alex I was able to join the team with absolutely no issues. It was a great opportunity as I wanted to get myself abroad as first-year under-23 and develop on the continent. I had some UK offers but for me the only option was abroad. 

Photo: SEG Racing

Was it daunting, moving to a french team as a first-year under-23?

I have to be honest, yes, I was quite scared and nervous! It was a big step moving abroad away from my family and friends but something I wanted to do for my own career and development. It was a hard moment saying goodbye to my family for sure. I think the support from the Rayner Foundation was a huge help for both me and my family. Knowing I wouldn’t have any financial issues really lifted my spirits and optimism. The language barrier was something I was also nervous about as I’d only studied French for two years before that but once immersed in the culture I soon picked up new phrases and my French got better. I still didn’t fully understand the language come the end of the season but my ex-teammates always remarked how much I had progressed. 

What advice would you give juniors considering a similar move?

I think the best piece of advice is to always stay optimistic and keep your morale high. I never really had any dips in my spirits and always stayed in contact with my family. Speaking on the phone with my Mum and Dad every day was really nice and meant I never got homesick. That’s really important in my opinion. Team-wise, it’s important to make sure you are in good shape once the season starts as it’s always a full-on season in France with racing most weekends. Also, I think having some kind of foreign vocabulary really helps to establish yourself with your teammates and they appreciate you trying to learn their language. 

How do you reflect on your 2019 season?

It was a good season, although I had mixed fortunes for sure. I suffered with sickness at my big target at the Giro Valle d’Aosta and then I broke my wrist one week after returning, which put me out for around seven weeks.

Results-wise, I really felt like I made a big step forward: taking some stage wins, a second overall in a GC mountains race, a top 10 in the under-23 national time trial championships and then finishing off with a top 10 in UCI under-23 time trial. That showed to me that I could definitely target GC racing in 2020 and beyond. I definitely learnt a lot about myself in the year, including new life skills which I think is really important when wanting to have a career within professional cycling. 

Photo: SEG Racing

How and why did the move to the SEG Racing Academy happen?

I had some contact with Bart Van Haaren who was the academy director at the time. We stayed in contact throughout the season and I always updated him with results, etc. At the end of the year, we had some Skype calls and I did some INSCYD testing for the coach who then analysed it. After this Bart offered me a place within the team.

An opportunity to join the best under-23 team in the world doesn’t come around everyday

It’s the kind of offer you simply cannot refuse: an opportunity to join the best under-23 team in the world doesn’t come around every day. Of course, I really enjoyed my year in France but I knew if I wanted to progress as a rider then the SEG Racing Academy was the team to join and race for. 

It’s been a strange time to settle into a new team. How would say things have gone for you so far this year, both on and off the bike?

I feel like I’ve settled into the team well. We had a team bonding camp in November which I felt really helped establish a good connection with the staff and riders. In January I headed to Greece for the first training camp with some of the team and a few other riders, including ex-rider Jan Maas. In that first camp, we did some really good training in Loutraki and the surrounding mountains. I made the decision to then stay on in Greece and focus on my training with a few other guys. Jordi Meeus and Daan Hoole really helped me with giving me a lot of advice during our training rides.

We then had a second camp with all the team and staff. This was a really focused block of training and I enjoyed developing relationships with both staff and my teammates. Off the bike, I’ve been adapting to a very professional setup but I have always done my best and contributed as much as possible on social media sites. It’s something I feel really boosts your online presence as a rider and as a team too. Training-wise I made some solid improvements through the winter training block which was nice to see.

Adam Hartley, second from left, on the podium at the Giro Valle d’Aosta. Photo: SEG Racing

Was it a shock when Adam Hartley decided to retire? How did that affect you?

It did come as a surprise indeed. He was a super-talented and very committed rider. In many ways, I looked to him as an inspiration due to his really good results in Aosta and Alsace. Sadly, during our period in Greece Adam had some doubts and that affected his motivation. It was a real shame as I’m sure he was on for great things in the world of cycling.

I admire him for making such a bold decision for himself and taking a step back from cycling

I knew I couldn’t let this issue distract me too much from my own training so I had to really focus on what I was doing and in a way let Adam make his own decisions, as I didn’t want to be the guy who forced him or influenced him in any way on such a career-changing decision. In a way, I admire him for making such a bold decision for himself and taking a step back from cycling. He will always be a friend, not just a teammate.

Describe life under lockdown for you

Two words: Zwift racing! But on a serious note, I think many cyclists agree that lockdown hasn’t really changed much about the daily routine in England. I was still training as normal and eating as normal. I struggled a bit with not seeing my grandparents during this period, however. On a racing note, we at SEG have taken to the eRacing platforms which is good fun. I guess one thing that has changed is the fact I haven’t been doing my own washing! 

How are you finding eRacing?

Personally, I quite enjoy it. It’s something new and exciting and requires you to adapt to new situations. For sure I don’t have quite the same buzz but I still get nervous and want to win every race I ride. I was lucky enough to ride in a Dutch televised event with World Tour pros; I took second place and enjoyed it a lot as I was racing against guys I look up to like Seb Langeveld.

It’s an interesting way to race but it’s also super-good training. Often I treat it like a real race, so I do a recce of courses, write down some notes and try and pick out riders to watch out for. Like I said earlier it’s the situation we are in and you have to make the most of every opportunity that arises, so why wouldn’t you treat it like a normal race?

You have … to focus on what you can do at the moment and what you can control yourself

To what extent is it beginning to feel like a season lost?

I think, for sure, not racing in real life at the moment is annoying and I miss it a lot. But in a way you have to forget this and focus on what you can do at the moment and what you can control yourself. For example, we have been eRacing a lot so I have really focused on this and made some nice improvements on this in just a few months. I haven’t really looked into 2021 as I think at this moment you have to stay optimistic and just focus on your current training and the potential racing calendar from August onwards.

Photo: SEG Racing

How hopeful are you of being able to race on the road again this season?

I’m an optimistic person so I would like to think we will race again this year. Of course, I have doubts like most people but I think it’s nice to have an aim of racing again in August even if we don’t. I like to always have a goal or objective for training so I think by setting that target it gives me added motivation and drive. Naturally, health is a priority during this epidemic and these strange times we find ourselves in. It’s important we stay safe and look after each after. 

The key is staying focused but including variety in your training

How do you keep yourself motivated?

I think the focus on eRacing has really helped keep me motivated in the short term as I have had that as my focus. With the team, we have been doing regular group calls and webinars which have kept me in good spirits and also meant I’ve learnt from the great staff we have during this period. I have been focused in training too but have done some different rides. I took the challenge of riding ten times up Haytor, which was used for the national hill climb in 2019. This was a good 3900m of elevation and also a good mental test. I think the key is staying focused but including variety in your training. I’m not really an off-road kind of guy so I haven’t been doing anything MTB based like some other people. I prefer to just explore different roads and do some longer training rides I guess!

Thinking beyond lockdown, what are your ultimate goals as a cyclist?

For me, I want to be a professional cyclist within a world tour team! I guess like many others I want to win the Tour de France too. I think I have the inner drive and belief to achieve this and it’s something that I really want to do. I hope over the next years I can develop under the guidance of SEG and then make the step up to the professionals and then see where the career in cycling takes me! 

Featured photo: SEG Racing

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