In a white-walled corridor at Liverpool John Moores’ University, a dozen Team Wiggins talents are pushing themselves to the max on stationary bikes. Coach Paul Mill bellows encouragement during the final seconds of a power test, while the churn from the machines makes it sound like a wind tunnel.
At this moment in early December, they’re literally going nowhere, but these are twelve young men with impressive potential. This is just the beginning – of their 2018 seasons and, possibly, some dazzling careers as racing cyclists.
It’s all change for Team Wiggins this year, as the UCI Continental team goes under-23 only. British track stars Steven Burke and Andrew Tennant have departed and the influx of young signings includes multiple junior world champion Tom Pidcock, up-and-coming Irish sprinter Mark Downey and Mark Donovan, who tested with Quick Step at their January training camp.
There is also a certain familiar and less fresh face here this afternoon: Sir Bradley Wiggins, who has popped down to catch up with this season’s charges. “Last year, I didn’t really do much. Having retired, I needed a bit of a break from cycling,” he says. “Then I came in a bit more, to be around them, to be the face, if any of the guys wanted to ask any questions.”
One interaction with the team was last year’s Paris-Roubaix Espoirs, an experience he enjoyed. “Seeing how it all operates from the other side of the fence was a bit of an eye-opener, especially at U23 level. It’s almost like going back to junior racing, there don’t seem to be any tactics involved, it’s a bit of a free-for-all because of what’s at stake for a win – a pro contract.”
Team Wiggins started in 2015, with an eleven-rider roster, to help ease the Briton’s return to the Olympics the following year. But the team grew, and as starlets like Jon Dibben and Owain Doull emerged and the example of Axel Merckx’s Axeon team caught his eye, Wiggins resolved to keep his eponymous squad going with a focus on development.
“The amount of teams coming into the UK scene recently with big plans, [like reaching the] Tour de France in five years. I think that’s such a big challenge in itself and I’d much rather see my name at grassroots level … it’s a positive, lasting legacy to my career.”
“I think the biggest credit for that is after a year or two, young riders were choosing this team over the [GB] Academy, which was a first,” Wiggins adds. “Riders like Joey [Walker], Gabz [Cullaigh] and Scott Davies thought ‘I’ll go into this, it seems a better pathway for me.’ Especially if they don’t want to ride the track, which you’re obliged to do at the Academy.’”
Room at the top
The team’s calendar for 2018 includes some of the year’s top under-23 races, including the Baby Giro, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Triptyque Ardennais. Amid this mix of espoir and .2 UCI races, they also hope to be invited to the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain.
With British talent Davies and James Knox moving onto WorldTour squads Dimension Data and Quick Step-Floors over winter, there will be new riders leading the team, hoping to follow them into the sport’s top tier.
Gabriel Cullaigh is a likely one-day race captain. The Yorkshireman endured a nightmare 2017 on the Dutch SEG Racing team, intermittently afflicted by breathing problems during races that had been misdiagnosed as exercise-induced asthma from his days of youth racing.
“When it comes on, the more air you try and pull in, the more my throat would block it,” he says. It’s kind of like breathing through a smaller and smaller straw to the point it would sometimes completely lock up and I’d have to stop pedalling [in a race].”
Cullaigh, pictured above, stopped racing at the start of the summer and resolved to solve the problem. After consultations at London’s Harley Street, he was diagnosed with exercise-induced laryngeal obstruction. “Basically, the two flaps at the top of my voicebox that were collapsing and blocking the airway,” he explains. “A normal person’s windpipe opens up when they breath in, mine was doing the opposite.
After laser surgery, Cullaigh is back fighting fit in 2018 and looking to perform highly at the likes of under-23 Paris-Roubaix and, should he be selected, the Tour of Flanders: “I’m dead excited to see what I can do, I should be challenging to be one of the strongest under-23s in the world,” he adds.