Features Interviews

Gabriel Cullaigh interview: Holmfirth hard man

James McKay interviews the 26-year-old Saint Piran rider about a challenging two years on the WorldTour, his switch to Saint Piran and his memories of the Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic

It would be unfair to Colin Joyce – not to mention simply untrue – to call Gabriel Cullaigh a back-to-back Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic winner. But he is certainly a man with the legs to do it. 

In 2018 he won from the remnants of the breakaway, powering past One Pro’s Karol Domagalski – who Cullaigh describes as a motorbike that day – to claim victory. And in the last edition of the race, in 2019, Tom Pidcock set up his fellow Wiggins teammate for consecutive glory in Melton Mowbray. 

Although put his hands in the air that year, however, Cullaigh’s elation was short-lived. Celebrating metres before crossing the finish line, Gabz was then mortified to see a late charge from Joyce. The American pinched the win from under the Englishman’s nose. It must have felt like a bad belated April Fool’s joke. 

Cullaigh moved swiftly on from the blunder with storming rides at the Tour de Yorkshire in May. Two top ten stage finishes in his home race would ultimately help him secure a contract on the biggest stage of all, the UCI WorldTour. 

The following year, 2020, was ill-fated for Cullaigh, perhaps even more than for most. Along with a calendar decimated by Covid-19, he also battled physical and mental demons at his new Spanish team Movistar. Whilst his body struggled to adapt to a different training style, his mind was burdened with the pressure to lose weight. His body, along with his season, then fell apart when he picked up an infection in the form of shingles in the summer. 

In his second season at Movistar, the Yorkshireman was, in his own words, “cast aside“. By mid-July, he had only pinned on a number seven times. Under-raced and underweight, it is no surprise Cullaigh’s palmares was rather slim, hampering his chances of a contract renewal or a transfer to another professional team.

I definitely need to rekindle that old spirit and find the rider I was. I feel like I’m getting there now

This year, riding for the Cornish UCI Continental team Saint Piran, the sprinter and classics rider is going back to his roots. “Trying to find the rider that I was” is how he puts it. He may certainly welcome a return to the domestic racing circuit, a place where he had plenty of success before his WorldTour days.

Unfortunately ‘Gabz’ has had another spell of bad luck in the early season, crashing out of the Grand Prix de la Ville de Lillers in March, before catching Covid a few weeks ago, something he admits he is not yet fully over yet.

Just days away from the first men’s Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic in two years, we caught up with Cullaigh to discuss his challenging time on the WorldTour, his switch to Saint Piran, and the unfinished business he has with Britain’s only one day international race. A third – I mean second – win for Cullaigh would be a comeback story for the books. One which would surely earn him the title of Mr CiCLE Classic.

Gabz I want to talk to you a bit about breaking into the professional ranks. I don’t want to say a typical British under-23 kind of career, but a lot of riders who went through the GB Senior Academy or Team Wiggins at that time had a similar journey. They were good juniors and then they either went to Wiggins or the Academy, and then their career kind of really took off from there. How long did it take from riding for GB and for Team Wiggins to breaking into the pro ranks?

For me, it took a bit longer because I didn’t turn pro with Movistar until after my first year out of under-23. I had a good couple of seasons on the Academy in the first two years as an under-23. And then I had an offer to join Wiggins for my third year, but I decided to join SEG instead and I had a bit of trouble there. I think there was a bit of a culture shock, being my first time on a non-British team. But in the end I had a breathing problem that needed surgery. So I had to cut that year short. In the meantime, I was speaking to Andrew McQuaid at Trinity Sports Management about Wiggins, who by then had one of the best under-23 teams around. They were British-based, so they were ideal for what I wanted and they had the races I needed to catch the right scouts.

I had a good first year with Wiggins. I’m not sure what happened because my first year Wiggins was actually better than my second year. I won two stages of [the Volta ao] Alentejo. And then I was on the podium at Triptyque [des Monts et Châteaux]. 

And you won the CiCLE Classic too.

Yeah, I won CiCLE, I won Leicester [Castle Classic], was up there in some .1s and .2s. Allan Pieper got in contact with my agent. I had Colin Sturgess introduce me. We were both doing this race called the Great War Remembrance Race [a one-off Belgian Classic to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war] by the people who organise Flanders and I just went into the BMC camper. 

I went for a coffee ride with him and just really got on with him straight away. He was really up for it, he wanted to fight my corner. He wanted to get me on BMC

Allan was there and he introduced himself. We just got chatting and he said, “Oh, what are you doing tomorrow?” I was like, “no idea” and he said “Do you want to go for coffee?” So I went for a coffee ride with him and just really got on with him straight away. He was really up for it, he wanted to fight my corner. He wanted to get me on BMC at the time but it transpired down the line he was leaving BMC and BMC was changing to CCC. So he did keep trying there. But then when that was a no-go he was really fighting to get me on UAE. So I went out to a training camp with UAE, this was going into my first year out of under-23. And I think that went well. 

Allan wasn’t really as high up back then. He was new to the team. So he was still trying to get his foot in the door. He wasn’t in a position to fully call the shots. The manager Mauro Gianetti and Matxin [Joxean Fernandez] seemed keen to have me but they couldn’t. They weren’t going to commit. 

2018 OVO Energy Tour of Britain – Stage 4: Nuneaton to Royal Leamington Spa – Gabriel Cullaigh of Team Wiggins. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

So when I left that camp it was coming up to Christmas but didn’t know what I was doing the year after. Andrew McQuaid said “you’re gonna have to do another year at Wiggins”. They’d actually got into a few more races that were not under-23. So it worked out well and it was a good programme. Alentejo was not an under-23 race, then there was obviously CiCLE, and the Tour de Yorkshire at the time. So you just have to make the most of them. And I did. 

I started in Turkey, went quite well there. I won another stage at Alentejo. Then after that stage the Spanish manager at UAE, Matxin, texted me, who said “really well done, let’s get you as a stagiaire.” So then in the next few weeks, they sent me a contract over. But Andrew was like, “Oh, just hold off, we don’t need to sign up ’til July”. Then it transpired that he was speaking to Movistar at the time, and they’d approached him at the Baby Giro. And they were really keen to sign me basically, they just wanted to speak to me on the phone. And I spoke to Sebastián Unzué, who’s the son of Eusebio, who has run Movistar forever.

I think he just wanted to speak to me and see if I was the type of person that would be able to fit in. He said to me then, “do you have any other offers?” And I said I had the stagiaire agreed but not signed with UAE. “All right, we’ll get back to you as soon as possible”.

The next day the contract was in my email. So yeah, it went pretty quick from there. In hindsight, maybe I should have gambled and gone to UAE. But we went to Allan and said, “do I think they’ll be able to offer a two-year contract as well, like Movistar?” He said, “I wish they would, but they probably won’t. And if they don’t I’d take two years with Movistar“, so I did that. 

What was the culture at Movistar? Do you think it was the right fit?

Honestly, no. I liked the culture, it was very Spanish, very relaxed. Very much a family. And I absolutely loved that. I got on with everyone. It was the performance side and the racing side just wasn’t good for me. I think Covid obviously impacted it. And I’ve seen that now. They’ve done a lot more racing this year than they even did last year. So that’s a bit of a shame.

2021 AJ Bell Tour of Britain Stage 7 – Hawick to Edinburgh, Scotland – Team Movistar, Gabriel Cullaigh (centre left). Photo: SWpix.com

Do you think integrating into that family was hindered by the fact you were being isolated and quarantined and physical barriers were being put up?

Not really, no. I mean even in that first year, every time we were there, I really felt part of the team. And I’m well glad I really made an effort to learn the language. So even in that first year, when I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on, I didn’t feel excluded. That first year was, you know, it was quite good actually. I was getting looked after by the head performance coach Patxi [Vila]. 

It worked out I was going to have a really good race programme and then Covid struck. Then at the end of the year when racing resumed, I had a really good programme planned again, but I got shingles. The doctors were like, “you cannot race.” You need to take the year off and get yourself healthy again. I think if the season had carried on as normal, without Covid, it would have gone really well. I’m not sure whether I’d have been anything in the races. But I’d have been a lot happier with what opportunities I had. The second year just didn’t transpire, I was very much cast aside.

It turned out he was ex-Saunier Duval, quite a prolific doper who won a stage of the Tour on Hauticam. I think when I found that out I put my guard up with him and I probably didn’t really trust him. 

So it wasn’t that you didn’t fit in or didn’t get on with anyone, it was just the fact that you didn’t get to the races that you thought you could perform at?

In that second year, in December 2020, I was passed on to a new coach, Leonardo Piepoli. At the time I didn’t know who he was, but it turned out he was ex-Saunier Duval, quite a prolific doper who won a stage of the Tour on Hauticam. I think when I found that out I put my guard up with him and I probably didn’t really trust him. 

I think we clashed a bit but my first block of training was decent, but then I soon realised it was just doing long steady efforts…  it just slows you down. It makes a strong diesel engine but when I got to the classics, I was alright in the first hour and then after that when they really started whacking it I could only do it two or three times and then that was it. I just felt so far from the rider that I was at Wiggins so I just had to make a change. Because I wasn’t going well at the early classics I got taken out of Flanders, and then from a couple of stage races I was meant to do after Flanders… and then there were a couple of races I was meant to do in France before a race in Sardinia but I got pulled out of them. With no real reason other than “the racing will come”. It was hard to take but because it was contract year I didn’t want to kick up a fuss. I kept my head down.

In that time, I actually changed coach to a guy called Gary Sadler; he’s British. He lives down in Lliber just outside Calpe. We definitely turned my form around for the rest of the year. In some races like Plouay, I felt the best that I’d ever felt on a bike. But the results didn’t follow, which is a shame, but that’s the way racing goes.

2021 AJ Bell Tour of Britain – Stage 5: Alderley Park to Warrington – Gabriel Cullaigh of Movistar. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

The best British talents go to the WorldTour. Guys like yourself, [Harry] Tanfield and Quarterman for example. Crazy gas, really talented, good results. They go to the WorldTour and it looks like they actually get worse. I mean, I know that the racing they’re doing is at a different level. But it actually looks like they get a little bit weaker. I don’t know if that’s because they changed something with their training and their diet to try and be a bit more “professional”. Something seems to change that means they don’t quite seem to be themselves, don’t quite reach their potential…

Yeah. I definitely agree. Those two years at Movistar, I was nowhere near the form I had at Wiggins. Maybe this last half a year in 2021 I felt back to myself but then I still just didn’t have that depth because I had had half a year where I did five races in the first six months. It’s just not enough, is it? 

I was constantly trying to make weight. When I was training, every day I was worried about what I was eating. I think that’s what eventually pushed me over the top and why I got shingles. 

I don’t know. It could be linked with trying to please the team. When I was under Leo, even with Patxi the first year, I was constantly trying to make weight. When I was training, every day I was worried about what I was eating. I think that’s what eventually pushed me over the top and why I got shingles. 

When I was on Wiggins my best performances were when I was 81 kilos; Movistar were trying to get me down to 75. The closest I got was 76 and then I got shingles. But looking back, the power wasn’t there. I just didn’t have that depth. If I had had more racing, I might’ve been able to show that, actually, I go better at eighty-odd kilos given the chance. But I didn’t get that chance. 

They had to say “Right. How much does he weigh? What power is he putting out? Right he’s ready to do this race, this race.” I can’t actually prove to them that I can do it.

They sign you because you’re ready for the WorldTour. You’re good enough and they want you on their team. Because at Wiggins you were strong enough to be there. You don’t need to change anything. But when you get there they’re like “actually, you were good, but we’re gonna make you loads better” and it backfires?

Yeah. In hindsight, I wish I had never worried about my weight. Throughout my time at Movistar, my weight fluctuated too much. I’m still trying to get it steady again. Maybe it’s why I’ve had such a bad knock-on effect from Covid. And then in turn, maybe I’m not recovering properly from training.

And it’s also psychological stress you don’t need?

Exactly. At Wiggins, I never thought about it. I just cracked on with my training and gave it 100% no matter the weather. When I was at Movistar, Leo didn’t like me training in the rain. And before I’d just stick my jacket on and go out. I definitely need to rekindle that old spirit and find the rider I was. I feel like I’m getting there now. But obviously, Covid’s not helped a lot.

But it is strange. I don’t know why. They obviously think they know best. It’s hard to say to them, no, that’s not right…

2021 AJ Bell Tour of Britain Stage 6 – Carlisle to Gateshead, England – Movistar’s Gabriel Cullaigh. Photo: SWpix.com

Especially as a foreigner and a young guy?

With who they gave to coach me, I think they thought that they were going to be really good for me. Patxi worked with Sagan at Tinkoff, before joining Bora for six or seven years, before joining Movistar. I do think that his training was good for me. 

But it’s a shame that he then passed me on to Leo who, again, could have been quite good for me. He coaches Ivan Garcia Cortina, used to coach [Sonni] Colbrelli and a lot of the Bahrain guys, the classics group. So on paper, you think, oh, maybe he’d be a good kind of coach for me. But all those guys have such a different upbringing. They got into the sport so differently compared to what I have. I grew up racing track, banging around little circuits. I wasn’t going up long, steady climbs. That’s only a new thing for me. So, trying to do long steady intervals, trying to build that diesel engine. It just works me over.

If you say “this isn’t working for me”, they’re not going to change it that much. They just have their methods of coaching

But as much as they say, “we need your feedback”, they’re not going to change. If you say “this isn’t working for me”, they’re not going to change it that much. They just have their methods of coaching. Some good coaches I know would change. That second year at Wiggins before I was going to do that stagiaire I got coached by a guy called John Wakefield at UAE for three months. We still keep in touch. He’s a really good guy and we’ve got the same dog breed. He’s got a certain way of training but if I said to him I think maybe this would work, he’d actually sit back and take it on board whereas there’s no way that those guys at Movistar would have taken that. Especially from the neo, little English lad that’s yet to prove himself. Who am I to say “your coaching is not working for me”?

Are there any other lessons you think you learned at the WorldTour level? From a race experience point of view perhaps?

The racing is very different. [This year] I crashed out in GP de Lillers so I didn’t get a chance to properly get stuck in there. And then I had Eddie Soens and the Grand Prix Criquielion. That Criquielion was like doing Nat B or kermesse again. 

I describe it as the first hour of a World Tour race all the way to the end. It’s just constant little breaks going, everyone trying to be in the move. Whereas in the WorldTour something goes, chills for five, ten minutes, and then it slowly gets quicker. At this level of racing, you’re on it all day, which is good. I think that style of racing in the WorldTour teaches you to learn when is actually the crucial moment and how to position yourself. How to duck and dive and not get too carried away in those first couple hours because you can burn all your matches in the first couple hours if you’re not careful. 

I did Roubaix at the end of last year, such a cool experience. I crashed out. I crashed on the seventh sector and smashed my knee up. I carried on on my own for an hour after but I was in absolute agony. But I remember on the fourth sector I was starting to drift back and I thought after this next sector I need to move back up and stay there. Looking back at a photo on that sector, there’s the Canadian guy, Guillaume Boivin [who would finish 9th]. He’s next to me in this picture. If I’d just kept cool, and not constantly stressed… When I crashed, it was still 170 k to go. It teaches you to really think about the long game of racing. It’s never over until you crash and you know, you can’t actually carry on. 

How did the ride with Saint Piran come about?

So at the Tour of Britain, at the first hotel, we were staying in the same one as Saint Piran. I was going out for a ride the day before and they just pulled up. I said hello to everyone. Max Sciandri, the DS at Movistar, was there that night. He was so stressed for me last year because he really wanted me to get a team sorted. And he’s like, “Oh hey, have you seen that team they’re called Saint-something, really cool kit, cool cars, cool bikes, ah I love it. I’d love to ride for a team like that.” 

He wanted me to stay up at that WorldTour level. But he said, “let’s speak if you need the option”

I was thinking, ideally, I don’t want to step down to Conti level. But then Lamps [Steve Lampier, manager at Saint Piran] after the Tour of Britain said, “I don’t want you to join my team. But we’ll have you if you need a ride”. He wanted me to stay up at that WorldTour level. But he said, “let’s speak if you need the option”. I was holding out for Qhubeka, my agent was speaking to them. And obviously, that didn’t materialise. 

I was a bit apprehensive with Conti teams because obviously, they’re not like they used to be. Like Tom [Stewart] and others, you could make a really good living racing at Conti level a few years ago, but not now. So I thought, there’s no way I’m gonna be able to do this full time still. But I thought I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and I’ll come up with a number in my head, a wage to allow me to live, the minimum I need to carry on the lifestyle I’m living and still be able to chase results like I have been. 

I rang Lamps and we had a really good chat. At the end of the conversation, because I’d spoke with [WiV SunGod manager Tim Elverson] as well, I was much more on board with what Lamps was saying. He just said “the number you asked for was a bit more than what we had in mind. But I’ll get back to you.” And then the next day he said “yeah, we can do it. I’ll send over the contract.” And I sent it back a few days later. I still spoke to Tim a bit more, just because, admittedly, Wiv SunGod have a way better programme.

But Saint Piran was actually the more stable option having spoken to Ricci [Pascoe, the team owner]. Whereas things with Tim were still a bit up in the air, with him trying to find a sponsor, what they were doing with bikes and stuff. So I had to think about my own life, be a bit selfish. I’ve got nothing to fall back on if a sponsor pulled out. And they’ve been dead good so far, I just need to get myself healthy. 

How long do you think you could ride at Conti level? Would you be happy racing for the next five, ten years at that level? Or do you think there’s a time when you would decide, “actually, if I can’t get back up, then I need to find something else to do”?

I’m not sure, I don’t want to put a number on it. You know, I might even get to the end of this year and reconsider. The main thing, for now, is I want to enjoy my racing again. Because last year, I was racing with the pressure of trying to get into the contract this year. Obviously, the expectation is I really want to step back up. But I feel like if I keep putting myself under pressure it’s just not going to help. So as long as I enjoy racing, first and foremost, then if the results come after that, maybe stepping back up might be an option.

Photo: Harrison Hunter

Do you think you belong in the WorldTour?

I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. It’s a very, very hard lifestyle. The way it’s going is even more time away from home. I need to decide whether that’s the lifestyle that I really want.

Wout Van Aert at the end of last year put something up on Instagram, he posted numbers, totals from his year. All these stats. Ridiculous. I mean, he bases himself in Belgium, but still does a stupid amount of altitude. If I was to step back up, I would have to do something like that.

If I want to perform, I’m gonna have to be looking at doing a lot of training camps and altitude just to be at that level, because everyone else is doing it. And if you don’t do it, then you get chewed up and spat out

I don’t want to live abroad, I want to live here. But if I want to perform, I’m gonna have to be looking at doing a lot of training camps and altitude just to be at that level, because everyone else is doing it. And if you don’t do it, then you get chewed up and spat out. The reality is I love WorldTour racing, the racing is great, but there’s so much that comes before it. Travel days. Guys like Wout, these guys are on are long, stable contracts, they can be in the sport for as long as they want. 

Whereas guys like myself, jumping back up, I need to decide whether I really want to make sacrifices. Whether I’m prepared to do that, I’m still kind of weighing it up in my head to be honest. I’m sure everyone else expects me to just want to jump back up.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Yeah. Even last season, I went to Spain on the 27th December 2020. And then didn’t come home until the second week of March. Admittedly it was because of Covid stuff. But I wasn’t racing that much out there, which didn’t help. I found that pretty tough.

Sounds like you’ve had a rough couple of years. A lot of it down to bad luck. It sounds like this year you want to enjoy life, regain the passion for racing, and what will be, will be.

Absolutely. Once I get healthy and racing, if results start coming along then I might get back. But as you say, the passion for it, that fire for it, probably with that will come the desire to be at the highest level.

Cullaigh wins the 2018 Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic. Photo: Andrew Peat

So, I want to talk to you about the CiCLE Classic. Can you tell us about the first time you won? How that played out?

At the time me and Grace [Garner, Gabriel’s partner], we didn’t live together. She lived in Leicester. And I was up here [in Holmfirth]. I used to go down for a week or so at a time. So I got to know Colin Sturgess really well. He was DS for Madison Genesis that year. Anyway, he rang me up the Tuesday before Rutland and said “I was going to do a recce with my lads. They’ve all bailed for some reason but I’m still gonna go.”

I think you should come, mate. It’s great to see. It would be really good for you to see before you actually race”. I didn’t plan on going down until Friday. But I was like, “you know what, yeah, let’s do it”. So me and Grace went down that Wednesday and then that next day, drove over to Oakham and did the recce. Just rode around with Col and he gave me bits of advice and honestly, I soaked everything in. It definitely did help because in the race then I wasn’t stressing about being right at the front because I knew what potholes were where, what was deeper gravel, where it was safe to ride. So because of that recce I saved a lot of energy. 

The race that year was super aggressive. There was a bit of a lull about 50k to go, after we’d just been up the Somerberg, Tom Pidcock had attacked somewhere and come back. And then we were on this narrow lane heading back towards Owston. It was quite narrow and I thought, “I’ll just roll off a little”. It was just a half-hearted attack to see if people were actually knackered. They kind of let me roll away, and I was like “that’s strange”, so started to press on a bit and then Jonny McAvoy and [Tom] Moses came with me. Then Karol Domagalski, Connor Swift, Tom Stewart and a couple others came across on the Somerberg, and that was the move that eventually stayed away to the line. 

That day Karol Domagalski was absolutely pinging. It was mental. It was like riding behind a motorbike

That day Karol Domagalski was absolutely pinging. It was mental. It was like riding behind a motorbike. There was one point where he got rid of a couple guys on this drag out of Melton for the first time. Connor [Swift] was on a good day as well. I remember him shouting at Karol saying “Stop attacking!” or something like that. And Karol just laughed and kept attacking. He was bending our legs.

In the end it was me, Connor, Tom [Stewart]- Tom punctured on Sawgate. Then on the last one through Staple Park Karol was really giving it some and then I took over and squeezed on. 

McAvoy punctured early on in that sector. Then at the end where all the soigneurs stood, Connor punctured. He was shouting “wheel, wheel” but the swanny didn’t even have a wheel, only bottles.

From there we came straight off onto the main road to Melton. And Karol, as soon as he saw Connor needed a wheel, he just railed it for a kilometre. So I was just tucked up behind. And it was just me, him and Koos Jeroen Kers from WP Groot Amsterdam. He was goosed, that guy couldn’t do anything. But I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing. And it turns out he wasn’t because a k to go I went to flick my elbow and Karol left a gap and this guy wouldn’t come through next to me. So then Karol hit us.

I thought, this is ideal because I’ll just use him as a target to hit the finish, like a perfect little lead out. And so I let Karol go, which was dangerous, obviously, because he was flying that day. And then I kept looking at this guy just to see if he was bluffing or not. And he was just like “Go, go, GO!” So I went with 400 m to go and rushed up to the back of Karol and then passed him about 100 m to go. Because he’d put in a long effort, once I passed him, I knew. I had a little look before I celebrated that year.

Sounds like a race ridden with confidence.

Definitely. I knew I was going well that year. 

I’d been third at Tryptique and up there at various under-23 races that first part of the year. So I knew the form was good. Once I was in that group I knew. 

I remember Tom [Stewart] coming up to me in the race actually, coming in to one lap to go. He wasn’t working and everyone else was having a go at him. And obviously I know him, so I said to him “you alright mate?” He just said “you wouldn’t work if you were me, would you? Because I can’t sprint and I’m the only one [from JLT-Condor] here so, why would I work?” 

I just knew in that group that if it came to the line, I was the quickest there. I didn’t expect it to split and obviously it was a bit of bad luck for the Madison lads and Tom – I think he punctured as well. It was still a super aggressive race. Even the group behind us, I think Tom Pidcock took the little bunch kick. It was only a group of about 15 or 20. It really split up that year. 

The strongest guy on the day was Karol. He was absolutely flying. But he just couldn’t get rid of me. Well, I knew not to let him go. So yeah, one of the best races I’ve played tactically to date.

2019 Rutland-Melton International CiCLE Classic, Leicestershire, England – Tom Pidcock and Gabriel Cullaigh of Team Wiggins Le Col. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

And the year after that was a bit more of a bigger bunch at the finish…

I think it wasn’t as aggressive for the most part of the race because remember the first time we went over Somerberg everyone was going quite well because Tom Pidcock give it a bit of a dig the first time over and everyone was with him. There was still a group of like 50 after. And then more people came back and then the next time over he really gave it a go. I was on his wheel so I just stayed with him. We did manage to force a little group but then it only got about a few seconds but then it all came back. Then it was all very cagey on the finishing circuits round Melton. I just could tell it was coming towards a bunch kick, so I just saved my powder and told Tom to keep having a go if he wanted. But there were a lot of people going quite well that day. I think there were about 50 or 60 riders in the end. So not a massive bunch but quite big for Rutland.

And the sprint went well for you. Almost too well…

The sprint was perfect until the last 50 metres. One of the Canyon boys, Alex Paton, went for a flyer just under a kilometre to go. Me and Tom [Pidcock] were quite far back and he said he was going to lead me out. So I just shouted “Go, GO!” He went on the left, and like I did with Karol, I used him as a target, a carrot. As he came out of that little chicane with a couple of 100 metres to go, he passed Alex and then sprinted. There was no one coming round us. I just waited until he was starting to tie up.

In my head I was just like “there’s no one coming ‘round me, and I’m absolutely flying to here

In my head I was just like “there’s no one coming ‘round me, and I’m absolutely flying to here” and obviously there had been big speculation about whether I could do it again… 

It felt like a home race because Grace and all of Grace’s family were there waiting at the line. And there were massive crowds that year. So I remember the euphoria of it hitting me before the line. I thought “I’ll do a big celebration here”. I forgot it was a pretty strong headwind finish. So as soon as I sat up, I slowed down massively. Colin just rolled me on the line. Mortified. 

What went through your head after the line?

I was just hoping that I had actually won, because it was close. But obviously I didn’t. I was happy at least to hold on for second. I was very annoyed at myself and Tom was annoyed, rightly so, because he could have won the bunch kick himself. I was gutted, gutted for the team, gutted for myself that I could have done the double. But yeah, you learn the hard way don’t you? If I’m in that situation again I’ll just go straight to the line.

2019 Rutland – Melton International CiCLE Classic, Leicestershire, England – Colin Joyce of Rally UHC Cycling wins. Gabriel Cullaigh (right) is second. Photo: SWpix.com

You’ve managed to (almost) win it from two different scenarios, what do you think it takes to win the race? What kind of rider? And what attributes do they need?

One of the big things is patience. Because there’s so many sectors. Once you hit Owston and you go through the old farm bit, I think if you stress too much to be in a really good position, you use up so much energy. Even after the last Somerberg there’s still about 50 k to go, it’s a long way. You’ve got to have that ability to be well positioned, but be kind of fluid about it.

Everyone turns up with good form. You really have to be always in the right position, in the right move 

I think you need to be a bit of a classics type rider. It doesn’t suit the diesel type. I don’t think anyone has ever won it solo. Everyone turns up with good form. You really have to be always in the right position, in the right move. 

The sectors aren’t really long enough to break the race. 

No, they’re not. Unless there’s some sort of bad luck, everyone’s on it. So you’ve got to be a bit more of a punchy rider. And obviously, a bit of a kick at the end. I think the reason why it’s such a brutal race is because a lot of British riders are like that. 

Anything can happen in it because of the off-road sectors. The team really wanted me to go there and do well again. But I’m not going to base my whole season around Rutland, because you can puncture on the last sector and that’s your race over. So you’ve got to go with options as a team. Every team has to be aggressive, have a good plan for different scenarios, and good candidates for the race.

I know it is the only one day UCI but it just feels like one of the only real bike races [in the UK]. It’s got that European atmosphere in the same way Lincoln has.

Apart from [Tour de] Yorkshire, it is the only one recognised by European guys. Over the last two years, every time we were talking about races and stuff that happened in the past, a lot of guys said they’d love to come and do Rutland. They say it’s such an iconic race. They always asked me what it’s like.There’s definitely an appetite for it. And it’s definitely recognised in the European scene. 

Hopefully it sticks around and it gets bigger and bigger. I mean, you don’t want it to get too big because it’s good for like the smaller British teams in it, but it’d be cool if it did one day become a .1 with like a support race or something.

We’ve lost the men’s RideLondon race, Velothon Wales, and the Beaumont Trophy is no longer a UCI race. Rutland is now the only men’s one day UCI left in the UK. How important do you think that is for a one day racer in the UK, to have a UCI race?

Massive. It’s just a different standard isn’t it? I opened my eyes to it this year. I’ve got a lot of teammates that have gotten into cycling through lockdown and they’ve not even done a UCI race yet. So for them to have that experience on home soil is invaluable. It does just change the dynamic from a standard Prem. So yeah, it is super important and it is a shame that it is the only one.

I don’t think it is a fluke that I’ve done well there. It’s my style of race: hard all day, undulating, a few spanners in the works with different sectors

Do you think a second win is possible this year, or in future years?

Yeah, it’s possible. I don’t think it is a fluke that I’ve done well there. It’s my style of race: hard all day, undulating, a few spanners in the works with different sectors. So yeah, it’s definitely possible. We’ll know by the end of this week whether it will be this year or not. But I’d love to race it again, that’s for sure. 

You probably feel like you’ve got to put something right after last time…

Yeah. Lay a ghost so they say. It would be nice to go. It’ll always be a special race. And the prizes are mega. And the crowds through Owston and then in Melton are immense. 

Featured photo: Harrison Hunter