A young boy growing up in a small village in the Scottish Borders was lent some VCR tapes of the Tour de France. He was hooked. A seed was planted. One that would eventually carry Stuart Balfour to France itself to pursue his own racing dreams. Setting off to the continent after he left school, the Scot raced there for six years as the teenager Stuart became both a Francophile and a grown man.
His path has been typically hard for a Brit trying to make it in Europe. He has battled surgeries, false promises and disappointments. But over the years Stuart’s determination has stayed strong. He has a fire that has burned bright throughout. And it still refuses to die.
I’ve realised it is a little bit more political than just who rides best on the bike goes up. It’s not always the case from what I’ve seen. Sometimes you need that little bit extra than just riding the bike well
A reliable but unexceptional junior, Balfour was a late bloomer. From a decent rouleur he has gone on to mature into an excellent climber and a powerful tester.
Despite racing almost exclusively in France as an under-23, his results managed to earn him selection for the Great Britain squad in Nations Cup races in 2019, something unheard of for a rider not in GB Academy rider or on a UCI Continental team.
He impressed and was taken to the Tour de l’Avenir, often referred to as the under-23 Tour de France. His strength was clear, and he was selected for the under-23 World Championships in Harrogate where he was an invaluable part of Tom Pidcock’s bronze medal ride.
After excellent performances in the lumpiest races that year, Balfour switched from Côtes D’Armor Marie Morin Véranda Rideau – whose home is the rolling coast roads of Brittany – to Bourg-en-Bresse Ain Cyclisme, a team based in the heart of the Alps. A stage win in the French Cup race the Tour du Pays de Montbéliard then propelled the Scot to his first UCI contract, joining the Continental team Swiss Racing Academy this year.
Another new chapter will open in 2022. His newly signed contract with Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling means that for the first time Balfour will race for a UK team.
In this multi-part interview, Balfour describes his dogged journey, one that starts in the village of Heriot in the Moorfoot Hills and finishes in the Swiss Alps. As well as discussing his progress as a racer, he talks about the challenges of being a rider based in Europe, rider agents, mental balance and a whole lot more.
In this part of the interview, Stuart chronicles his journey into cycling, his junior days at the HMT Academy, being a late bloomer in the sport, team collapses, split bowels, racing in France, and why being good at pushing pedals isn’t always the only thing you need to make it to the top.
How did you get into the sport?
It was around when I was eight or nine. I heard about the Tour de France; some old guys in my village, Herriot, had the videotapes of the 90s Tours on Channel 4. I was obsessed, watching them on loop. I then joined the local cycling club in Peebles, and from then on it’s been all-out since I was nine.
How was the Scottish cycling scene as you were growing up? Was it a tough place to be a cyclist?
Yeah, it was pretty tough, to be honest. I think it’s better now, but back then there really wasn’t much. Especially for the age I was. There weren’t a huge amount of races, and I remember racing against guys that were always older than me for quite a while. But I was quite lucky because I had my older brother. So quite often I’d go along with him to races, race against him and all his friends. I was always being pushed by them.
It wasn’t until I was a little bit older that there was a little group of guys my age that raced. Races were few and far between, and I had to head down to England quite a lot – which obviously at that age is quite a big trip. It wasn’t so easy.
Were you riding for a club throughout your youth and junior years? Or with you involved with the Spokes team at all?
I was. When I was younger I went through Peebles Cycling Club, then onto Edinburgh Road Club. I rode a year with a club called Ronde which is an old bike shop in Edinburgh, then I went to Spokes for a year. I rode for HMT for a season as well.
Were you doing any other disciplines at the time? Or was it all on the road?
It was all focused around the road. But I would end up going along to a lot of mountain bike races when I was around 14 because my brother used to race on the mountain bike when he was under-16, he was on the GB talent team. So I would go along with him. But mountain biking was never really my strength, so I focused mainly on the road and track.
Do you incorporate any track or off-road riding in your training?
Not these days, no. The occasional, once-a-year trip to Glentress and that’ll be about it, to be honest. It’s something I would enjoy doing a little bit more of. Especially because up here in Scotland, we have a lot of good off-road stuff.
I won’t be doing much track or anything. It’s not really in my wheelhouse anymore. But you never know…
You must have been a successful junior to get a place on the HMT team? That must have been a big deal at the time…
I managed to get out to Belgium for Keizer der Juniores with John Barclay. Alex Braybrooke [now SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling] helped me out quite a bit, he pushed John to take me out because they knew him really well. I’d ridden not too badly in my first year as a junior, and Mark Barry [manager of HMT] asked me along to the team selection camp down with TrainSharp.
I managed to put out some pretty good numbers in testing. They said they saw some good potential and took me on. I wasn’t one of the most outstanding juniors but they must have seen something in me and gave me a shot. It was a bit of a turning point for me, so I’m pretty grateful they took me on.
What kind of rider were you back then?
Back then, I was a bit more ‘flat’. I was carrying a bit more timber than I am now. Which once I got to HMT I managed to lose and become more of a climber. But back then I’d do better in flat and rolling races than I would now. More of a rouleur; I still didn’t have any sprint in me though, even then.
I’ve really focused more on stage racing. I really like those multi-day events
What kind of rider would you describe yourself as now?
Now I’d say I can spread over quite a few things. Mainly climbing and still a bit of a rouleur. But I’ve really focused more on stage racing. I really like those multi-day events.
…so what’s the ideal race for you?
It would definitely be a stage race that’s for sure. Something with a mix of everything: a bit of mountains, a bit of TT, even the odd crosswind day.
So you think you’re a good all-rounder, and variety plays to your strengths?
Yeah I’d say I’m fairly handy at most things except a bunch sprint. That’s a big no!
You said you were carrying a bit of extra weight as a younger rider, which is probably a healthy thing. How has your riding style evolved over the years? Would you say it’s simply been a case of focusing on your weight to improve your climbing?
There’s a mix of things. One is just general maturity. I’m a rider who peaked physically a little bit later than a lot of guys. Obviously weight, dropping off those extra kilos has helped for the climbs. But also being in Brittany I learned about general race craft.
That, along with then moving over to the Alps region for the past few years, spending time in the mountains, and climbing, it has all come together nicely. I think it’s a big mix of things, but definitely a lot of experience out in France learning the trade has helped a lot.
I understand you’ve worked with a French coach for the past few years?
For the past six years, since I left juniors actually. At the time when I was in France it made sense. He knew my team and everyone I worked with personally. So he could really help me. When I couldn’t speak the language quite well he could help translate for me.
Was it quite old-school training, or do you think that’s a bit of dogma about European cycling?
It depends. It was a mix. There were some old school things thrown in with some new things. But a healthy balance.
I think that’s something people forget about when they come over for these big mountain races; if you’re scared on the descents, or you’re just not as confident, you lose a lot of time
Has your training evolved since you’ve progressed from Brittany to the Alps?
It’s been fairly similar to be honest with you. Just those steady rides, spending a lot of time in the mountains has helped me with that progression rather than changing too much in the actual efforts. Riding up an hour-long climb and descending has been a big part of it, rather than just the actual physical efforts. I think that’s something people forget about when they come over for these big mountain races; if you’re scared on the descents, or you’re just not as confident, you lose a lot of time. Just being there and familiarising yourself with these long descents makes a big difference.
In the professional ranks, you hear how some of the classics specialists live out in Flanders so they can ride the courses for the classics and fine-tune their skills on the cobbles. Likewise, a lot of the Grand Tour riders live in Andorra or Nice. A lot of that is working on technique and skill training too…
Exactly. There are a lot of different things, but for me personally, that has been a big benefit of living in the mountains. I remember back in 2019 the first few mountain races I did I lost a lot of energy and occasionally a lot of time on descents. After spending time living here, I feel a lot more relaxed. It made a huge difference.
I want to come back to the progression of the teams you’ve been on. Can we go back to the HMT junior team? Tell us a bit more about your experience that season.
For us, everything was about learning. It was actually one of my favourite teams that I’ve been on in my whole cycling career. It was a great group of guys and the staff were super helpful. Everything was just perfect. We met up through the winter for a few training camps and we had a lot of help with a nutritionist at the University of Sheffield. We started working with TrainSharp as well. It was the first time I’d worked using power data. I learned an absolutely huge amount from them.
I got the opportunity to race some of the best junior races in the world. There were so many opportunities for learning, and exposing yourself to the races you need at that age to make the jump up as an under-23.
You certainly got some good UCI junior experience which at the time in 2015 was probably quite a rarity for a British junior. These days there are a lot more teams and juniors getting across to race in Europe but certainly, at the time, HMT were quite standalone with their calendar. It was definitely the team to be on for that reason.
100%. They definitely blazed the way for the UK junior scene. The year before when it was Haribo Beacon with James Shaw and Joe Evans, they were the benchmark. For quite a few years they were always the team that was pushing the junior level forward. I don’t know what the junior level would be like right now without them having pushed the standard of what’s expected of junior racing.
You had some decent results, including 6th in the national junior road race…
It was always close but not quite. I never really made that standout result that year.
But you wanted to go full time with cycling?
Yeah. I had a bit of a nightmare coming out of juniors. I signed with a Continental team that was going to be based in Brittany. Which fell through in December. I don’t know if you ever heard of it – it was called Dynamo Cover.
The story of Continental teams folding at the last minute… It has to be the least secure level of cycling teams…
Almost every year you hear of something similar happening. And sadly I got caught in it as I stepped up to my first year as an under-23. In late December I was scrambling to find a team when obviously there aren’t many openings. Luckily I managed to find something in France, packed my bags that January and left.
After not even a month I ended up having to go to hospital for emergency surgery because my bowels had started to split
You signed for a DN3 team – U.C.Aubenas – which isn’t a bad place to be as a first-year. It’s a big step going from junior to under-23, and it’s also a big step leaving home and moving to France. How was that first year?
The team were really good. They set me up with food and accommodation. I didn’t get a wage but I didn’t really have anything else to pay for. So it wasn’t really that bad. They provided everything I needed.
But sadly after not even a month, I ended up having to go to hospital for emergency surgery because my bowels had started to split. So I had to get surgery on my intestines. I had to leave after a month, going back into hospital because an artery burst when I was back home in Edinburgh. That was in March time and I didn’t manage to get back out to France until June because it took such a long time to recover. It was quite serious. In the end, I only got maybe three or four months there. It was pretty tough. Once I got back up to that level.
How were you supporting yourself at the time?
I had one year self-funded – that first year. Then I had one year with the Braveheart Fund. Going into my third year as an under-23, the Dave Rayner Fund stepped in and helped me out for the next few years.
The half-season you had in 2016, you made a decent comeback. You managed to get some results and certainly enough to get a ride on a DN1 team the following year.
Yeah, I managed to pull together a few half-decent results. I also managed to get some decent contacts for myself out there. To make the step up to DN1 was a success in itself. I think it was the best I could ask for, to be honest. It worked out pretty well.
You rode the Tour of East Flanders which is an absolutely mental race. I approve of that for your development!
We did that with the Scottish team actually.
Oh really. Have many racing opportunities come around with them?
No, it was actually my only time with them. I think they’ll plan some stuff coming up, hopefully. I’ve not heard of anything. I know the past couple of years it’s been a nightmare with Covid and Brexit. We’ll see, maybe in the future, I’ll get a few chances.
I realised that school French and actual conversational French when you’re out there are two different things
So you said you had some results, and did some networking. I imagine at this point your french speaking ability was coming along at this point?
Yeah, actually when I came home and was in recovery I ended up going to some French classes. I realised that school French and actual conversational French when you’re out there are two different things. From then on I worked pretty hard to try to learn the language.
You secured a ride on a DN1 team the following season. Do you feel like your French language skills helped you there?
Yeah, I’d say so. It definitely made life a little bit easier once I was there. They tried occasionally to speak English. But they very much pushed us into “once you’re here, you’ve got to learn French and we do everything in French”. I had a few teammates who spoke quite good English who helped me out a fair bit, but it was definitely a case of trying to learn it as soon as possible.
And how was your first year on the team, Côtes d’Armor-Marie Morin?
It was a tough one, to be honest. It took me a while to find my feet at the start of the year. I had a few good teammates that year that really taught me a lot. It wasn’t until May, June that things started to turn around. I managed to find my feet at a DN1 level and started to pull in some decent results. But in summary, it was hard.
Come the end of the season, you’d done enough to impress the team to have you back for another year?
They were more than happy. It had been a nice progression throughout the year so they were happy to have me back for another season hopefully continuing with the progression, which ended up happening. It worked out well.
At the time the team was a feeder team for Israel Start-Up Nation. Did you go out to Israel?
I didn’t no. Owen [James] went. Me and two others went to the training camp in Calpe. December 2018 going into the 2019 season we went out there with the team. We joined in with the camp, trained with everyone, and did all the activities with the pro team which was a really good experience.
It would have been absolutely impossible without him, to be honest. It made things so much easier having someone else there to live with and to try to boost each other up
You were with Welsh rider Owen James for quite a few years there. How helpful was it having a fellow Brit on the team, who you were living with, in terms of morale?
Yeah, we lived together for the three years that we were on Côtes d’Armor. It would have been absolutely impossible without him, to be honest. It made things so much easier having someone else there to live with and to try to boost each other up. It can be pretty difficult when you’re actually out there. I know a lot of people think you’re just out there racing your bike, riding your bike in the sun. But actually, it can be really hard. We managed to get each other through some tough times. It made a big, big difference.
It must have been sweet when you went 1-2 at the Ronde Briochine in 2018.
Yeah, that was pretty nice. We spoke about it a few times before. And eventually, it managed to happen. It was one of the highlights of that time in Brittany for sure.
It looks like in 2018 you had a really stellar season.
Yeah, that was a really good one. It felt like a bit of a breakthrough out in France for me. I got some really nice wins and got my name noticed. That was a big step forward that year.
And certainly winning the GP Plouay Elite Open was a standout result. That must have turned some heads?
A big thanks to that result I managed to get a guest appearance with the national team for the Orlen Grand Prix and Course de la Paix. That result got me noticed and on their radar. I don’t think they would have known much about me beforehand. It opened a door there.
Did they contact you directly after Plouay?
Not directly. In the following winter, they must have put a long list together. I managed to get my name on the list, a big thanks to that result. Then it wasn’t until the following season, I somehow managed to get a spot on the team for Orlen. Once I was there I managed to impress, but to get a foot in the door it was thanks to that result.
Was that a surprise to make that list? From an outside perspective, it can seem that British Cycling look after their own, and even if other riders are flying they’re not that interested.
That’s definitely what I thought anyway. I was like ‘it’s a long shot, they’ll just take the Academy boys and the odd guy on Wiggins’. I think it showed me that what I am doing here is getting noticed and if I get results out here they will pay attention. It gave me quite a big boost going into the 2019 season to try and show myself.
And how was your experience riding those Nations Cup races?
They were really good. That first one in Poland [Orlen] was absolutely savage to be fair. I think now it’s a bit of a flat race but when we did it there were two laps with three climbs at around 25%. It was savage. We had Ethan Hayter as a leader and he’s a bit of a monster so it was nice to try for him. When you ride for someone like that you’ve got confidence that they’re going to pull out a result. In the Peace Race, I got a bit of a shock to ride a bit for myself which was pretty nice. It’s such a cool race.
I was hoping to go to one of the development Continental teams but got dumped at the last minute which was a bit of a nightmare
Looking at your 2019 season you rode arguably the biggest races for getting exposure as a under-23. You rode the Baby Giro, the Peace Race, Tour de l’Avenir and then the under-23 Worlds in Harrogate as well. Often it doesn’t look like you were riding for yourself, but from the outside, it looked like only a matter of time before you got picked up by a professional team. How did you feel about it at the time?
I did a lot of work for the other guys coming from a nation like GB, it’s always such a strong team. To get your chances you have to be in the right place, or just an absolute freak of nature. Especially the year I was in the squad. I got the odd chance in some of the stage races, but never managed to pull out that big, big result. I tried chasing it at the end of l’Avenir because our leaders crashed out.
I thought something might come. I had a few contacts with a few teams but in the end, it didn’t quite work out. I was hoping to go to one of the development Continental teams but got dumped at the last minute which was a bit of a nightmare. I was disappointed that nothing came of that year.
You got second in Plouay that year too though, which shows some consistency as well as being a good result?
I definitely felt I’d proved myself to step up, but it’s not always that easy in cycling.
Was that the year you signed with a rider agent?
Actually, that was in 2018, after Plouay.
May I ask what your thoughts are on agents? Have your experiences been positive?
Sadly we’ve not managed to find anything so far. But with cycling nowadays, and especially once you get up to the pro ranks, I think it can be almost impossible to get contracts without one.
A necessary evil?
Yeah. Unless you know someone within the team yourself, it’s tough to get those contacts. It’s almost a bit of a must.
What did you learn from working with an agent about the business side of cycling and did they open your eyes about what it actually took to go pro?
I think I’ve realised it is a little bit more political than just who rides best on the bike goes up. It’s not always the case from what I’ve seen. Which is frustrating. Especially in these times with teams struggling financially, it can be difficult. Sometimes you need that little bit extra than just riding the bike well.
Read Part 2 here.
Featured photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com. 2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men’s Under 23 Road Race – Yorkshire, England – Stuart Balfour of Great Britain.