We are lucky enough to have ten riders contributing to our rider journal series in 2021. Our latest recruit, 21-year-old Scot Joe Reilly, rides for ASPTT Nancy this season, supported by the Rayner Foundation. In his first post, he reveals the challenges he’s faced just trying to get out to France to race…
France. It’s a fantastic country. The food, the wine, the mountains. Fantastic from peak to shore. Fantastic, that is, if you can get to it. My problem? I can’t get to it.
I signed for a French team in 2020 anticipating travelling early this year for a full season of racing, sunshine basking and croissant eating. However, the double whammy of COVID-19 restrictions and Brexit have made for a deadly combination of paperwork and disappointment.
The result of Brexit negotiations and COVID-19 restrictions put two more inconvenient obstacles on an already long and challenging road, fraught with setbacks and overwhelming odds
As the UK is now out of the EU, free movement of people has also ended. This means that if you wish to stay in the EU for longer than 90 days, you require a visa. Having navigated the difficult process of visa application, I was offered an appointment at the embassy in Edinburgh to be interviewed for the final stage of my application.
So off I went; lunchbox packed, suited up and armed with every piece of paper I could think of. I had my passport, national insurance, employment document, proof of accommodation, my written theory of which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Just kidding, I don’t think that would have helped).
Upon entering the visa centre, my temperature was checked, my bag searched, and my body patted down, presumably searching for weapons. Didn’t they know I was here for a visa interview and not an armed robbery?
The kind woman doing the interview had to ask me complex and important questions about myself and the paperwork to uncover my deepest secrets. It would then be decided whether or not I was deemed a liability in the French government’s eyes.
However, the person interviewing me was a heavily accented Chinese lady who was very softly spoken. Combined with the wearing of a face mask, and behind a perspex screen, it was immensely difficult to hear or understand what she was saying. I tried to engage my inner British diplomat and focus as hard as I could, politely asking her to repeat certain questions she asked without causing a fuss, not wishing to further the already strained Sino-Anglo relations.
It was around this time that the next person came in for their visa appointment, wearing a head-to-toe Scottish Rugby tracksuit and built like the British museum – immensely broad with columns for arms and legs. Donning my invisible deerstalker cap and channelling my inner Sherlock Holmes, I could deduce that with his South African accent and his full Scottish Rugby attire, he was here for an extension to his foreign national visa. Sitting down beside me, I thought I’d try my hand at conversation, despite my knowledge of rugby being as plentiful as the Scotland Rugby team’s trophy cabinet – nil.
“So, got any games coming up?” I enquire in an open-ended manner.
“Yeah, we have France on Saturday”, came the response.
Okay, I thought, it must be the point in the season that teams play international matches, what is that called again, my internal monologue asked?
“Oh, nice man, and how are you doing in the league?” I grasp, clawing desperately in the corner of my mind for the name of the big rugby tournament. SOS, I repeat, SOS.
“Well… we’re second last” comes the deadpan response.
SIX NATIONS. That’s it. By this point, I knew I’d waded way too far out in my rugby conversation and desperately tried to backpedal.
“That’s not bad” comes my half-baked response “…it’s better than last…” I realised my attempt at enthusiastically kickstarting the conversation with my pseudo-motivation hadn’t worked.
He was polite enough to give me a sympathetic smile and I was polite enough to ask no further questions.Embed from Getty Images
I have since found out that the player is called Duhan van der Merwe who scored two tries against Italy and a further two – including the last-minute winner – against France. My fellow Scotsmen, I can only apologise for my naivety, but show me a cyclist I can’t name by their shoes and I’ll give you a fiver.
A five-hour round trip to the visa interview, £140 for my application, and an excruciating morning of ear-straining accent interpretations was not enough to get accepted
It would also transpire that my visa application process was as successful as my rugby small talk. A five-hour round trip to the visa interview, £140 for my application, and an excruciating morning of ear-straining accent interpretations was not enough to get accepted.
The real catch-22 with my situation and many other young cyclists is that we are paid by the team which we have signed for, but it is not exactly big bucks. This means we are unable to apply under a ‘visitor visa’ as we will receive a small wage and by their definition, practising a professional activity by participating in “professional” races.
However, we are also unable to apply under a ‘work Visa’ as the small wage we are given does not meet the minimum that is required to obtain a long stay working visa in France. I tried to work out what my hourly rate would be if my teams’ wage was a normal job – it transpires I would earn €3.22 per hour… living the dream! My friend did point out to me that if I trained fewer hours my hourly rate would therefore increase. It amazes me that he isn’t a high-profile economist.
So, what lies ahead?
With no visa, I will be limited to go out for 90 days per 180 days which equates to three months in France, three months back in the UK before going back out for another three months. If I was to go out in February as first planned, this strategy could be manageable as it would allow for a midseason break back home. But with the constant France lockdowns, race cancellations and rise in COVID-19 cases, my departure date has been continuously pushed back. It was the 5th of February, then the 10th of March, then the 8th of April and now with the recent four-week in France lockdown it is the 20th of May.
If I was to go out for three months straight in May I’d need to come back in August, therefore missing the last part of the season. I now need to manage my trips to elongate the 90 days in France to last me through to early October. This calls for several trips back to the UK in that five-month period – which means several £230 Eurotunnel returns and £240 of COVID-19 tests per trip. It’s an endeavour which is not for the faint-hearted or poor in the pocket.
Through every point in life, there are positives to find; an unexpecting tailwind out riding, a section of road being repaved, or nailing your clothing layering on a changeable spring day
The result of Brexit negotiations and COVID-19 restrictions put two more inconvenient obstacles on an already long and challenging road, fraught with setbacks and overwhelming odds. Yet through all of this, I’ll be able to live in a different country (albeit intermittently), racing my bike whilst travelling across Europe, and soaking up what culture I can. I’ve still retained my health and motivation when three million people across the world have lost their lives and countless more their jobs. Through every point in life, there are positives to find; an unexpecting tailwind out riding, a section of road being repaved, or nailing your clothing layering on a changeable spring day. After all, Abraham Lincoln once said “we can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”. Yeah, Abraham. Preach it.
Featured photo: Ellen Isherwood
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