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Stuart Balfour interview: persistence, part 2

The second part of James McKay's interview with the 24-year-old Scotsman about his cycling journey so far and his return to a domestic team after six years racing abroad

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. 

Next season, Balfour’s newly signed contract with Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling means that for the first time in his senior career he will race for a UK team.

To be able to live at home and have a bit of a normal life outside of cycling will make a big difference

This is the second part of a two-part interview with the Scot, in which he talks about his move to the Alps in 2020, his time with the Swiss Racing Academy, and why he decided to join Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling.

In part one, which you can read here, Stuart chronicled 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. We can pick up his story at the beginning of 2020, with Balfour on the verge of a move to the Alps…

Photo: Casssandra Donne

The following season you made the move to another DN1 team in the Alps, Bourg-en-Bresse. Was that move sparked by some of the racing you’d done in 2019, and you wanted to exploit mountainous racing a bit more?

That was exactly it. After l’Avenir I wasn’t far off of managing to pull off a decent result once we got into the mountains. A bell went off, thinking, ‘if I actually focus myself on this climbing, I could easily get that extra few percent to make myself a bit more competitive’. That was a big spark to head out for a new season in that part of France to get that mountainous racing. I was nervous going into it but it was absolutely the right idea. 

How was the setup? How did it compare as a DN1 team to your previous one?

Pretty similar. They give you an apartment, a little bit of money, racing mainly Elite Nationales and UCI class 2s. It was a bit of a strange year with Covid. But they were super supportive. Everything I needed in life outside the bike they helped sort me out. 

For the first lockdown I was in Bourg-en-Bresse and to be honest I was absolutely cracking mentally

How did your lockdown experience go?

For the first lockdown I was in Bourg-en-Bresse and to be honest I was absolutely cracking mentally. Luckily my girlfriend said I could come and stay with her, so I packed up the car and drove. I ended up spending the next two months with her. It made life so much better. I could ride outside here too. I reckon if I’d stayed out in France I would have 100% cracked, and don’t think I’d have made it through that last part of the season as well as I did.

I was worried I would get stuck back in the UK or I’d go away and have to come back a week later. [But in hindsight] I was very glad I did come home.

It looked like physically you had a good year. You had 18 race days and finished in the top 10 eight times. It must have been productive from a training point of view?

Oh massively. I think mentally I was in a good place when I was home and worked really hard. I think the two set me up perfectly going into that last half of the season. I came out fresh and ready to go.

At the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, up against seven Continental and four Pro Continental teams, Stuart started to reap some of the rewards of his lockdown training. He finished in the top 25 on the first four mountainous road stages, before cementing 7th place on GC with 7th in the final uphill time trial. 

You had a standout ride in the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc. Can you tell us a little more about that?

It was one of my goals for the year, but at the time the team wasn’t 100% sure how I’d ride in the high mountains. We had a lot of guys around that 50, low-60 kilo mark. I was a little bit heavier, sitting around 66kg, which I thought was a good race weight. So I was a little bit nervous going into it. 

But once we were actually there the legs were just spot on. My first real high mountain race after working on that type of racing. I took myself by surprise with some of the rides. But I was super happy with it, especially that final TT.

Photo: Swiss Racing Academy Facebook

Stuart finished up there with some big names on GC. Pierre Rolland won the race, but the Scot finished ahead of some strong riders. He put time into Alexander Cepeda, who won a stage of Tour de L’Avenir in 2018 and went on to win Savoie Mont Blanc this year, as well as Sylvain Moniquet (now of Lotto-Soudal) and Nicolas Prodhomme (now of AG2R Citroën). 

You must have been delighted with that result. Did it prove to you your hard work was paying off?

100%. It gave me a massive boost. I knew that I could ride against some of the best guys, especially on that terrain. It was a big confirmation for myself that it was actually doable. 

At the top levels nothing came off, which was really frustrating because I was seeing guys that I’d beaten consistently get picked ahead of me

Over the next couple of weeks, you had some excellent results with a fifth then a fourth place, and then you won the opening stage of a DN1 Coupe de France, Tour du Pays de Montbéliard. Did that and the Tour de Savoie ride open any doors? 

Yeah. After that first month, and after Montbéliard, I had some contact with a lot of teams. I had some meetings and there was definitely a lot of interest. Sadly at the top levels nothing came off, which was really frustrating because I was seeing guys that I’d beaten consistently get picked ahead of me. But I’m not 100% sure why it ended up the way it did. In the end, I managed to pick up a Continental team which I was really grateful for. But it was frustrating not to make the jump up.

Do you feel like your nationality held you back?

I’m not sure but it can be the nationality at times [in cycling]. Seeing people from certain countries get picked above you…

I guess it’s not hard to see why a French rider gets picked by a French team with French sponsors…

Exactly. It makes a lot of sense. It’s just a shame that we don’t have the same situation in the UK. It’s such a massively popular sport here now. It would be nice if we could be in the same situation with a Pro Conti squad. Obviously, we have Ineos but they pick the best of the best no matter where they’re from. But to have that intermediate step here, I think we’re lacking on that right now.

You were disappointed not to get a professional contract for 2021, but you had a ride secured with the Swiss Cycling Academy. That must have been quite an exciting prospect? In reality, there isn’t a lot of difference between a DN1 team and a Continental team

Yeah to be honest they’re pretty close.

But it must have been an exciting offer to shake things up, move countries, and potentially get more UCI days which did look like the case. How did the move come about?

It was actually through my agent. He had contact with the Swiss set-up at the end of the year. They said the plan was still to really be a development squad and to do the max they can to help me step up. They saw that I was pretty close that 2020 season and they wanted to help me. They were looking to expand the team a little from being just a Swiss team, bring on a few foreign guys to have a little more of a mix of cultures. To be honest I was really excited. For a Continental team, they get really great support. 

A really good calendar as well. First race we had, Boucles du Haut Var, there were 11 WorldTour teams, and maybe only two other Continental squads. It was absolutely savage but the team got into some good races.

How was your experience with the team this year, not necessarily the races but working with the guys there?

It was really good. A bit of a different vibe to the French guys. Obviously, it’s pretty similar, and we did have some French guys within the team, but I found them super welcoming and well organised. We had really good equipment and organisation. When we were at the races the staff really went above and beyond. I really can’t fault them.

They set me and a New Zealand boy up in Chambéry, in France. And for training, it was absolutely perfect.

Photo: Swiss Racing Academy Facebook

I know that Cancellara is involved with the team. Can you tell us more about that?

He helps mentor and brings a lot of the sponsors. And getting into the odd race. He came along to our January training camp in Mallorca and had individual meetings with every rider.

Having a guy like Cancellera speak to you one-on-one is pretty inspirational. He’s always someone I looked up to growing up

Having a guy like Cancellera speak to you one-on-one is pretty inspirational. He’s always someone I looked up to growing up. To have a guy like that to get advice off was pretty special. I don’t think that there are many devo teams who have a guy like that to help out.

Having a coffee with Cancellara… you must be thinking when am I going to wake up?!

It’s pretty wild eh! I was stepping up into a more of a leadership role and a guy like him… well, there’s not many better leaders than him. He told me to really speak up when I needed something, which sometimes I’m not the best at. Things like that, it really helps, with a guy like that telling you.

I know the team is a development team. The ethos is to develop riders to the top of the sport. But they also have work experience links with some of their sponsors because they know that not all of their riders will make it. Is that something you got to experience or was it just for the Swiss riders?

For me, I was just totally focused on the bike. It was more for the Swiss guys. A lot of it was German-speaking. My Swiss-German is non-existent, I don’t understand a word. But there were opportunities within some partnering firms to help connect you to the non-cycling world. Which I know for some of the guys was pretty helpful. To have a team that thinks about things like that is quite rare. 

Do you think it’s something you’d like to see on other Continental teams? In the UK perhaps?

Yeah. I know a lot of guys that once they stop are absolutely lost. You leave school at 18 and that’s you. To be able to push riders into places they might not be able to get without their help once they leave the sport makes a big difference. 

Each year I feel like your calendar has progressed and built. Maybe a few years ago you might have done a couple of UCI races, whereas this year you got 41 UCI days which is pretty close to professional riders. How was it doing consistent UCIs?

It was good, we got some really good racing in. But I felt I needed a few more preparation races in between. In previous years I’d had a lot of Elite Nationals and used them as preparation races into the objectives. But this year it was more just objectives. Maybe I needed to change a few things in my training to adapt to the lack of those preparation races.

I’m guessing that it was a bit more how it would be at the professional level. There are no easy professional races, the level is always super high. Maybe a world class rider can use a .1 race as a preparation race, but most riders are getting their heads kicked in every day.

Exactly. That’s one of the areas I’m looking at this winter into next season. To adapt to not having as many preparation races. I think being able to have the time between the races and properly prepare, it can be difficult, but with the right support and right people in place, it is more than manageable. 

Do you think that’s a challenge riding in the UK? There aren’t really any stage races, and the UK teams won’t travel abroad as much or do as many race days in general.

I think that’s something that within a UK team needs to be looked at. So that when you arrive at these races you’ve got to have the level. Rather than being at a decent level and having a lot of opportunities, when the opportunities come around you need to make sure you’re in the right place to make the most of them.

May I ask how close you’ve come to becoming a pro?  

It’s been touch and go for the past two years. Pretty close. There’s been a lot of meetings, phone calls… Will it happen? Won’t it happen? Which has been incredibly frustrating. Frustratingly close.

Photo: Ronan Merot / Swiss Racing Academy Facebook

Stuart is riding for Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling in 2022.

Why are you coming back to the UK?

It’s tough. It’s been six years out there hacking away. It’s come close but never quite worked out. 24 in normal life is young, but in cycling it starts to get tough. You’re coming up to your last real chances to make that big difference to step up. 

I thought, ‘Have a fresh start, try something new and see what happens’. To be able to live at home and have a bit of a normal life outside of cycling will make a big difference. That can be one of the hardest points. When you don’t know too many people out there it can be pretty long between training sessions and in the evening. Even though my French is pretty good now, not far-off fluent, it can be hard to integrate with the team 100%. 

To be able to come home and spend a year living with my girlfriend is going to make a big difference to my head

To be able to come home and spend a year living with my girlfriend is going to make a big difference to my head, being able to train here and enjoy my time out with the bike. Because my head was in such a good place I had such a good season once I was back racing again. I think if I can get that balance again, when I rock up to the races I can be that extra 10% stronger because of it.

That completely makes sense. Most riders give it a year, or maybe two years, in France, Belgium or wherever. But six years is serious graft. I don’t think you can say you didn’t give it your all on the continent.

I spoke to my agent and said I’m 100% focused on getting something Pro Conti or WorldTour. Again we came very, very close but sadly with a few things, teams falling through, things like that, the space never quite opened up.

I said to him if it’s not Pro Conti or WorldTour I want to come back to a UK-based Continental team. If I didn’t step up to a higher level that’s what I wanted to do. 

Would you say Brexit has been a hindrance over the past few years?

For me not massively. Because I have got my residency in France I can come and go a little bit. It’s been complicated this year for [British] teams but I’m hoping next year it will be a little bit clearer how we can travel to and from races. Hopefully, from now on, it should get easier for British squads coming over. It’s just a matter of being organised. I think we will be able to work around it.

I know for a lot of guys in the position I was in, as an under-23 coming out to France having never lived there before, I think it’s going to be a bit of a nightmare. I feel pretty sorry for them to be honest. Hopefully, there will be options for visas but they will be the ones that feel it the most.

Dan Bigham and Colin Sturgess. Photo: James Huntly

What was the attraction of Ribble as a team?

I follow quite a few of the British Continental teams. Some of my friends ride for teams. I noticed that all through lockdown and this year, they looked like they were pretty stable. Which for the UK scene is quite difficult. They were bringing on sponsors when other teams were losing sponsors. Which is a good sign. 

I’d seen that Colin Sturgess had been there, and I’d heard nothing but good things. As well as a DS he’s a pretty good guy to work with

They had been performing throughout the year. Obviously, James [Shaw] has been a bit of a standout, but there have been other guys like Matt [Gibson], and Dan Bigham, people like that. They showed they were getting better and better. Also, I’d seen that Colin Sturgess had been there, and I’d heard nothing but good things. As well as a DS he’s a pretty good guy to work with. From what I’ve spoken to him about so far, I think that is right. 

Will you be based in Scotland next year then?

Yeah, I will be living in Edinburgh next year which is nice because I’ve got friends and family around here. There’s nowhere else I’d like to live apart from Edinburgh right now.

Also geographically Ribble will then be the closest UCI team to you.

Yes. I actually wasn’t 100% sure where they were based beforehand, but it works out they are geographically pretty good [for me].

What kind of race programme are you hoping for?

We’re still working that out but we’re hoping for some solid UCI races when we can get them. Once I find out what the team’s plans are then I can finalise what my plans are. We can work that out. I think they are motivated to go abroad again and do some high-level UCI races like they have done this year.

Plus I will be able to do a few of the nice British races as well. I’ve actually only ever raced twice in the UK since I left as a junior. I’ve only done the nationals one time and then I had Worlds in Yorkshire. It will be interesting to race some of these races that I hear so much about.

Plenty of guys have shown it’s not impossible to step up from the British scene. If I’m hitting these top races in good shape then I see no reason why not

Do you believe you can still make it in cycling? 

For sure I’d still like the opportunity to step up. From what I can see there’s still a lot of progression I can make with my physical abilities. Adjusting a few things this winter in my training I think I’ll see quite a few gains. Also mentally to be in a better place throughout the season I think is going to help a big chunk. I’ll be able to hit the big races better. And plenty of guys have shown it’s not impossible to step up from the British scene. If I’m hitting these top races in good shape then I see no reason why not. I’ve already made a name for myself with some of these teams so it’s just a case of proving myself again and stepping up.

What do you think you can improve at physically?

Generally just being able to build up my base a little bit and that top end. There are a few things. Just a little bit more of a scientific basis to it. To really make sure that each session I’m doing I’m hitting exactly the adaptations I want from that session. Using the power meter a little bit more. Obviously, I’ve worked with it for a while but to really hit it with a bit more method and scientific approach.

So a little more structure and maybe a little bit of nutritional manipulation around training, stuff like that?

Yeah, things like that. I’m having a fresh start on that side as well, but I’ll announce that in due course.

No, it’s exciting. I think you have to believe you can improve, because if you don’t then you are done. So it’s good you still believe there are areas for growth.

Exactly. If I didn’t think there was any room for improvement then I would find something else to do. 

A bit of a change of tack. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the Muc n’ Mac Fest gravel cycling event?

Ah, the Muc n’ Mac Fest! That’s my brother’s. There’s actually a couple of events, his events organisation is called Outsider Events. So he organised a hill running event in Blair Castle. He managed to get sponsorship from Red Bull for his first event. 

Sadly Muc n’ Mac fest got cancelled previously because of Covid. But I spoke to him today actually and he’s going to be opening entries for next year’s event pretty soon. Within the next week or so entries will be open (so after this interview has been published!). I think it’s going to be pretty cool. He’s basing it in Traquair which is near Innerleithen. It’s the perfect venue for gravel riding. In my opinion, it’s one of the best areas for riding. And I know anyone from the Edinburgh/Peebles area would agree; it doesn’t get much better than that.

Is that something you’re looking to do next year? And is gravel riding something you’ll be doing more of now you’re back in Scotland?

I’m actually in the process of trying to buy one. Because I’d like to come and join in with Cameron for a few things. I know he does a lot of guided tours in the Edinburgh area. He’ll bring a group of people, leaving and finishing from Edinburgh, for gravel tours in the Penlands and down into the Borders. He’s got a bell tent that he sets up for the night. So they can ride out there too and some of them will help set up the tent. They stay there and then ride back home afterward.

I’d be really keen to join him and help him out next year. It’s really good fun. I’ve watched him progress all of these things since I’ve been out in France. The idea of being able to come home and help him out at a few of these things… I’m really looking forward to being at these events myself, helping out and joining in with them.

Photo: Swiss Racing Academy Facebook

Will you be a full-time rider next year or will you be exploring other ventures?

I will probably be looking to do a few side hustles to earn a little bit more money. Also to have something else to do outside of cycling. So it’s not just racing, racing, racing.

I’ve been studying with the Open University for the past couple of years and that’s helped a lot having something else to do

It’s not just for your wallet, it’s for your head? 

Yeah. Both of them. Right now I’ve spent the past few weeks vegetating on the couch so I’m starting to go a bit crazy. So I have things to do. 

I’ve been studying with the Open University for the past couple of years and that’s helped a lot having something else to do. And a bit of a backup to be honest. With a sport like this you never know when it can all stop. In my first three years in under-23s I had an operation every year. You never know which one could be the end of it. 

If you could go back and meet your 18-year-old self, packing bags for France, or meet an aspiring young pro in that position now, what advice would you give him? 

First and foremost, especially in a country like France, learn the language as fast as you can. That will make life so much easier. In general life and once you’re with the team. You will be able to bond more with the guys and know what’s going on in the races.

After that, just graft. You’ve got to work hard. These races are tough races. Even just an amateur race in France that nobody’s heard about back here, is absolutely savage. So just get your head down and work. Make sure you hit the season with good form and see what you can do.

Featured photo: Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com. 2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men’s Under 23 Road Race – Yorkshire, England – Stuart Balfour of Great Britain.