“I’ve been stuck in Britain for the last six years, which is not a bad thing…”
Just one of the delightfully self-deprecating post-race quotes from the surprise winner of the final Tour Down Under stage on Willunga Hill, Matthew Holmes.
Jens Voigt, microphone in hand, pushed the hero of the day for an effusive excitable quote and failed miserably. “Are you normally a good climber or did you have the most perfect day in your life today?” Jensie posited.
“Well, I don’t know,” Holmes batted back. “I’ve never really raced up the climbs. This is my second hilltop finish this week, so it seems to suit me,” he replied, followed by a little giggle. “We came in today with no plan at all, so we just thought we’ll all go for the breakaway.”
One shrewd punter on Twitter delightedly posted his each-way betting slip: 600/1 on Holmes. Fair play. Another commentated on how underwhelmed the Lotto Soudal debutant seemed having just taken his first WorldTour win in his first WorldTour race. But that’s how Holmes rolls. No need to get carried away; a job well done; on to the next one.
Everything about this story is delightful, from a 26-year-old Wigan lad, who had previously only raced at domestic level, winning on the big stage, through to a betting father-to-be financing baby clothes and buggies with his substantial winnings.
To make it even better, Holmes’ agent Gary McQuaid pointed out he’d spent two seasons touting his charge round to Pro Conti teams without a sniff of interest. Lotto Soudal, on the other hand, saw something the lesser teams failed to notice, took the chance and now have the opportunity to progress an exciting prospect.
Non-UK readers are probably wondering where Matty Holmes has been until now. Six years with continental team Madison Genesis returned some solid, if unspectacular results. He had a decent final season with the team, including victory at the Manx International and overall in the National Road Series. Hardly the stuff of WorldTour talent scouts’ dreams though, is it?
There has been much debate around the parlous state of British racing over the last few months, as sponsorship money has dried up and teams have folded – including Madison Genesis and Wiggins-Le Col.
And yet a steady stream of home riders have progressed from the UK scene to sign for major players. Connor Swift, 2018 national champion, went to Arkea Samsic last year. Jon Dibben joined Lotto Soudal alongside Holmes (and played a big part in his team-mate’s unlikely win on Willunga Hill). Harry Tanfield rode for four different British continental outfits before leaping to Katusha, then AG2R La Mondiale. Chris Lawless raced on home roads before a season spent at the Axeon Hagens Berman finishing school, then onto Team Sky. Fred Wright and Ethan Hayter have gone from south London medal factory club VC Londres, via the GB Academy, to Bahrain-McLaren and Team Ineos respectively. Mark Donovan to Sunweb. Gabs Cullaigh to Movistar.
The list goes on, and on.
There are 24 British riders at WorldTour level this season, a rudely healthy number. For comparison, USA has 19, Australia 34. We’ve never had it so good.
So is the domestic racing scene really in dire straights, or is it just another of those little downturns that occur every few years? Sponsors come, and sponsors go – same as it ever was.
When Madison CEO Dominic Langan announced his team would fold at the end of the 2019 season after seven successful years, he stated that “now is the right time to bring the team to an end so we can invest in other market segments which are now showing much more significant growth potential.”
And this is a key comment. If sales of road bikes and interest in traditional road racing are flatlining, as is widely reported, sponsors will become increasingly hard to find – and retain.
But what is clear is that the top teams are now prepared to take a punt on British riders, many of whom have little experience of racing outside these shores, to see if they can cut it at the very top level of the sport. This is a relatively new development, and a welcome one.
If these guys can gain contracts on the WorldTour from a diet of Tour Series crits, National Road Series races and Tour of Britain appearances, good on them. The system has served them well.
The concern is whether the domestic scene can continue to thrive in the current economic climate. Times are hard, sponsorship cash in short supply. But these teams are clearly a vital (and underappreciated) link in the supply chain of talent, a breeding ground for Matty Holmes and the rest. Long may they continue.