Journals Riders

Tom Portsmouth journal: dealing with the double whammy of Brexit and Covid

Rider journals 2021: Tom Portsmouth #01/February

Tom Portsmouth is one of nine riders keeping a journal for The British Continental in 2021. A second-year under-23 rider, Tom is supported by the Rayner Foundation and rides for the new Carbonbike Discar Academy team in Belgium this season. In his first installment, Tom bemoans the double challenges of Brexit and Covid to racing abroad…

So about four weeks ago I moved out to Belgium, to become the independent rider I’d always dreamed of being for so many years. Whilst it isn’t quite the realisation of a dream – yet – it is pretty close.

I did put off writing this journal whilst I was settling into being in quarantine for two weeks on my arrival in Belgium and then, later, the final accommodation where I will – hopefully – be spending the whole 2021 season in. Now I am settled and can review everything with a calm head, I will begin. 

My name is Tom Portsmouth, I am 19 years old and this is my first journal entry for The British Continental. In these journals, I want to be as open, honest and transparent as I can be about the topics I discuss. On this occasion, the subject matter is Brexit and Covid, two mainstream topics that are proving difficult for the whole of society to contend with. They also present very particular challenges for British riders with aspirations to make a career out of cycling.

Photo: Macflyaway

I faced a lot of anxiety and stress in the weeks leading up to the day I travelled over to Belgium. There were so many unknowns to contend with. No one knew much about what restrictions Brexit would bring. I knew, though, that I had to get as prepared as possible and commenced on doing my research and homework.

One aspect I pondered was what the border police would be wanting to see; a part of me hoped that the border police themselves would not know what they were looking for themselves. As it was only a matter of days after the transition period had ended and because the major concern for everyone at the time was – and still is – the new strains of Covid running rampage around society, I thought I would make sure I covered as many bases as I could in my research. 

I did my best to keep a low profile, if that is even possible with two bikes on the roof and baggage packed up to the windows

On the morning of the move, I kept my foot down (within the speed limit of course). Not stopping until I reached Belgium, I did my best to keep a low profile, if that is even possible with two bikes on the roof and baggage packed up to the windows – I was hardly inconspicuous. But we made it to the border, no problem.

The checks on the British side actually involved the most difficult questions. I wasn’t sure if my answers would suffice. Only people on ‘essential travel’ were permitted to cross the border. Would my trip be deemed essential? Yet I managed it. So onwards 100 metres to the French border. Their only concern appeared to be whether or not I had Covid and my passport. Fortunately, I didn’t have the former but had the latter! Once I said I was heading directly to Belgium they seemed unconcerned about what my plans were and proceeded to let me through. Hours of research and stress seemingly for nothing, yet. But if you are reading this and are yet to make the trip out of England, I insist that it is fundamental that you still do this research and find the answers yourself, as each case will be different to the next. 

This is my side of the story, but where’s this heading? In short, the whole Brexit situation is a right pain in the backside, an immense source of stress for all riders who had hoped to race and train in Europe this year. Rewind 12 months and as Britons with the same rights as European Union citizens, we had no problems at all relocating to Belgium for the racing season. We could stay as long as we needed just with the passport we had in hand. Yet now, we need vast reams of documentation to show we are eligible to stay in the country longer than the permittable 90 days. Visa this, Residence Permit that. As amateur elite cyclists, who aren’t yet being paid but are full-time cyclists, and with the majority of us without a job or a university placement, it leaves us ineligible for any form of visa. We don’t work so we can focus on our training, and we don’t go to school because that restricts the hours we need to train to the level required. 

The problem comes from the toxic combination of Brexit and Covid

But on further reflection, Brexit is not the fundamental problem. Sure, it is a stupid idea in my books, but I’m biased as you can perhaps tell! The problem comes from the toxic combination of Brexit and Covid, and the mandatory quarantine period of roughly 10 days depending on which country you go to.

12 months ago Brexit would have been manageable yet expensive, with riders needing to go back and forth between Britain and Belgium, France, Spain or Netherlands throughout the year. In order to get around the ’90 days within the 180 days’ rule, the maximum stay in the country where you race would be 45 days on. . This would be followed by 45 days back home in England. Like I said, manageable. But when you factor in the quarantine rules too, you have nearly a month’s worth of quarantine to contend with every 90 days. For anyone’s mental health, a month of turbo riding in the middle of a critical season when you need to be happy, it’s a virtually impossible scenario.

Tom (right) with his new teammates. Photo: Macflyaway

But out of this might come something only the best of the best has: impenetrable resilience to a difficult situation. Compared with previous generations, who have had the privilege of living and racing in Europe without any restrictions at all, the next generation of riders might well be the most resilient to date. It might produce riders better able to overcome obstacles they face and not be fazed by their presence. Who know, it could well produce a unique generation of riders, who genuinely strive for that overwhelming desire for success, are determined to get what they want and who will be massive assets for any future team as a result.

For me, the future is not set, but I’m sure as hell going to make sure I give everything to make it happen, whatever form that takes. There are still administrative hurdles before I have the all-clear to race all season in Belgium, but things are moving forward. I’m really enjoying being back out here with some of my best mates. I’ve missed this place so much over the last year. The new accommodation is awesome and the family I am staying with are super helpful and incredibly kind. Hopefully, my next journal entry will bring some positive news.

Negotiate a visa-free permit for European travel for athletes. Click here to sign the petition asking the government to work with the EU for visa-free permits to allow sporting professionals, athletes and young athletes to travel freely for training and competition across the 27 member states.

Featured photo: Macflyaway

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