Josh Whitehead has had a tumultuous season. Experiencing two sudden team closures and now facing uncertainty about his future, his resolve and resilience has been well-and truly tested in 2023. Nevertheless, speaking to the 23-year-old after his recent Severn Valley Grand Prix win, he remains optimistic, fuelled by by a belief he can still make the professional ranks.
I still believe there’s a place for me in the higher ranks of the sport
Whitehead shot to the attention of the domestic road racing world when he won his first National Road Series race aged just 21. Riding for the elite-level Team PB Performance squad at the time, he outrode UCI Continental opposition to spring a surprise at the 2021 Lancaster Grand Prix.
A brief spell at the now-defunct SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling team ensued, before a transfer to the most successful UCI Continental team in the UK – WiV SunGod – the following year. The future was looking bright for the young Lancastrian.
After a season gaining UCI-level experience in 2022, and a solid winter of training, Whitehead understandably began 2023 full of hope. His team (now called AT85 Pro Cycling) had made some exciting new signings, had attracted a new set of sponsor, had put together an excellent race programme, and had plans to become a ProTeam the following season. A progression to the professional ranks looked within touching distance.
But then, without warning, AT85 Pro Cycling folded. Riders were left scrambling to find a new team, just at a time when most UCI teams have only recently settled on their squads for the year.
“It was so surreal, no one can say they were expecting that,” recalls Whitehead. “The team had so many successful years. 2022 was an unreal year in terms of results for the team and 2023 was shaping up to be even bigger and better with the new signings and the race calendar.”
I never lost motivation though. I thoroughly enjoy racing and worst case I’d still spend the year racing National As and Bs
A serious setback, then. But to Whitehead’s credit, he remained focused, despite the prospect of riding lower-level races and his progression being halted.
“I never lost motivation though. I thoroughly enjoy racing and worst case I’d still spend the year racing National As and Bs. However, progression in the sport would’ve been very limited.”
Whitehead quickly set about looking for a new team, “firing a load of messages out”, resourcefully using his connections to help his quest. The plan worked, landing a place at Cross Team Legendre along with two other AT85 Pro Cycling refugees, Rob Scott and Jim Brown.
“Luckily I’ve met some great people in this sport who were willing to help and had connections,” Whitehead says. “I’ve wanted to race out in France for some time now, an ex-professional from the Midlands put me in touch with a guy well-connected out there and it was like a dream come true when I got told I had a spot!”
A move to France for the well-resourced Alsace-based team run by former pro Steve Chainel followed. Whitehead had landed on his feet.
“The team had an unreal set up with some top sponsors, I could never have imagined having a turnaround like that,” Whitehead reflects.
“Once I got over to France we had a race not far from the team house, I got a podium, then the next day we were travelling to Switzerland for a week in the mountains to prepare for the Tour of Hellas in Greece.
I had an unreal time with the team. I was living in a big team house in Alsace surrounded by the Vosges mountains which made training fun everyday, a lot of the climbs being used in the Tour de France for many years.”
Whitehead rode UCI road races in Greece, Luxembourg and France for Cross Team Legendre in the months that followed, also making appearances in UK races. But then more misfortune struck. Lead sponsor Legendre pulled the plug, and with the team’s Pro Cyclocross UCI licence coming up for renewal, the team no choice other than to close immediately.
Whitehead appears sanguine about facing yet another team collapse, however.
“There was a team meeting where we were told the news which was obviously sad to hear but not completely unexpected,” he says. “The cost of everything going up meant the budget was burnt through much quicker than anticipated this year, the team chose not to renew their UCI licence in August. The team’s last race was Tour of Alsace and even up to that point there was no expense spared to ensure we gave our best performances.”
With little in the way of team continuity, his UCI results have not quite been what Whitehead had hoped for, 36th at Paris-Troyes (1.2) perhaps being his best finish. But he did have a successful block of Belgian kermesse racing after the closure of Cross Team Legendre, picking up five top tens (including two podiums) during a run of eight races out in cycling’s heartlands.
Whitehead was also a winner at the Victor Berlemont Trophy at the end of August before a season-ending win at the Severn Valley Grand Prix this month.
Physiologically I’ve improved a lot again this year so hopefully a big result can show that next year
“I’m happy what I’ve made of the season,” Whitehead tells us. “Results-wise I’d hoped to have got a decent UCI result this year but for some reason or another it’s not quite worked out. I went over to Belgium for a block of racing after the Cross team closed and picked up a couple of podiums there and with a couple of wins in the UK I seemed to have found my feet again. Physiologically I’ve improved a lot again this year so hopefully a big result can show that next year.”
Whitehead rode in the distinctive orange kit of Richardsons-Trek DAS in his last two races of 2023, a spell which he has enjoyed, despite it being shorter than he had hoped.
“I was speaking with them after AT85 folded, they’re a great setup. I was trying to ride Ryedale with them, along with Beaumont and Klondike [the East Cleveland Classic]. However, I joined too late for Ryedale and with Klondike being rescheduled it only turned out I got to race for them twice. The move was still worth it though, the support I got at Beaumont was no less than when I was at UCI Continental level.”
A topsy-turvy road season now finished for Whitehead, we ask him if he has thought about quitting the sport this year. He admits he has, but he nonetheless stresses that his motivation to race remains undiminished.
“It’s crossed my mind on some occasions,” says Whitehead. “But I still believe there’s a place for me in the higher ranks of the sport. I’ve never struggled with motivation to get out the door and train and the thought of racing still highly motivates me. I realise the dream has got to become a reality at some point for me to continue but with a full season next year in a solid set up I don’t see why that can’t be.”
First though, he needs to find a team for 2024. Despite having no team in place yet, he is hopeful of making a return to France.
The dream is to get back out to France again next year to race for a DN1 team. I’ve had no definite answers yet
“It’s left me with a bit of uncertainty. The dream is to get back out to France again next year to race for a DN1 team. I’ve had no definite answers yet.”
Why France, then?
“There’s many cases of proven success of British riders developing to WorldTour teams,” he posits. “The pathway and budget of the teams over there is great. There’s a lot of beautiful places in France and when you’ve got them on your doorstep to train on it’s definitely a motivator.”
Featured image: Chris Brunt/Graffika Photography