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Joey Walker interview: the return of the crit king

The reigning national circuit champion on his recent contract woes, his switch to Crimson Orientation Marketing RT, his Tour of Britain horror crash, his future ambitions and his new national circuit champion kit will feature black or white shorts...

Joey Walker will begin his 2021 season with his third team in as many years. This is no reflection on the reigning National Circuit Champion’s talent though. British Continental teams have been folding more quickly than a high-speed origami expert in recent times, and the 23-year-old has been on the receiving end.

He moved to Madison Genesis in 2019 only for the team to announce its closure the same year, citing ‘frustrations’ with the UK scene. He moved to another long-term Continental team, Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother UK, the following year, but that team closed too, after struggling to find sponsorship.

After another scramble to find a contract, he settled on Matt Hallam’s Crimson Orientation Marketing RT as his new home for 2021. It might be an elite team but it’s a team very much on the up, one that Joey thinks isn’t so different to many Continental teams these days.

I’m just hoping it picks back up to the point where I can sort of make a living out of racing in the UK and be happy

It marks a new chapter in a so-far topsy-turvy cycling career. He admits in this interview that he spent his first season in the senior ranks getting ‘his head kicked in’. He suffered a horror crash at the 2018 Tour of Britain which fundamentally changed his outlook on the sport. Add in the team closures and a global pandemic that’s put racing on hold in the UK for over a year, and it’s easy to see that Joey’s career so far has been far from straightforward.

In amongst all that, however, he’s had his share of success on the road. He’s been a regular criterium winner (the Sheffield GP, the Colne GP, and the Durham Tour Series are all on his palmares), he was crowned the National Circuit Champion in 2019 and he’s made several appearances for the GB team.

We sat down with the son of British racing legend Chris Walker to discuss the challenges of staying motivated during the pandemic, his team woes, his switch to Crimson Orientation Marketing RT, how his Tour of Britain crash has affected his outlook, his remaining ambitions in cycling and the all-important question: black or white shorts for his new national circuit champion kit? Here’s what Joey had to say…

Photo: Joe Cotterill

2020 was a tough year for most British cyclists beneath the WorldTour level. How was it for you, Joey?

Like you say, it was difficult for just about everyone. But it’s actually been quite difficult for me for a couple of years now because the last two teams I’ve been on have folded. I was at Madison Genesis in 2019, and I joined them thinking it’s a really stable team. I could see myself settling in and building a good foundation. And then that folded, which was a big shame. I then moved onto Vitus last season, again with high hopes. And then the pandemic hit and we didn’t even get any racing.

I’ve continued to train – I love riding bikes – but a big motivation during those hard sessions is to do well in races. When you’ve got that taken away, it’s quite difficult.

In the months where you’re not allowed to train with anyone, you’re training out of fear

What’s kept you going, do you think?

That’s a tough one. Like I said before, I love riding my bike and we’ve got a solid group of training partners out here – when you’re allowed to train with others that is. But in the months where you’re not allowed to train with anyone, you’re training out of fear because you don’t want to come back and not do well if that makes sense. You’re training to be the best you can be, you don’t want to let that slip, so that when the racing does return you don’t get your head kicked in.

I guess being able to train with people like Ben Swift and his cousin Connor you get a sense of where you’re at in terms of your form?

Definitely. Perhaps it’s the old school ideas I get from my Dad but I’ve always been gauging myself off the better riders around here. When you’re out on the local chain gang and everyone’s there – Ben, Connor, Tom Stewart when he was racing, people like that – and you’re matching them turn for turn, you know you’re on good form. Or if you’re struggling to come through, you know you need to pick up the training a bit. It’s a good alternative to just doing power tests up a climb or something. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for them, but it’s a more rounded approach to gauging where you are at in training.

Because we hadn’t raced for a year, it wasn’t all about results … it was more how you are on social media

How tricky was it this time around finding a team after Vitus Pro Cycling folded?

I think it was probably more difficult than before. Obviously, Vitus folded towards the back end of the year. It was sort of common knowledge beforehand that the team was struggling. So I planted a few seeds. But there were a lot of riders up for contract last year, especially in the British scene. So you’re competing against them, and even then, especially because we hadn’t raced for a year, it wasn’t all about results. As I found out, it was more how you are on social media. Everything like that starts to come into the picture. I was speaking to about three or four teams, and it was back and forth, back and forth. And then eventually I settled with Matt. And we made a deal that got pushed over the line around early December, I think, very late anyways. So yeah, it was not a nice time, really. But I’d say there were a lot of riders in the same boat, struggling to get teams. Yeah.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

What made it much more difficult this time around? Fewer teams with smaller budgets?

Definitely. I think there are fewer teams out there with a good setup. And then you’ve got a lot more riders looking for their next team. So it’s doubled the difficulty. It’s not like back it was back in the NFTO days when you had NFTO, JLT Condor, One Pro… things were thriving not so long back. Unfortunately, the British scene has taken a turn for the worst and, to be honest, I don’t know what the solution is. I just hope it picks back up when the racing picks back up.

What made you choose Crimson in the end?

A couple of things really. I’ve known about the team for quite a while. One of my best friends, James Hill, has ridden for them since 2019. Then back in February 2019, when I was out training in Calpe on my own, Crimson were out there and I did four or five days training with them. I got to have a chat with Matt [Hallam] there and a few of the lads. So I’d already been introduced.

I’ve come to realise that there’s not too much difference between a British Conti team and a top-level elite team

And then when Vitus folded, obviously I was looking everywhere. I got in contact with Matt and things went back and forth for quite a while, to be honest. We were working out how, if possible, we could make it work in a way that was good for both of us. And recently I’ve come to realise that there’s not too much difference between a British Conti team and a top-level elite team, apart from riding the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of Britain. But there’s always a chance you can get selected for GB, for a rider like myself.

We came to a deal whereby one of the team sponsors put some more funding in to help push it over the line, and then I was also allowed to bring in personal sponsors like Cero wheels and so on.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

I know things a very uncertain at the moment, but do you have and idea about the types of races you’ll be doing with the team?

Obviously, because it’s an elite team, we’ll be focused on all the main races in Britain. I know Matt has been trying to plan some trips abroad, but that’s been difficult with Covid-19 restrictions and race cancellations. So it’ll mainly be British races, getting stuck into the crits, obviously, and the National Road Series. And then if an opportunity arrives to ride the Tour of Britain for GB, then I’d like to do that also.

How realistic a prospect do you think it will be to get a spot on the GB team this year?

I’ve guested three times for GB so far, including the Tour de Yorkshire when I was at Team Wiggins, so there’s existing contact. It’s not guaranteed, or anything, but it’s something that, nearer the time, if I’m getting results, I can definitely send some emails and put my name forward. So it’s possible, but there’s not a guarantee.

Looking back through your results, a lot of your big wins have been in crits. Not least the national circuit championships in 2019, of course, but also you’ve won the Sheffield Grand Prix, you’ve won at Colne. Do you see yourself primarily as a crit rider now?

Obviously, the results that are there, like you say, are mainly in crits. When I was on Wiggins, I wouldn’t have labelled myself as any particular type of rider. But when you look at your results, and most of those results are crit wins, you can’t help but put a label on that. I like doing crits, and I’ve been nurtured into doing well through my Dad, who gave me loads of tips as a youngster. I like that style of racing. It’s really aggressive. But don’t get me wrong, I love the Prems too [National Road Series races], and it’s definitely a target to win at least one of those, so I can tick that box. But yeah, I’d say I’m probably better at crits than I am at road racing!

Picture by Richard Blaxall/SWpix.com – 21/07/2019 – HSBC UK British Cycling National Circuit Championships, Rochester Medway – Men’s Race Joey Walker, Issac Mundy

With the Tour Series in August this year, the Tour of Britain in September, and National Road Series events around those, have you thought about how you’ll plan your training for the season ahead?

It’s definitely going to be more tricky this year compared to other years. It is all pretty crammed in. It’s one of those things where if you’re flying for the crits, which you want to be when you turn up at the start line, you lack the endurance for the road races.

It’s going to be a case where I’m going to have to seriously think about what I’m going to aim for

So it’s going to be a case where I’m going to have to seriously think about what I’m going to aim for. If it is the crits, then I’m just going to have to sacrifice a bit of endurance. But yeah, that’s just part and parcel of the times we’re in I suppose, especially in the British scene. You can’t pick and choose them all.

In some ways the opportunity to race will be a win in itself almost?

Definitely. It’s been well over a year now. It’s been that long you start to get nervous. You start think, ‘how am going to be?’, and ‘What’s it going to be like in a close quarters bunch again?’. But I’ve been racing long enough now that I think I should settle in quite well. I’m just hoping the legs respond.

I guess that’s a whole other side of things, just getting used to being back in the bunch, positioning yourself, and so on. They are skills you can’t practice in any other way but racing?

Exactly. There are quite a few people that you can train with and develop your race fitness with, but the racecraft bit is just as important as having strong legs. I think with a few warm-up races though, it won’t take long to come back, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 02/08/19 – British Cycling – HSBC UK National Road Series – Cycle 360 Manx International Stage 1 – Joey Walker of Madison Genesis.

This season will be unusual, we know that. But assuming racing returns to normal in future years, how much ambition do you still have left in the sport? Do you think about how far you still want to take things?

Obviously, as a kid you dream of being in the Tour, it’s only natural. I was on the GB Academy as I came out of juniors and – I’m sure the lads I was on there with at the time won’t mind me saying – we all got a kicking! So that was a bit of a shock to the system. You get an understanding of how hard that top level is.

When you have a big crash like that, where I basically tore most of my face, it does knock you back

I joined Team Wiggins after that, still with big ambitions to make it. And then I had a pretty nasty crash at the Tour of Britan in 2018. When you have a big crash like that, where I basically tore most of my face, it does knock you back. You think, you know, this is serious now, it’s a dangerous sport. But I soon got back into it with Madison. And I sort of settled with the view that, if the wages are alright and I can live off it, I don’t mind just being in the UK scene. A bit like the way Kristian House and others did. But then it got tricky financially. I’m just hoping it picks back up to the point where I can sort of make a living out of racing in the UK and be happy.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

So that big crash changed your perspective on where you wanted to take things?

Sort of, yes. I mean, it was such a big crash. And I think when you have a crash that big, it knocks your confidence. Before the crash, if I was in a bunch sprint or anything, I’d think ‘I’ll go through that gap’ and I wouldn’t be worried about crashing. But after the experience of that crash, you sort of push the brakes a bit more, you know.

In the British scene, I think the racing is different enough in the bunch sprints and stuff, that you can still block out that mental hesitation. That’s why I probably have been good in the crits as well. If you’re there at the front of the crit, then there’s no real danger, because you’re there in the front bubble, you’re riding from the front.

So your change in outlook was as much about focusing on the style of racing you get in the UK, where you felt a little bit safer, potentially?

Definitely. I think over the past couple of years, the crash is having less of an impact on me, I’m not as nervous, although I still remember it of course. But yeah, I think the style of racing in the UK is a lot different to European races, where it’s just aggressive all day. And I think that suits me better. In a European race, the fight for the break happens, then there are two hours of soft-peddling, and then it’s absolutely all guns blazing. And I think the British scene, when it’s thriving, is brilliant. I just hope it picks back up.

What about your National Circuit Champion jersey. Is the design ready for that?

I’ve seen the drawings from Rapha and it’s on its way, yes. I can’t wait to get it on social media and show everyone.

Great. And white shorts or black shorts, Joey?

Ha! Definitely black, keep it traditional. I think unless you’re someone like Adam Blythe, where they don’t care, it’s got to be black!