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Tokyo calling: Ethan Vernon interview

The young track and road talent on his journey into cycling, the Great Britain Cycling Team, his career highlights, lockdown life and his Olympic squad call-up

I had a call one afternoon in April saying I had the chance to join the Olympic squad to train for the Tokyo Olympics

Whilst most domestic riders have had their season derailed by COVID-19, second-year under-23 Ethan Vernon has had plenty to keep him motivated after a call-up in April to British Cycling’s Olympic squad. One of our under-23 riders to watch this year, the Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy member has used his time during lockdown to hone his track form. It seems the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics may just work in the favour of the rider who, as a junior, once held the best individual pursuit time in the world.

Whilst the track has been his main focus, Vernon discovered he had equally prodigious talent on the road last season, his results highlighting strength in both time trialling and sprinting. He finished 2nd in the prologue in the Course de la Paix Nations Cup race in early June. Later that month he picked up a bronze in the U23 time trial at the National Road Championships, behind super-talents Ethan Hayter and Charlie Quarterman, despite little in the way of specific preparation. He also bagged three wins, all from small group sprint finishes, in Belgium kermesses before becoming a key part of Matt Wall’s lead-out train at the Tour of Britain. His results were strong enough to gain selection to ride the under-23 time trial at the world road race championships, where he finished a creditable 21st in his first year as an under-23.

We caught up with him to find out more about his journey into cycling, life at the Great Britain Cycling Team, the highlights so far in his track and road careers, how he’s handled lockdown and his Olympic squad call-up.

2019 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 3: Berwick-upon-Tweed to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

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

I grew up racing BMX till I was 14 years old, so I was naturally a sprinter when I made the switch to track and road. Last year, however, after no preparation, I managed to get third in the under-23 time trial at the national road race championships behind Charlie Quarterman and Ethan Hayter, which came as a surprise. Since then I have worked on it a bit more and have found a passion for time trialling too. I’m still undecided which route I’d like to pursue but I’m managing to do both at the moment. 

Do you remember your first race? How did it go?

I can’t really remember my first BMX race as I was just four years old! I can remember my first track race at Newport Velodrome though. I was so worried I was going to slide off with the angle of the banking that I just smashed it round everywhere to be certain I wasn’t going to crash! 

What was it about racing bikes that got you into the sport?

The adrenaline rush you got from racing down the start ramp on the BMX was the reason I fell in love with the sport. There was a similar feeling on the boards when you came flying round the track off the fence or coming down a switchback descent on a hire bike on the family holiday in Mallorca. 

And how did you end up on the Great Britain Cycling Team Senior Academy?

I’ve followed the Great Britain pathway from the start. I was on the Regional School of Racing when I was 14 years old and progressed the whole way through the system. Each step up on the pathway felt like a massive change and a big achievement. It’s not until you’re on the top pathway five years later that you realise how far you’ve come. 

Was it track dreams or road aspirations that led you hoped to pursue when you joined the Senior Academy?

I came out of the under-16 category unsure whether I wanted to do track sprint or track endurance. Road wasn’t even an option on my mind when I started at the Junior Academy. After lots of debating, I chose to go down the track endurance route. I did a few road races as a junior but nothing where I ever felt like I was competitive. So going to the Senior Academy after working on the track for a couple of years felt like a big step up, knowing that I had lots of road miles and races ahead of me. 

2019 Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup – Minsk Arena Velodrome, Minsk, Belarus – Ethan Vernon of Great Britain rides in the Men’s Scratch Race Qualifying on the Great Britain Cycling Team Olympic Lotus/Hope Bike. Photo: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com

How would you describe the regime at the Senior Academy to someone who doesn’t know much about it? What’s it like in terms of how you live, train and race?

This might be a biased opinion but I think it’s the best place to be as an under-23 rider. In the winter, when the weather’s not great in Manchester, we do a lot of track work and do quite a bit of track racing at grand prix and World Cups, etc. We also go away every couple of months on training camps to Girona. 

Then when the road season starts we base ourselves abroad in Belgium and Girona and have great races each year like the under-23 classics, Nations Cups and so on. Those who aren’t selected for the Nations Cups and classics will race elsewhere so no one misses out on that road racing experience. 

We live together too, in two four-bedroomed houses on the same estate in Manchester, which I believe really helps communication and commitment to each other in the races. 

On the track, what would say have been your greatest achievements so far, and why? 

I’ve had a few where I’ve felt pretty proud of myself for different reasons. The greatest is definitely breaking the junior individual pursuit world record at the track nationals, later followed by a national record in the kilo and then becoming national madison champion. 

Another achievement on the track was taking 4th in the team pursuit at the Commonwealth Games when I was just 18. It felt like an achievement to just be at the event, let alone riding in the bronze medal final. 

Finishing second in the individual pursuit World Junior Track Cycling Championships remains a bittersweet result for me. Obviously, second at the Junior Worlds is a massive achievement but having a rainbow jersey stolen from you by half a second is hard to accept, especially after crashing in the team pursuit the day before. 

And on the road, you seemed to have a particularly strong year last season as a first-year senior, especially given your lack of experience?

Yeah, it was a real surprise to me last season. It was my first proper road season so there was very little expectation. To come away with a few wins, a bronze at the under-23 national time trial, second in a Nations Cup Stage and having the opportunity to ride a home World Championships and the Tour of Britain was pretty special.

The only disappointment last season for me was probably the under-23 time trial at the world road race championships. I only found out I had a chance of riding it a couple of weeks beforehand and it was only confirmed I would race one week before the start.

I finished just 30 seconds off a top 10, which would have been a mega end to my first year as an under-23. I’m convinced a top ten would have been possible with more specific training for the event and more preparation time. That said, I wasn’t expecting anything last year for my first season, so I don’t think there was ever a time where I was really disappointed.

2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men U23 Individual Time Trial – Ripon – Harrogate – Yorkshire, England – Ethan Vernon of Great Britain. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Describe life under lockdown for you

I was pretty lucky during lockdown. We got told to leave the Academy houses and spend some time with our families, which was nice after a busy winter on the track. I was at home for 14 weeks in total. I had great support from my family and having access to a gym allowed me to still carry on making the gains off the bike too. 

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

A lot now! The under-23 races in the rearranged calendar keep getting cancelled. I’ve now got just one event left: the 2020 Road European Championships where I’ll be riding the under-23 time trial and road race.

I was in the best place I’ve ever been on the road this year and was excited to see where it led to

Looking back at the year, I’m thankful for the track races we got to do through the winter. At least I’ve managed to race a World Cup and a couple of UCI class 1 events, so as far as the track is concerned, we’ve only lost a handful of events. For the road though, it feels a complete write-off. It’s disappointing as, after my successful first season, it’s left me wanting more. I was in the best place I’ve ever been on the road this year and was excited to see where it led to. 

How has it been, in terms of keeping yourself motivated?

I’ve been more motivated than ever through lockdown. I had a call one afternoon in April saying I had the chance to join the Olympic squad to train for the Tokyo Olympics, now In 2021. This is some extreme motivation for me and this big chunk of time with no racing has really helped me gain some strength to step up to the level the Olympic lads are at on the track, which I don’t think would have been possible if we were road racing every other day. 

Now you’re on the Olympic squad, what’s the process in terms of competing for a final Tokyo slot?

We’ve got the senior European track championships in November which is our last ‘major’ event before the Games. This event will be my biggest race of the year and it’s the focus of my training at the moment. Selection for the Euros team pursuit squad and a good performance there will be crucial for Tokyo selection. 

I’m just concentrating on nailing the things that are within my control day in day out

Is the pressure on, now you’ve got this close to a first Olympics?

I don’t feel the pressure, no. I’m just concentrating on nailing the things that are within my control day in day out and with that will come the good form for the Olympics. 

2019 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 4: Gateshead to Kendal, England – Ethan Vernon of Great Britain Cycling Team. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

And post-Olympics, do you see yourself focusing on the road, or do you think you’ll still be a track man to some extent?

Yeah, post-Olympics I’d love to spend some time on the road and explore that avenue. I’ll still only be a third-year under-23 after Tokyo, so there will still be plenty of time to learn and get race experience in the under-23 category. I’d still like to be able to drop back into track races from a road team like Filippo Ganna does and steal world records!

Also, now the Olympics is delayed, the Commonwealth Games is only one year after Tokyo so that could potentially be a big track target to work towards afterwards.

Read more

U23s: ten to watch in 2020

Ethan Vernon’s 2019 Tour of Britain race diary