Journals Riders

Rider journals 2021: introducing Tom Portsmouth

The 19-year-old Brit explains why his cycling heart belongs to Belgium

We are lucky enough to be welcoming a new batch of riders to our rider journal series in 2021. We have picked ten riders to give us an insight into life at the Continental and elite-levels of racing, both at home and abroad. We are introducing each rider through December. So far we have revealed Abi SmithRed WaltersCharliiy BerryJoe NallyCharlotte BroughtonJames Jenkins and Lizzy Bennett. Next up is Tom Portsmouth…

19-year-old Tom Portsmouth might be British but his cycling heart most definitely belongs to Belgium. His love affair began with a weekend racing trip to the country back in 2016 and hasn’t abated since.

Eschewing the hillier parours of the UK’s national youth and junior series races, Tom has instead found an affinity with the flatlands, cobbles and crosswinds of Belgium. In his formative years, his race seasons have typically consisted of weekends over in Belgium, racing against the country’s most promising prospects. He even rode for a Belgian team, the Spiderking Soenens U19 development team, in his final year as a junior, a season in which he picked up a string a notable results, including victories in Sint-Maria-Lierde, GP Garage Van Hove Jochem and Heestert.

From 2017 onwards – with support from Dave Williams, John Barclay and my parents – I raced more often in Belgian kermesses and UCI races than I did in England

A Rayner Foundation rider this year, his first as an under-23, he was registered with the Urbano CT team. But, as for so many British riders, racing never really happened for Tom, aside from a burst of local time trials.

All being well though, he’ll have the opportunity to rekindle his Belgian love affair in 2021, riding for the newly-established Carbonbike Discar Academy. With his studies behind him, he plans to fully devote himself to cycling, moving out to Belgium to live, train and race. Before his new adventure begins, we asked him to tell us more about the unconventional path he’s so far followed…

Photo: Joeri De Coninck

Tell us how you got into cycling…

The story, I think, is a simple one. I began riding my first bike, with stabilisers, when I was three. My Dad and Grandad were two big cycling fans, so I was always riding, but I didn’t take it up seriously until the huge success of British cyclists at the 2012 Olympics. Before cycling, I was a very sporty kid. I did gymnastics, swimming to regional level, rugby, football, hockey (just to placate my parents) and then finally settled on cycling when I was 14. The advice from my coaches at Charlotteville CC and Hillingdon Slipstreamers was to keep a diverse sporting background for as long as possible, some of the best advice I was ever given I believe. 

How would you describe yourself as a rider?

It is always difficult to describe yourself as a rider honestly. The answer typically ends up as a summary of what you like doing the most. As you move through the age groups you begin to understand what you are actually good at in races and where your potential is steering you.

I would love to be an overall contender at the Tour but, being a heavier rider, I know the Tour de France mountain stages aren’t for me. The classics-style one day all-out races are more my speed and my riding style suits those sorts of events. I like to be aggressive and attacking as much as possible and will always finish off the day with a good sprint no matter where I am on the road. I can also put in a very respectable short time trial performance, like efforts like prologues and 10-mile time trials. I believe, as well that I can climb the short sharp hills very well. So that makes me suited to be an all-round classics rider. 

Photo: Joeri De Coninck

You’ve been racing out in Belgium for the last few years. Tell us how and why that happened?

Indeed I have. I was first invited out to Belgium in 2016 when I was selected by Dave Williams [Ed: now DS at the TBW23 team] from a list of riders put forward by the guys who ran the Regional School of Racing for youth riders. A weekend away in the Belgian flatlands ensued.

In that first year, I only went on three trips, but from 2017 onwards – with support from Dave Williams, John Barclay and my parents – I raced more often in Belgian kermesses and UCI races than I did in England. I had my first win in Belgium that September, as a first-year under-16. I’ve continued to win races out there each year since.

I had caught the bug and knew that this is what I want to do as a cyclist

What kept me going back? I enjoyed the culture in Belgium. I felt my personality just click with their way of things. The riders made me feel super welcome; many of those I met in the early days are still my best mates out there. I was able to compete with the best Belgians, on roads that suited me and my racing style to the ground. I also really enjoyed the experience of the trip over to the continent and the time spent with my family before a race. It all made me want to keep going back weekend after weekend. I had caught the bug and knew that this is what I want to do as a cyclist.

What did Belgium give you that UK racing did not?

I felt the national series at the youth and junior level didn’t allow me to show my abilities as a rider. The Belgian style of all-out racing, from gun to finish, really connected with me compared with the often tactical and cautious way of riding in Britain. Or at least, that’s what I felt and witnessed. The Junior National Road Series, in particular, I viewed as too hilly in nature for me to develop and enjoy riding and racing. But I did select a few races to do in my final junior year. Races like the Junior CiCLE Classic, the Cadence Junior Road Race and the Bath RC Junior RR were the few I felt I could perform at, so I did race those. 

What you would say is the achievement you are most proud of in cycling so far?

Woah, that is an extremely difficult question! There are so many ways to answer this. I could list each of my wins, as I am proud of everything I’ve done to achieve those wins. I could list any of my results for that matter. They’ve all taught me a lesson about how to keep on fighting, whether that’s to pick yourself up after a DNF or learn what to do to win the next one.

I won solo in Sint-Maria Lierde in some truly real Baltic conditions – most of the riders were on the edge of hypothermia

If I had to choose one, though, I think it would be the weekend of 16 March 2019. It was a doubleheader of racing, just after I have recovered from a four-week chest infection. On the Saturday, I competed in the Nokere Koerse, a junior UCI one day race. This is one of my fondest memories. I managed to get into a 90km breakaway with two others which was only just caught before the finish. And then I still managed to cross the line in sixth place. The following day, I won solo in Sint-Maria Lierde in some truly real Baltic conditions – most of the riders were on the edge of hypothermia by the end. My best weekend of racing to date. So far…

Photo: Netwerk Lierde

Tell us about the team you’ll be racing for in 2021?

I’ll be racing for a new team on the block called Carbonbike Discar Academy, one that shows tremendous promise. They might be new but their knowledge of the sport – especially the top levels of racing – is nothing short of amazing. I think nearly all the managerial staff have from a history of working with professional teams, or even riding with these top teams in some cases. I’m looking forward to making the most of the opportunity. 

Where will you base yourself?

I’ll be based in Aywaille, a town in the Walloon province of Liège, set in the beautiful Ardennes region. I raced there once in La Philippe Gilbert junior race and, oh my days, I thought the roads were stunning to ride. And that was during a race – imagine how good it will be to train in that scenery. Motivation right there.

There are some significant hill climbs in the area, which I really like for training. In the past I’ve only been in a hilly area for a maximum of one week. To have them on my doorstep, in the first full year I’ll be able to do long training hours, is a great opportunity which will hopefully have a massive impact on my physiological development. 

What will your race programme look like?

I expect to have opportunities at some of the highest-level under-23 races in Belgium. The calendar isn’t completely clear yet as race organisers are still finalising plans. With Covid to consider, it will be difficult to say what it will look like for a while longer yet. I know though that whatever the race is, I’ll make the most of it and give my best. I want to make the most of every opportunity I get given to ride for this fantastic team. I am looking forward to it. 

I will be a second-year under-23 but, with 2020 a write-off, it will effectively be like my first year

What are your goals next season?

I’m keeping my specific goals close to my chest. But essentially the focus is on moving forward as quickly as possible, making gains in all areas and learning who I am as a rider and a person. And of course, I want to gain experience, put in strong performances and pick up results. I will continue to work with my coaches at trainSharp to make progress with my power zones. I will be a second-year under-23 but, with 2020 a write-off, it will effectively be like my first year. I’ll give 2021 my best no matter the situation.

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