Following in the footsteps, or rather tread-marks, of the modern cycling stars who combine road racing with cyclocross, is a young man from Oxfordshire, Tom Couzens.
I have a great chance to find out what I am really capable of next year
The first-year under-23 has impressed in both disciplines in the past couple of years. As a junior, he had a remarkable 2019. On the road, Couzens won the Monmouthshire Junior Grand Prix, solo, by over a minute. He also took 5th overall at the Junior Tour of the Basque Country, 5th overall at the Aubel – Thimister – Stavelot Juniors (2.1), 5th at the Guido Reybrouck Classic (1.1) and a host of top tens in other races across the year.
Just a week after his last road race as a junior, the Trofeo Buffoni in Italy, Tom started his cyclocross campaign in the under-23 and elite ranks. He would end the calendar year with five ‘cross podium finishes. In his first elite national cyclocross championships in January, Tom finished with a respectable 13th place [his sister Millie taking the junior title].
The 2020 road season looked very bright for Couzens. He stayed in the Flavio Zappi family, moving from Zappi’s junior team up to the prominent under-23 set-up, Holdsworth-Zappi, in Italy. After a delayed start to his first senior road races, the Italian summer provided Tom with the baptism of fire he’d been awaiting.
Back in the slightly chillier UK, Tom is now riding for Montezuma’s Race Team for the cyclocross season. A fourth place in the opening round of the National Cyclocross Trophy earned Couzens a place in Great Britain’s European cyclocross championships team, his first experience riding in the national kit.
Tom has also confirmed his road plans for 2021, signing for Russell Rowles’ Spirit Tifosi squad, a team which should give Couzens several UCI race opportunities next season, coronavirus-permitting.
With his new road team in place, we caught up with Tom to find out about his cycling journey, fighting in the Italian peloton, his ‘cross season so far, his decision to sign for Spirit Tifosi and his future goals.
Where are you based Tom? And what are the training roads like round there?
I live in Bicester, just North of Oxford, so have access to some great training roads. I am lucky enough to have both the Cotswolds and the Chilterns right on my doorstep, giving me access to a wide range of different roads.
How did you get into racing bikes?
It all started by going out on the road trying to keep up with my Dad. It didn’t take very long before I started dropping him once I started to train with my local club, Bicester Millenium, where we used to ride around the school car park every Saturday morning for a few hours learning all the basic skills needed for racing. Not long after I entered my first cyclocross race as an under-14 at Hillingdon.
You spent your junior years with the Zappi junior team and got some very notable results. What were the highlights for you?
I had a great time racing for the Zappi junior team. Having a great race calendar, I raced all across Europe. It was great fun and an amazing experience at that age. The first year was very much a learning process and I got dropped in most races.
Luckily, it all came together as a second year and I managed to use my previous year’s experience to get some pretty good results. Winning the Monmouthshire Junior Grand Prix has got to be the highlight. It was my first national win and it marked a pretty successful couple of weeks for me.
The following week I raced Bizkaiko Itzulia [the junior Tour of the Basque Country]. After some good performances there I got to wear the yellow jersey two stages, which was an amazing experience. Overall I had just a brilliant race and time [Tom finished 5th on GC].
My third highlight has to be Aubel – Thimister – Stavelot Juniors, a UCI stage race. I managed to get into the break on stage 3 and pick up third. That got me my first UCI podium and my first yellow jersey in a UCI race. Unfortunately I couldn’t hang onto the jersey on the final queen stage and ended up 5th overall, which still wasn’t a bad result.
It was such a great experience living out in Italy, learning what it is like to be a full-time athlete
And you then stayed with the Zappi family this year as you moved up to the under-23 ranks. How did you find life in Italy with the team?
After racing for the Zappi team since I was a little under-14 at the Milton Keynes Bowl I was really excited to move into the under-23 team with Flavio this year. It was such a great experience living out in Italy, learning what it is like to be a full-time athlete.
I finished my A-levels this summer and so for the first time I was able to give my full attention to training. It made a massive difference as in my off time I was actually able to rest and properly recover. A typical day out in Italy looked something like this:
- Wake up 7 am to 8 am followed by a half an hour walk and breakfast.
- 9 am. Make that day’s salad and get ready to go training.
- 10 am. Go out training. Each Wednesday we went out as a team for a team selection ride for that weekend’s race.
- 2 pm. Get back from training and time for salad.
- 3 pm. Nap time.
- 5 pm. Stretching/core.
- 7 pm. Dinner time.
- 10 pm. Bed time.
Although there was a sizable disruption to the racing calendar during the spring, racing resumed in Italy in the summer. How much of an opportunity did you have to race?
Obviously, it wasn’t the season anyone planned with COVID but I think we were pretty lucky with the amount of racing we managed to get in. After restrictions eased at the start of July I flew out to Bologna where I spent the next couple of months training and racing. It was quite an experience, especially as we were living in Montecodruzzo on Monte dei Greppi, which meant that at the end of every ride we had a 30-minute long climb back to the house.
Apart from the climb, it was an amazing couple of months. I managed to fit in nine races, including two mountain bike races that were great fun. I raced far more than most people this season and that allowed me to gain a huge amount of experience and some half-decent results, including two top 20s in Italian national race and a podium in my mountain bike race, which I am hoping I can put into use next season.
My legs just went. That was the moment I realised I really had to step up my game
How have you found stepping up to under-23 racing from the junior ranks? And what were the biggest differences between Italian races and British ones?
It’s certainly a big step up! My first race of the season was all the way back in February at the Coppa San Geo and it certainly was a shock to the system. After a pretty mad first hour, the break finally went away before the race then settled quite nicely. I was feeling strong but then, three and a half hours in, my legs just went. That was the moment I realised I really had to step up my game if I was going to stand any chance of getting round these races. Lockdown gave me the perfect opportunity to work on these weaknesses and carry on building that base endurance so that I was ready for when the season resumed.
I only actually did one road race in the UK this season and that was the Severn Bridge Road Race, so I don’t really have much to go on when comparing the two. But from my experience and from what a few others have said I think that Italy is far more chaotic. People will be attacking left, right and centre for the whole 150 kilometres. There is just no respite anywhere meaning that by the time you get to the finish there are usually only around 20 people left in the race.
The other main difference is the way in which the peloton rides. In the UK, I think people are pretty aware of everyone around them. Moving up and down the bunch can usually be done without too much of a worry. In Italy, the peloton is like a constant spin cycle. There is always a fight for positions and when I say fight I mean exactly that. Elbows out, shoulder to shoulder with the rider next to you, the hand of the rider behind you on your hip trying to move you off the wheel in front to open up space for them to squeeze through. It definitely is the definition of oil.
You race cyclocross every winter. Do you have a favoured discipline?
No, I love both the road and cyclocross and love being able to mix up my training to keep it fun and interesting.
This winter you are racing for the Montezuma’s Race Team. Tell us a little more about the team, and why you joined.
Montezuma’s Race Team is a new British cyclocross team, formerly known as Hargroves Montezuma’s. It is sponsored by the British chocolate company Montezuma’s, which might possibly be the best sponsor in cycling?
The team is made up of an even split of male and female riders, with a selection of under-23s and juniors as well as two masters riders. With a focus on developing riders and mentoring them to reach the highest level I thought it was the best place for me to be. It’s exciting to be part of a new and extremely talented team.We’ve already made our mark on the British cyclocross scene in our first couple of months of existence. I can’t wait to see what the future holds with them!
After a sterling performance in the first round of the national cyclocross trophy this season [Tom finished 4th], you were selected to represent GB in the under-23 European championships? How was that experience?
My first time representing Great Britain and it was the European Championships; certainly no pressure there! I didn’t have the race I wanted. After being gridded right at the back I got caught behind a lot of crashes on the first lap which meant that I was always on the back foot. And then with some mechanical problems, I was left chasing to make back quite a lot of lost time. So I was very disappointed with how everything turned out. But I still had an amazing time and looking back at the weekend I was happy with how I rode some of the technical features and also came away with a couple of things to work on.
Do you have plans for more ‘cross racing this winter?
That is the plan. Hopefully, the Belgium authorities relax some of their regulations which will mean I will be able to get back abroad for the remainder of the Superprestige series. Sadly it looks like there will be no more UK national series races but fingers crossed for a national championships.
You have signed for the Spirit Tifosi team in 2021. What was behind the decision to join the team?
I think Spirit Tifosi will be a great team for me and my development in the sport. With an excellent-looking calendar next year, including a number of UCI stage races, as well as the UK National Road Series, of course, I believe I have a great chance to find out what I am really capable of next year. So I am really excited to be riding for them next season and seeing what the future holds.
What would a successful 2021 look like for you?
I think a successful year would be finding out what type of rider I really am. I know I have a pretty good engine and love a good breakaway, so I’m looking forward to putting these to good use next year and seeing what results I can pull off. Being in contention for a young riders jersey in one of the stage races would be really good, along with being right up there at the finish of some of the National Road Series and seeing what I can achieve. I really enjoyed the Junior CiCLE Classic classic so the elite version is definitely a race to be excited about.
And what’s your ultimate goal in cycling?
It has to be winning the World Championships. I can’t imagine there being a better feeling than pulling on that stripy jersey for the year!
Featured photo: David Partridge
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