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Toby Perry interview: all-round excellence

James McKay speaks with new Hagens Berman Axeon recruit Toby Perry

Toby Perry from Ashford in Kent has been cashing in his chips this year. After a quiet start in the sport as a teenager, he has made a name for himself in 2021 with consistent results on the hot roads of Spain. 

Aged 18, Perry marked his coming of age with a classic rite of passage, moving to Belgium to race full time. With the support of the Rayner Foundation, he has now spent three years in the school of hard-knocks that is amateur bike racing in Europe. After coming into cycling late and then completing two unremarkable seasons as a 19 and 20-year-old, his hard work has finally paid off with a breakthrough season this year with his team La Tova – Asesoria Amudevar. 

The man from Kent has been impressing in a variety of races with an aggressive racing style. Despite being labelled everything from a sprinter to a climber by the Spanish media, he likes to call himself an all-rounder. 

He had a storming start to the year, catching our eye in just the second weekend in March. His consistency has been remarkable, stepping on to podiums consistently until the end of his season in September. Perry finished the year with a total of seven wins (including the overall in the Vuelta a Alicante stage race), as well as six second places. His form was such that Matt Brammeier included him on the reserve list for the Tour de l’Avenir.

The future is bright for the 21-year-old, and not just because he’ll be enjoying the Mediterranean sun again in 2022; Toby was recently announced as a new signing for Hagens Berman Axeon. One of the best U23 development teams in the world, the American outfit has produced 39 WorldTour riders. 

One of these graduates is also a Rayner Foundation success story; winner of the 2020 Giro d’Italia, could Tao Geoghegan Hart’s path foreshadow what is in store for fellow Englishman Toby Perry?

Toby was kind enough to share with us his story so far.

Photo: Eriz Fraile

Tell us how you go into cycling?

My mum was a triathlete who got into cyclocross. She wanted me to do it too. She bought me a cyclocross bike and told me I was doing a ‘cross race the next weekend. So I was forced into it when I was about 16. I’d just finished playing rugby. After a year of being forced to do it, I actually started to enjoy it!

And you moved to the road?

Yes. I wasn’t the best at cyclocross. I crashed a lot going around corners. I was better on the road, and it was something to do in the summer. I was more successful with it so that’s the thing I kept with. 

I did the Junior Tour of Wales. I didn’t come last, but quite close to it

How did you progress through the junior ranks?

In my first year as a junior, I did one national. I wasn’t training at that point, I was doing about two or three hours a week. I did the Junior Tour of Wales. I didn’t come last, but quite close to it. I got a coach after that and started training for my second year. I did a bit better, got a few good results but nothing major. Then as a first year senior, I finished my A-levels and moved to Belgium. 

In 2019 Toby raced for Goma Dakwerken-VDB Steenhouwerij CT along with fellow Brits Ollie Morgan and Ben Foames. 

How did that compare to racing in the UK?

As a second-year junior, I’d gone out to Belgium with John Barclay quite a lot. It was very similar to that. Very hard, on small twisty roads. But [as a senior] the standard got a lot better, so I was hanging on for dear life at the back trying to finish races. 

The team folded quite late. I didn’t have a team for next year and couldn’t find one. At the start of November, I still didn’t have a team. Everyone I tried to contact said “sorry we’re full”, “sorry not good enough”. One of my friends gave me the email address of a team in Spain. They said, “someone’s just left the team, their place is yours if you want it”. So I signed the contract and afterward had to figure out where in Spain the team actually was.

How was your first year in Spain? 

Obviously, with Covid, it wasn’t the best. I did one race. I didn’t have a clue how to race in Spain. But I did OK, I got caught with 3k to go after a late attack about 10k out and finished 30-something. The next week we went into lockdown and I spent the next three months doing Zwift races, stuck inside.

He just stopped talking to me, and pretended I didn’t exist; every time I said good morning to him he would just blank me

That must have been a mentally testing period?

Absolutely horrible! I was in a small apartment staying with a Polish guy who was on our team. I don’t think he was coping very well with it because he just stopped talking to me, and pretended I didn’t exist; every time I said good morning to him he would just blank me. So I think he was struggling. Both of us didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. I was on Zwift six days a week, getting it done. Every two weeks hoping it was the end, and having it postponed by another two weeks.

I don’t enjoy being on a turbo, especially for that long. But I did a lot of Zwift races which were quite fun and got to do some group rides with calls with my mates. So it wasn’t too bad, but it was definitely a case of not trying to lose fitness. I knew most people in Spain would struggle more than me, because being British I do a bit of turbo in the winter, whereas some of them don’t even own one.

Photo: Eriz Fraile

Did you manage to transfer that fitness into races at the end of the year?

No. I did one race where it was a super hot day, the first opportunity for me to be outside racing. I cramped up with 2k to go. The next race I cramped up and broke my wrist and tore all my tendons out. I had to have surgery to connect them again so I could move my hand. 

It wasn’t a good year. I had two finishing results. And that was it. 

I moved out to Spain in November and had my head down training, the whole time thinking about this season.

That’s tough to take. But you had a lot of fire in the belly for this year?

Yes. I moved out to Spain in November and had my head down training, the whole time thinking about this season.

Toby has residency in Spain which he secured last year. 

So you spent the whole winter training there?

Yeah, I spent the whole winter training in Girona, and then in March, I moved to Huesca where my team is based.

Can you tell us a little more about the team setup?

This year I lived by myself in an apartment because there weren’t any other foreign riders until very recently. I lived near where the team was based. There were about 16 or so other riders.

How would you describe your riding style?

I don’t know. During the year, the cycling pundits of the Spanish amateur scene have labelled me absolutely everything. So if I go to the Basque Country I am a pure sprinter. If I go to other places I’m a climber or rouleur. In some places, I’m a time trialist. People have called me absolutely everything this year. I just like to race aggressively and have fun. I seem to do well on all sorts of courses so I’d have to go for an all-rounder.

That’s quite a compliment being called a specialist in so many areas.

I got 5th on a summit finish, and after that, I was a “pure climber”, the next race I won I did 40k solo – “oh he’s just a time trialist”. I did well in some bunch sprints and then I was a sprinter….

What’s the ideal race for you then? If you only had one race in a year, how would you design the parcours?

Over 160k, which is long for an amateur. All-day up and down short climbs, 6 something percent, with some crosswind and a little bit of rain. 

The one course this year that was most like that, I got in a break for 100k and then soloed the last 5k. So something where it slowly whittles down and you get to the finish by myself.

Toby after his first win this year, in Estella. Photo: Eriz Fraile

Let’s dig into this season a bit. You started racing in February?

Yeah, I started quite early. The first races weren’t the best. I had punctures and mechanicals. But in my third race, I managed to get second which was quite a surprising result; I didn’t think I’d be that competitive at the start [of the year]

The next weekend you bagged a win in Estella. That must have been a confidence booster?

Hugely. The winning move went over a climb. I started that climb in the convoy, and by the top of it, I was in the select group of 12. At the bottom, I was trying to move up but accidentally went on a gravel road and went the wrong way. I had to get off my bike, climb up a bank to get back onto the actual road, then chase back on at the bottom of the climb.

Your cyclocross pedigree came in handy then?

Haha yeah, I did a good remount but realised I didn’t have double-sided pedals. It took a while to clip in!

Looking back at the results now, in that front group was the current U23 Spanish champion, the winner of the Copa España series, a guy who is going to Trek-Segafredo… four or five of them will be WorldTour or Pro Continental next year.

During the winter one of the main things I worked on was my descending and race tactics. I always believed I had the numbers, but that isn’t the most important thing in racing  

It must have been a bit of a relief after your 2020. You hadn’t had an opportunity to properly test yourself against other riders for nearly two years. To know that all the training you’d put in since you were in Belgium wasn’t a waste. You were actually making progress…

During the winter one of the main things I worked on was my descending and race tactics. I always believed I had the numbers, but that isn’t the most important thing in racing. Working on that helped me a lot. After the first few races I could see it had paid off really well; I’m not nervous on descents anymore and can stay with guys on the climbs. It’s quite a relief, all those things coming together eventually.

You’ve been winning for fun this year. Is there a standout victory for you?

Tour du Piémont Pyrénéen would be my favourite. In France against one of the highest fields with the French U23 elite champion. 

Photo: Eriz Fraile

You’ve performed very consistently all year. You were winning in March and you were winning in August. Were you surprised how well you maintained form?

I’d either be right up there to win or completely dropped in the first hour. It happened a couple of weeks this year, which is annoyingly how I finished my season – getting dropped ten minutes into a race. I was either going really well or physically crashed and died.

It’s always a tightrope…

I rode it quite well this year. Trying to stay near the top as close as I could. It was nice having a consistent season, every month having a morale boost with a good result. 

You’ve now ridden your last race in Spain this year?

Yeah, and my last race of the year. After the last ones didn’t go particularly well, I thought I’d end my season rather than going to the national champs. For me, my season started in November when I moved out to Spain and was living by myself, then in Huesca by myself. I was ready to come back and relax for a bit rather than train like a madman for another month. 

There’s only so long you can be fully focused like that.

Yeah. I’m going to enjoy my off-season and then focus on next year.

They have the best calendar and are one of the best development teams in the world to help me move the next step up

What are your plans for next year?

Next year I am racing for Hagens Berman Axeon, Axel Merckx’s team. So that’s a big step up for me. I’ll be a fourth-year U23 next year, my last year at that level, so I’ll have a maximum of one year in the team. They have the best calendar and are one of the best development teams in the world to help me move the next step up. It’s very nice to have them backing me up.

I don’t know the full calendar yet, but I’m hoping to do the Baby Giro. That would be amazing. But I’ll see how the races fold out and what ends up suiting me in the end.

So a goal for next season is to sign a pro contract?

Yeah, that’s the overarching goal. Smaller goals are to get some good race results but by the end of the season, I’d like to get that contract. 

Are you going to be training in Spain again this winter?

I’ll be moving back to Girona in November, December time. And I’ll be living there next year as well. I love it, I’ve made lots of friends already. And my parents want to retire there, so I can scout the area for them a little bit too.