Josie Nelson has had an outstanding year since we last caught up with her at the back end of 2020, making her mark on the road with Team Coop-Hitec Products and in cyclocross with Team Spectra Wiggle p/b Vitus.
The 19-year-old from Lichfield in the West Midlands began her 2021 road season with the elite Isorex NoAqua team. After winning top Belgian kermesse races in July, she moved up to the professional ranks with Team Coop-Hitec Products, achieving an eighth-place finish on the first stage of the Women’s Tour in October, before rounding off her road season with a brilliant second in the National Road Championships road race in Lincoln.
I think cyclocross definitely benefits your road skills, whether it’s bunch skills, or even just riding on cobbles or in wet conditions. Sometimes you can take a corner a bit faster because you’re used to wet conditions and handling the bike
She began her cyclocross season shortly after in dominant fashion, winning the third round of the HSBC UK | Cyclo-Cross National Trophy in Falkirk, before returning to racing in Belgium and the Netherlands, securing some strong results including 10th place at the Under-23 European Championships in Col du Vam and 7th place in Leuven. More recently in the UK, she achieved her first UCI win at Clanfield CX and second place at the Gravesend round of the National Trophy.
In our third episode of our off-season series focusing on young British multi-disciplinarians, Katy Madgwick spoke with Nelson about how she combines road and cyclocross, her first Women’s WorldTour races, including her experience in the first-ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and where her long-term ambitions lie.
When we last spoke to you it was clear that you were very much multi-disciplined from the start, doing mountain biking, cyclocross, road, and track…
Yeah, I think it’s good to branch out when you’re younger to find out what discipline is your favourite or what you’re best at. And what you find most fun.
But you don’t do much track anymore?
No, I think the last time I rode the track was at the start of 2019.
So, that was the first discipline that went by the wayside?
Yeah. I didn’t really find it that interesting, just riding round in circles. I’ve always been more of an off-road person.
I definitely want to stick with road and cyclocross, and I’d like to go pro on the road at the start of 2023, be a proper WorldTour rider
Do you have a long-term plan in terms of which disciplines you want to focus on?
I definitely want to stick with road and cyclocross, and I’d like to go pro on the road at the start of 2023, be a proper WorldTour rider. I did one mountain bike race this year, and you can do both road and mountain biking, but you’ve got to get the right team to support you with both. And I’m only on a road team so I don’t know if they would let me do some mountain biking or not.
How do your current teams support you across both disciplines, how does that work?
I’m on a Norwegian road team [Team Coop-Hitec Products] and then a British cyclocross team [Team Spectra Wiggle p/b Vitus] so at the moment I’m doing everything with the cyclocross team; they’re supporting me at all the Belgian races, taking me out to Belgium and then at the end of the cross season I will start with the road team, doing races with them and probably spend a bit of time out in Belgium or Holland, somewhere like that.
How do you split your year in terms of where you live and train?
So, in the summer on my previous road team, I spent two-and-a-half months in Belgium and now I’m just doing a few week blocks over in Belgium for cyclocross. So, I just go over, do a few races and come back. And then next year I’m not really sure of the plan yet, but we do have a team house in Belgium, so I’m guessing the races that are close to there we will go over and stay there for a few weeks and then come home or fly from there to a different race.
In terms of having a dual contract, does that work well, are there any issues with it or because they are separate disciplines does it not matter too much?
The two teams don’t talk to each other, it is completely separate. I did have to miss one team weekend to do the European cyclocross champs, but because it was European champs my road team was alright about it.
What is your favourite type of racing?
I think some of the classic road races. I really enjoyed Paris-Roubaix because it had a bit of cross and road so it was the perfect race for a rider that does both. I’m not a massive fan of really long hilly races. I did one in Spain, the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta; there were some really long climbs in that. I don’t think I had my climbing legs for it. Yeah, I think I prefer the Belgian classics. I did the Women’s Tour in Britain and I really enjoyed that one, it wasn’t that hilly, I liked that stage race.
What are your strengths – do you like bringing out the bike handling and using your multi-disciplinary skills?
I think short steep climbs probably suit me better, like punchy ones. I do really enjoy descending so that was one part of the race in Spain that I really enjoyed.
In terms of your schedule, is it partly limited by what’s available? Do you snap up any opportunities you get, or do you have to plan it out carefully?
I haven’t done a [full] pro road calendar yet, so the summer just gone, I was doing a lot of kermesses. Then I did a few UCI 1.1s and two WorldTour stage races, so I’m not really sure how they would all fit together, or like which ones I’d be able to do yet. I’ll find that out next season.
Do you know if you’ll be able to ride the Tour de France Femmes yet?
I’m not sure yet.
I’ve been racing with elites since I was a junior. You kind of get pushed in at the deep end, but I think it’s better for growth as a rider
What’s your perspective on the provision of races for your age group? Do you find it restrictive, not having a specific under-23 calendar?
It doesn’t really bother me; I’m used to just doing the elite races rather than separate under-23 races. It’s the same in cyclocross, we always just race in the elites; I’ve been racing with elites since I was a junior. You kind of get pushed in at the deep end, but I think it’s better for growth as a rider, and then when you do do separate under-23 races I think it can be quite rewarding because obviously you get better results than you normally would in an elite race.
Do you feel like you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone because you’re not at that elite level yet? Is it a good challenge, or can it be demoralising?
I don’t think it’s demoralising, I think it’s all learning. Some of the races are just about hanging on rather than actually getting results, you’re just trying to stay in the race or not get pulled or whatever, but yeah, I don’t think it’s ever a bad thing.
You had quite a full road programme over the summer. Tell me about Paris-Roubaix. The first ever, making history, what was it like?
It was incredible. As an off-road rider, I really enjoyed it, and especially as it rained, I think it made it even more suited to off-road people. Yeah, it was really exciting and just knowing that we finally had our own race, our own Paris-Roubaix, after always watching the men do it, was really nice.
Your skills were perfectly suited to that course?
There was one point, once I’d dropped behind the convoy, we’d catch them up on the cobbled sections because they couldn’t get through as fast, so then it would be about weaving in and out of the cars, and then obviously you’re in the gutters so you’re in the even muddier bits. I went past a few crashes; I didn’t crash myself!
It was really fun, I was literally smiling the whole race, it was really enjoyable.
I was over the moon to get eighth, I was nearly crying happy tears. I didn’t expect it at all
There was so much positivity around the whole event in general. That is a memory that will stay with you a long time, I bet. And then you had the Women’s Tour, what was that like?
I was a bit surprised on the first stage, I’d never actually ridden as far as 155km, so I didn’t really know what it would be like, but it wasn’t that hilly, so it was easier to sit in. Then I was leading my teammate out at the finish but she got caught in a crash so I had to finish it off for the team myself. I was over the moon to get eighth, I was nearly crying happy tears. I didn’t expect it at all.
It was such a great result and bodes well for the future.
Yeah, it was really exciting to race in Britain as well, like a big race that’s not just a national. Like, the crowds on the side of the roads, and the schools would bring out all the pupils and we’d be going down the roads with big crowds of school kids on the side.
Then at Nationals, second place was absolutely brilliant. Again, it was a nice course for you?
Yeah, I really liked that course. I’d been doing a lot of cobbles over the summer because I was out in Belgium anyway, so it was really nice, and [Michaelgate is] quite a short hill so I think it suited me as well. I never expected to get second, but once we’d gone up the climb and we were in a smaller group I was looking at the people in the group thinking ‘this is going to stay away’ so my mind was kind of at peace for a bit. Like I could relax a little bit, because it’s always a bit more tense when you’re in the bunch for the whole race and everything just comes down to a sprint, so many more factors can make your position different.
It was a strong group that went away, so you had that assurance that you’d thinned it out to the selection.
Yeah, and everyone was working equally, pulling equal turns, it was a good group.
So, going into cross season from there, is there any significant transition you have to make in your training, or how you approach your programme after that?
Usually, after road season, I’d have an off-season but obviously the race season went on for so long it wasn’t really possible unless I started my cross season really late. I could have started it a bit earlier, but I left it about a week-and-a-half of normal training, just carrying on from Nationals, and then I did the Falkirk National Trophy round, that was my first race. Yeah, my training hasn’t changed much, I’m maybe doing a few shorter rides, a few more efforts, and then I’ve included some cross training skill sessions.
Are you based at home at the moment, and then you just travel to races?
Yeah, I’m at home in the Midlands at the moment and I just drive out to Belgium. I drove myself to one of them because the team was out there for two weeks, but that one was straight after National Road Champs and I wanted a bit of a mental break before starting cross season, so I just drove out the following weekend. I did the race and stayed out there for European champs and then another camp for about a week and then drove back.
You’ll have seen the start of cross races, they’re really fast and everyone’s just a few inches from each other, so you’re used to riding close to people, and a bit bargy sometimes
Do you feel the benefit physically of transferring one skillset to another?
I think cyclocross definitely benefits your road skills, whether it’s bunch skills, or even just riding on cobbles or in wet conditions, sometimes you can take a corner a bit faster because you’re used to wet conditions and handling the bike. And then when you’re in the bunch, say if there’s a little touch of the wheels, you can hold it because you’re used to counteracting the balance. You’ll have seen the start of cross races, they’re really fast and everyone’s just a few inches from each other, so you’re used to riding close to people, and a bit bargy sometimes.
It makes you a bit more robust, you can bounce back a bit more from knocks?
Yeah, cyclocross is really hard on your body, I come home from races with quite a few bruises.
I think the other way round, road can benefit cross just from, like, having a core engine, and the endurance; I think it would help more on drier courses, so the fast ones where there’s maybe a lot of straights where you can proper just dig deep.
Do you think it will naturally progress and you will drop one in time, or do you think that keeping those two disciplines going is what will give you an edge and keep you competitive?
I don’t really know; anything could happen, but I think I’ll always keep doing road in the summer no matter what. I think it all depends what teams you get; if you can get on a road team that would support you fully in the cross season that would be ideal, or a cross team that would fully support you in the road season so that you know you could always do both and nothing would ever cross over, and they’d understand your certain training types and when you start one season and finish the other. Yeah, I’d like to keep doing both for a while.
How about mountain biking – is that something you would like to do more, or has it just naturally fallen away because of the teams that you’re on?
I mean I think you have to spend quite a lot of time training to be the best at mountain biking. There’s a lot of skills; it’s not that easy, you need to have a lot of guts as well, so I think you have to do a lot more mountain bike-specific training. I did a whole mountain bike season in 2019. I was on the national squad, so I was going out to Europe and doing World Cups and things like that. But I don’t think I’d ever do a full season again, I’d only ever be doing it for fun, in the short-term anyway. Like, never say never, I don’t want to completely shut the door on it; I’ve always enjoyed mountain biking.
I’m guessing I’ll start my road season a little later than all the other girls on the team because I’ll have to have an off-season after cross
Do you have any personal goals that you would like to achieve in 2022, or races that you would prioritise given the choice?
Definitely Paris-Roubaix again and the Women’s Tour, those were my two favourite races last season. I’m guessing I’ll start my road season a little later than all the other girls on the team because I’ll have to have an off-season after cross. Other than that, maybe I’d like to do a few more of the big WorldTour races, but not too many. I still like to do the smaller ones, just for the experience because sometimes in the WorldTour races they are just too strong so you end up dropping and you’re not really learning as much as you would do if you were in a slightly smaller race and up there and fighting for a good result.
Do you enjoy stage racing, does it allow you to develop different skills compared to one-day racing?
Yeah, I do like stage racing, but the only reason that it isn’t my favourite is that my time trial bike isn’t the best, and there’s always time trials in stage races, so, like at the Women’s Tour I was really high up in the GC and then I did the time trial and I dropped about twenty places, so that was a bit disappointing. My time trial bike was my sister’s old bike. So, for that reason, I think one-day races are better for me at the moment.
That’s a practical way of thinking about it. If you had the equipment do you think you’d be able to put together a decent time trial, or is it something you want to work on when you’ve got a better bike for it?
Yeah, I think if I had a decent bike and I could put in the training at home because it’s a different position so it’s slightly different muscles as well, you have to train on your time trial bike a lot, but yeah I’d definitely get stuck into that so I that could do well in the stage races.
Thanks for your time, Josie, and best of luck for the rest of the cyclocross season and for 2022.
Featured photo: Balint Hamvas. Josie Nelson at the 2022 GP Sven Nys