Features Interviews

Charlie Paige interview: from Clitheroe to Pons

James McKay speaks to the lanky Lancastrian looking to build on a successful first year of racing in France

Charlie Paige spent his first senior-level racing season thrown in at the deep end. At the beginning of 2020, just over a handful of months after his last day at school, he found himself making the long drive from Clitheroe to Pons, a small French town north of the Gironde estuary on the Atlantic coast. This is the base of the top-tier (DN1) elite team U Cube 17, and would become the setting for Charlie to ‘actualise’ his European cycling adventure.

He acquitted himself well, despite the interrupted season. He finished second in the Prix des Fêtes de Sévignacq-Thèze, 10th in the Chrono Châtelleraudais and picked up some solid placings elsewhere too. That he finished so many of his races in his first season in the highly-competitive French elite scene is an achievement in itself for a first-year under-23.

Charlie had already shown his pedigree at the junior level. 13th overall in the prestigious Junior Tour of Wales, 10th overall in the Junior Cycling Tour Assen and 7th in the Arctic Race Juniors demonstrated he was capable of strong results against some of his finest contemporaries, both at home and abroad.

It’s a leap of faith that you have to take, as without risk there won’t be reward

After what he describes as a “good yet unprecedented” year, we spoke to him to the Rayner Foundation-supported Lancastrian to find out more about his career so far and where he hopes to take it.

Oh, and if you’re confused about all the race categorisations and terminology (DN1, Regional Elite, Coupe de France, etc.) in the interview, don’t worry. We’ve been working on a guide to French racing with Charlie which will help explain it all. It will be published very soon…

Photo: Charlie Paige

First off, the ‘usual’ question! How would you describe yourself as a rider?

It’s a question you get asked a lot and one that I don’t really have an answer to. I think too many under-23s try to specialise too young. However, my strength is prolonged efforts, whether that be in a time trial or up a climb. But with my physiology, and given that I’m still growing, it’s hard to pinpoint whether I’ll be more of a lanky climber, or a heavier rouleur, or even something entirely different.

You picked up some excellent results as a junior. What were the highlights, and why?

My junior years were a big stepping stone for me. It was a time when I finally caught up to my peers. As a first-year I had a good season, starting with sixth at Clayton Spring Classic. Although it’s only an early season opener for the domestic pros, it’s my home race and I basically grew up on the Bashall circuit, so to pull out a good result was a big surprise. 

This was followed by finishing eighth on GC and wearing the white jersey at the Junior Tour of Ireland. This was my first taste of success and I wanted more. The progression continued into my second year too, picking up second at the Spokes 2-Day and 7th at the Junior Arctic Tour of Norway. I was left a bit unsatisfied at the end at Junior Tour of Wales with 13th on GC though. I felt as if I could have done more, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

How did the move to Team U Cube 17 come about?

I had my mind set on moving abroad way back when I was a youth rider as I was never involved with British Cycling. The sprinters and rouleurs go to Belgium, your all-out climbers go to Spain and Italy. But the scene that stood out to me as being the middle ground was France.

So in the summer of 2020 I started to apply to French teams with little information as it was very hard to find. It was absolute chaos emailing team after team after team. As many know, to get on a team in France is a scrap as they only have so many places for foreign riders.

Charlie (left) at the 2020 Tour De Montbelliard. Photo: Marie Geoff

Eventually, I got a few responses, one being from John Trott (a staff member at Team U Cube 17). John is English, living out in France, and has been involved in the team for many years. We spoke about the team, the set-up sounded good and I didn’t hesitate when they gave me a contract. 

Moving out to a foreign country at just 18 takes a lot of bottle

How daunting was it, moving to France in just your first year as an espoir?

It was daunting. Moving out to a foreign country at just 18 takes a lot of bottle and I have a lot of respect for anyone who has done it. But it’s a leap of faith that you have to take, as without risk there won’t be reward. Of course, as with everything, there are pros and cons. It wasn’t all sunshine and vineyards but it wasn’t all homesickness and gloom either. Having the right mindset and throwing yourself at every opportunity is part of it, also I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of Rayner Foundation, Team U Cube 17 and my friends and family who I know will always be there for me.

How have you found adjusting to the French culture?

It’s different for sure and I think that is why so many people go home after one year. We have to embrace it otherwise you’re fighting a battle you’ll inevitably lose. It’s not just about learning the language, it’s about how you interact with the team and club. Trying to speak the language and building connections in the team is really important; they begin to respect you and you respect them more

The main thing that I think a lot of British riders forget is that being a good bike rider will trump any marginal gain

You have to accept that marginal gains aren’t really important to the French and the main thing that I think a lot of British riders forget is that being a good bike rider will trump any marginal gain. The other thing is being prepared. The nutrition is pretty basic, and the sport is similar to what it was in the UK 20 years ago, so you need to make sure you’ve got what you need.

Photo: Sly Sly Sport

Although there was a sizable disruption to the racing calendar during the spring, amateur racing resumed in France in the summer last year. How much of an opportunity did you have to race?

I was very lucky in terms of racing. Over the year I had about 30+ race days which may even be up there as the most starts for a British rider in 2020. After a tough start back in February at Essor Basque and Les Plages Vendéenne, I returned back to France in July to resume racing in August.

The three months that followed were chaotic and crammed with races. I worked out that in August and September I was racing on average every three days. Given the opportunity to race three rounds of the DN1 Coupe De France was an awesome experience too, however I had to miss the final round (Nantes Segres) due to flight cancellations.

Also picking up some good results at Elite Nationals and other big races including St Brieuc Agglo Tour. At a Regional Elite level race (Nouvelle Aquitaine) I started getting noticed, coming 2nd at the Prix des Fêtes de Sévignacq-Thèze behind one of the best elite riders in France and 4th at my regional TT champs but winning my individual category.

Some good results at Elite Nationals and the Coupe De France made me really excited for what 2021 holds

How satisfied were you with your performances?

As unusual and chaotic as the season was, I was extremely satisfied with my performances in France. A tough start to the season and a large period of training during lockdown meant that I improved dramatically. Coming back and being able to compete for podiums at a regional level was a success in itself. But to cement this with some good results at Elite Nationals and the Coupe De France made me really excited for what 2021 holds.

Finishing second at the Prix des Fêtes de Sévignacq-Thèze. Photo: Emilie Laguerre

How have you found the transition to men’s races from the junior ranks?

I remember finishing my first few races and finding a whole new realm of going deep and smashing myself; they were a real step up. I was racing against previous WorldTour and Pro Continental lads who had dropped down and against riders who were in the process of moving up like Simon Carr

However they [the races] weren’t impossible, even in the early months of February and March. I found myself finishing in the main group of every race and consistently finishing in the top half of the field. When returning back after lockdown in summer the races seemed to become easier as I had grown in strength. 

The main point is that they were a big step up, but weren’t impossible to race. The more I raced, the stronger and more experienced I became. Then in the resumption of the season I was actually part of the race, not just hanging on.

There’s one English phrase that all French racers know and that’s “FULL GAS”, which pretty much summarises the French style of races

And tell us more about the style of French racing. Those Elite Nationales are tough, aren’t they?

There’s one English phrase that all French racers know and that’s “FULL GAS”, which pretty much summarises the French style of races. They’re the most aggressive races I have ever done and crashes are pretty common due to the chaos. Usually a distance between 100km-185km, they will always start with a bang and will be a race of attrition.

This is down to the fact that the races aren’t professional so there isn’t any of the control that you find at UCI races. Even at the Coupe De France [the top level of French elite races] they go full gas from the start. I remember at Arbent-Bourg-Arbent [the third round of the Coupe de France] my power for the first three hours was 300 watts plus and I’m 68kg.

How important has support from the Rayner Foundation been for you?

The Rayner Foundation is a vital lifeline for riders such as myself moving over to the continent to race and live. The support I got financially from the Rayner Foundation, combined with support from my team, meant that I could live independently which was great at just 18.

Alongside the financial support it puts you in the Rayner Foundation community which is awesome. It gives you an identity and makes you feel part of something bigger. And to be on a list with the likes of Adam Yates is an absolute honour.

Charlie at the 2020 Essor Basque. Photo: Emilie Laguerre

What advice would you give to a fellow Brit just about to start their first year racing abroad?

I think the main thing to remember is that we aren’t all Tom Pidcock or Remco Evenepoel. The chances are you’ll move up from juniors and get smashed. The process is going to be long and you aren’t going to go pro with just one year abroad. The best thing to do is to get in the mindset that you’ll be there for the long run, find your feet and give yourself time to progress at the level you’re at. Most of all enjoy it and throw yourself at every opportunity.

You have stayed with U CUBE 17 for 2021, and have been joined by fellow Brit Charlie Botterill. Had you raced against Charlie before? And are you looking forward to having an English speaking teammate?

I decided in summer that I would stay with Team U Cube 17. Being in a small DN1 team is a perfect place for me to develop as a rider. My position with the team has definitely been cemented and I feel part of the team.

I have only raced with Charlie a few times as he is very new to the sport. So I don’t know him at all but I am excited to get to know him. He’s only been riding for two years but impressed the team with his power numbers and potential. So I am very excited to see what he can do, and of course look forward to having a Brit on the team alongside my flatmate from the past season who was fluent in English.

We started the interview with a ‘stock’ question, let’s end with one too! What are your main objectives in 2021?

I’m really looking forward to what 2021 has to offer. After a good yet unprecedented year, I’d already the level I was aiming to be at in 2021 in the summer of 2020. I’m hoping to take the tactics, race knowledge, and strength I gained last year and put it all into practise.

There are a few races that I’ve got bookmarked such as Tour De Piedmont and Tour De Montbelliard, as well as the Coupe De France rounds and a couple of UCI races, such as the Tour De Mirabelle. But it’s hard to say at this point in time, I think the main objective would be to continue to grow and to prove myself at both a Regional and National level.