If a black kid’s perception of cycling is only seeing white riders in the media and so on, then they’re way less inclined to even consider buying a bike and lycra
Red Walters first came to our attention when, at the beginning of 2019, he went from racing for the Sotonia CC club team to joining the UCI Continental Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother team. It marked a rapid rise for the then 19-year-old, who had only begun racing three years earlier after completing his GCSEs. What also stood out about the move was that Walters became one of just of a very small number of black-British cyclists to have ridden for a UCI-level team in recent years.
Walters endured a challenging season at Vitus, one in which he failed to gain selection for any of the team’s UCI or National Road Series races. But after finishing the year strongly in the under-23 madison at the London Six-Day, he joined the elite-level Nopinz Symec team, looking to reboot his career. The season began well. He won a hilly amateur race in Spain, finished 2nd in the Primavera road race and then completed his first UCI road race (51st in the Grand Prix de la Ville de Lillers). But as we all know by now, lockdown soon hit and turned his race season upside down. Then, two months later, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, he decided to change direction once more, joining the Black Cyclist Network race team.
In this interview, Red discusses his journey into cycling, his successes so far and the challenges he’s faced, including a year of learning at Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK. He also talks openly about his experiences of racism in cycling and what needs to be done to tackle it.
First off, how did you get into racing bikes?
I’ve always been really competitive and spent a lot of my childhood racing dinghies, which I’ve recently noticed carries some tactical similarities to cycling. While I did enjoy it, it was something I’d just done because my parents had done and I slowly grew away from it. Cycling started just after my GCSEs. I’d only seen cycling as a way to get to school and back but I really wanted to start my own hobby. Weirdly, it was a toss-up between remote control car racing and cycling; I’m definitely glad I picked cycling.
I did my first race – an under-16 event – a week after I got the bike. I was limited to the little ring because my rear mech limit screw wasn’t long enough. Suffice to say I got absolutely dispatched, but somehow I was fully hooked. I started racing again the next year, getting to 2nd cat in a couple of months.
How would you describe your senior career so far?
In short: consistent progress. My main metric of success has always been progression. I constantly compare myself to how I was x months or years ago, which I’ve always found motivating. I even made a spreadsheet with all of my power PBs month on month, to try and model where I’d be 6 to 12 months down the line. It was surprisingly accurate!
I worried about not starting the sport soon enough but I’ve had consistent progress with both my power and my results
Overall I’m really happy with where I am. I’ve been coached by Chester Hill since I was a second-year junior and I’m really grateful for where he’s taken me. For a long time, I worried about not starting the sport soon enough but I’ve had consistent progress with both my power and my results, which gives me confidence that I’m still going in the right direction. There’s nothing more satisfying than finishing a race in a position you didn’t even think was possible.
What have been the main highlights so far?
As someone who used to play a fair amount of video games, I find it fun to see highlights as ‘levels’. Each ‘level-up’ carries significance to me. Each time I moved up a racing category was awesome, then each new milestone has been really important to me, such as my first win, my first National B podium, my first National B win, my first UCI race and so on. They prove to me that I’ve made progress. Of course, every win is special too and I like to try and get more each year. Second place last year at the London Six Day under-23 madison was both amazing and unexpected because of late season fatigue. But my favorite race was winning out in Spain in January while on training camp. I was totally not designed for that course but managed to dig deep against some climbers on a phat berg.
And key challenges?
My main challenges have probably been fatigue-related. I really love racing, I live for it, but the last couple of years, especially last year, I’ve put myself in a massive hole towards the back end of the season. That’s when comparing your performance level to your past self becomes really negative. This impacts training and puts me in a bit of a negative feedback loop. I also struggled with nutrition for a while, but being supported by SiS now has really helped with that on and off the bike.
Then this year I was really really motivated to do some UCI racing. A lot of people will say that the best way to progress is to race in Europe. My view is: race at the highest level possible and even if you get your head kicked in, after a while, you’ll probably figure some stuff out. So my teammate David and I put in a huge amount of work this year, and after hundreds of emails, we managed to secure a fair few invites to UCI races for our team, which started to look pretty awesome. We managed to go to the Grand Prix de la Ville de Lillers (UCI 1.2) before lockdown, which was an awesome experience and, despite being a slight disappointment personally, it gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season and competing at that level in the future.
In what way was nutrition a challenge in the past?
The main issue was always not eating enough. That was an easy fix on the bike as it was just about learning how much, and when, you should eat a bar or gel. But the main issue was off the bike, especially after the bigger rides. I just wasn’t eating the volume required to recover properly, so would end up struggling to complete sessions, and in a few cases ended up getting dropped from races I should have been competing well at.
You spent a year at the Continental level with Vitus Pro Cycling. How did that go?
Being with Vitus was a really cool experience. Going from a club to a Continental team was a bit of a mind-blower at first if I’m honest (in a good way). The support and infrastructure on a team like that is incredible, and being surrounded by teammates with that much experience was insightful.
Being completely open though, the racing was disappointing, to say the least. I don’t have any hard feelings towards the team, I think their hand was forced for a couple of reasons, not least because of the Tour of Britain qualification system. But the very frustrating fact is that as a development rider, I got very few opportunities to race at a national level. My season essentially boiled down to the same calendar of National Bs and local crits as the year before, the only difference being that I was now the “local pro” in every race so it was just that little bit harder, with more eyes on me with the jersey.
I ended up way over-racing myself, chasing results which I thought would give me the chance to start the bigger races
It’s not something I really complain about because it’s part and parcel of being on a Conti team, but it did get frustrating at times. Then I ended up way over-racing myself, chasing results which I thought would give me the chance to start the bigger races. Obviously, that part is my fault, but it was just so incredibly frustrating, and at the time I felt like it was a waste of a season.
What advice would you give a young rider who was thinking of stepping up to a Continental team for the first time?
To be honest, even after the disappointment of the season, it’s not something I regret by any means. Everything I learned was still quite valuable to me. I’ve always been really confident in myself but have often felt very out of place on the start line, and always assumed it was because of the lack of experience. So one thing that stuck with me was when Eddie from Vitus told me to believe in myself on the start line, know that I deserve to be there, that I deserve to wear the jersey and that I have every chance of winning as anyone else there. That allowed me to race with more confidence, although I did get a bit big for my boots at a couple of races thinking I could just keep attacking all day long!
If a young rider does have that offer of stepping up to a Conti team – or any team for that matter – my advice would be to maybe try and speak to other riders on the team to see what the atmosphere is like. Overall, Vitus was a really good team, but I’ve heard of set-ups where it all looks good, the managers sugarcoat everything, and then you get there and only see half of what was promised. Also, team morale and vibes are massively underrated; there’s a lot to be said about a manager who can get the most out of the riders.
In your Twitter profile, you say you ‘Wont stop til the top’. You’re still only 21. How much further do you think you can take things in cycling?
It’s funny, I used to be shy to say this sort of thing because inevitably there will be people who doubt you or people who see it as narcissism. But I also think this is a sport in which it’s hard to get far in without confidence and self-belief. I think I put that in my profile when I was still a 2nd cat having raced a year or so. Being completely honest, I want to make it to the top level of the sport, in the biggest teams, riding the biggest races, and if I didn’t believe I could do that, I don’t think I’d be racing.
It’s weird that sometimes I forget I’m the only black guy at 99% of the races I go to
You’ve recently moved to the Black Cyclists Network team. What spurred that move?
I left Nopinz a couple of months into lockdown. For a few reasons, it was mutually beneficial. I’ve known Mani, who founded the Black Cyclists Network, for a couple of years. So I got in touch with him about joining and racing for them. With the Black Lives Matter protests and everything surrounding that, it also made me realise how little diversity there is in this sport. It’s definitely something I want to help improve and represent. It’s weird that sometimes I forget I’m the only black guy at 99% of the races I go to.
Racism is a sorely neglected issue in domestic racing. Does cycling have a racism problem in your view?
It’s definitely there, but it’s difficult to say to what extent. I think the majority of people I know in cycling are supportive but I think it comes down to a minority who hold those negative mindsets.
Why do we see so few black riders in the domestic peloton do you think?
Firstly, I think the Diversity in Cycling report will put it better than I could. It’s definitely worth a read, especially for organisations and businesses. I also recommend people check out Dr Marlon Moncrieffe’s work uncovering the life-histories of Black-British cyclists.
I think it all comes down to the grassroots of cycling as a whole. The main reason for the lack of diversity there is the general image of cycling. If a black kid’s perception of cycling is only seeing white riders in the media, and so on, then they’re way less inclined to even consider buying a bike and lycra, let alone joining a club and racing. For me, Cory and Justin Williams are really good examples. I watched their videos way before I started racing. And as someone who will probably see one other black cyclist a month out on the roads, it was pretty inspiring to watch them kill it in the US crit scene.
To what extent is racism something you have experienced yourself in cycling?
I think this is one of those things where it’s hard to say exactly how much because the general culture in this country is probably slightly less direct than the US for example. So it’s always in my head, ‘Did this happen because this person has unreasonable biases or whatever other reasons?’ In that respect, I try not to dwell on it too much because I’d drive myself insane. That said, I’ve definitely seen a few borderline comments this year. Negative comments on public Black Lives Matter posts, for example, from a few people I thought were alright – not cool bro! It’s little things like that that make you think, shit, what other biases and other terrible opinions are you hiding?
I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience any racism directed explicitly at me in cycling. I think that can make it harder to address though because when it’s not clear cut, it’s not as easy to talk about it without coming across as oversensitive.
What do you think the cycling world can do to make cycling more inclusive and address racism?
I think there are two main things that need to change in the sport: public image and accessibility. It’s not one of those things that can change quickly but something that has huge potential to create a positive feedback loop.
I think there are probably more people who would never even consider the sport because they’ve never seen anyone who looks like them being successful at it
More diversity in the sport will mean the public begins to see it as a diverse sport, which in turn means more BAME people are likely to see that and see cycling as a sport they’d feel welcome in. I think some people don’t realise but it’s not always a conscious decision. There are definitely people who will see the lack of diversity and be put off, which is totally understandable. But I think there are probably more people who would never even consider the sport because they’ve never seen anyone who looks like them being successful at it. As for racism in cycling, I think that’s very much tied to racism as a whole, which if I’m being totally honest, I don’t have enough knowledge to address in the detail that it needs to be. More diversity and inclusivity will always help though, no doubt.
Back to your own future. What are your race plans (if any) for the rest of the year?
I’m still training hard, as normal, and at the moment I’m really happy with my form. I broke my 10-minute power PB by just over 40 watts last month. As for racing, I did a TT recently, which was “fun”, then I’ve got a circuit racing soon too which is nice. Local fast rides have been really fun also, getting a chance to use that competitive drive. As for proper racing, I’m losing confidence by the day that we’ll actually get any this year. My fingers are very much crossed for some track racing though, which I feel should be more likely. After getting second at the under-23 London Six Day last year, I’m really keen to do some senior six-day races with my madison partner Tom, who’s also made some huge gains this year (watch out junior national time trial championships, he’s coming for you!). To be honest though, at this point, I’ll just take what I can get, I just love racing.
And can you give us any clues about which team you’ll be riding for next season
There’s nothing to reveal. Yet!