Red Walters is one of nine riders keeping a journal for The British Continental in 2021. Red rides for CC Plancoët and the Black Cyclists Network and is supported by the Rayner Foundation. In his second installment, 22-year-old Red discusses the ‘gamble’ involved to follow his dreams…
So here’s a topic that’s been floating around in my head for a very long time. And it’s definitely something that doesn’t get talked about a lot. It’s easy for the really successful cyclists to say they always knew what they wanted to do, but I think making the choice to follow your dreams is a tricky one.
Rewind back to 2017, I was 18 (2nd year junior). I’d done my A-levels and got A*AAC in Maths, Further Maths, Computer Science, and Physics, as well as passing the MAT (Oxfords maths admissions test). It was my second season racing, I’d been fairly stagnant, maintaining 2nd Cat, far from upgrading, and didn’t have a win all year.
In a surprising change of heart and in an almost whimsical fashion, I decided to defer it all and take a gap year
University was definitely the way I was going to go. The Maths and Computer Science course, the accommodation, the student loan, was all sorted. But three weeks before freshers week, in a surprising change of heart and in an almost whimsical fashion, I decided to defer it all and take a gap year.
I partially credit my friend Ollie Winwood for this for taking a page out of Leonardo DiCaprio’s book and doing Inception on me. He’d mentioned a few times over the previous months that he was taking a gap year to just focus on riding, and I’m sure that was what planted the seeds that lead to my decision.
Looking back, I think that decision was pretty easy to make. If nothing else a gap year lets you take your head out of the whole educational system for a bit and reassess your choices and make sure you’re happy with what you’ll be doing.
Fast forward to the same time next year, I’d had a great year, got my first category license, and a contract from Vitus Pro Cycling! Well surely that’s a no-brainer, right? I felt as though I’d had the luxury of training full-time for a year and couldn’t bear the thought of sacrificing my progress, just as I’d made it to that next level. So I deferred for a second time. Again this wasn’t a super hard choice to make. I was making progress.
It was also 2018 when I spent a few months working for an old clubmate’s company as an app developer. He was a cyclist, so it was a perfect environment to work and fit training around. All in all, I don’t think I could have had a better introduction to that kind of role. But it did make me realise that perhaps programming (something I’d been interested in for years) may not be what I really wanted to do as a career. This helped make my decision to defer even easier.
The thing I struggled with however was my identity. When you put so much effort into something like grades and academics, it becomes a large part of your identity, both inward and outward. As someone who took pride in my grades and other academic achievements, it was difficult to put that part of me on hold. For a while, I felt as though people would think less of me by not going to university, which was frustrating as I knew it was something I was capable of, but just chose to pursue a different path.
I spent the majority of the year racing on my own before being told I wouldn’t get another shot
The end of 2019 was possibly the hardest for me. My race calendar was heavily restricted by the team, and I spent the majority of the year racing on my own before being told I wouldn’t get another shot. Frustrating was an understatement.
But what I did have was my progress. I’ve always told myself that as long as I’m getting better, I should never be disappointed. I got better results, I got better power numbers, but the best thing I got from being on Vitus was confidence. I’ve always been very confident in my ability, but at the end of that year, I really felt like – and believed – I was good enough to ride at that level. My mentality in races had switched from “I can win this” to “I will win this”. I don’t want to come across as cocky, I just believe you need to have absolute undeniable self-belief in yourself to perform at your best.
I sometimes found myself asking if I’d made the right choice to follow my dreams
Then the hard part. Stepping down from Continental level… Giving up was never an option, it’s really not in my nature, but when it feels like I’m going backwards, it’s easy for those bad days to get a hold. I sometimes found myself asking if I’d made the right choice to follow my dreams. But after a while the conclusion I came to was that the only thing I’d find in not following my dreams would be regret. And as long as I found progress on a personal level, it didn’t matter that I wouldn’t have that Continental status.
Another thing I’ve been constantly aware of is my age. I started cycling at 17, and have always felt like I needed to play catch-up with the guys who’ve been racing since they were a lot younger. But I always try to just focus on my own path and progression.
It is a gamble, but no-one got there by giving up or giving it a half-baked attempt
I’ve come to a point now, where I’ve got every confidence in my choice to fully commit to my dreams of making it to the highest level of the sport. At the end of the day, it is a gamble, but no-one got there by giving up or giving it a half-baked attempt.
Cycling means a huge amount to me now and racing bikes is almost all I think about. I love it. And hopefully one day I could win a stage at the Tour! I sometimes worry about the fine line between confidence and cockiness, but I think it’s important to aim for the top, and if I don’t quite make it, maybe I’ll win a stage in the Giro instead 😉
Featured photo: Jez Hart. Red wins the Sandie Radford road race (with Red’s Dad on the left with the tripod, grinning from ear to ear).
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