The morning of January 28, 2017, in Bieles, Luxembourg.
The sky was leaden, and the colourful ribbons of the cyclo-cross World Championships looked meagre against piles of rock, disused industrial machinery and an incongruously modern shopping centre. As soon as the juniors were told to stop their warm-up laps, rain began to fall, and because the temperature was sub-zero, the rain froze when it hit the ground.
Tom Pidcock appeared from the British Cycling camper, wearing a black down jacket over his skinsuit and, as he began his warm-up, flicked the hood up, staring down at his front wheel. No picture for the gathered photographers, no facial clues as to how he was feeling for us journalists.
Did he feel pressure coming into the race as favourite?
“Yeah,” he says, with the benefit of seven months’ hindsight. “But you just acknowledge the pressure and get on with it. It was difficult getting to the Worlds though, because I over-trained that winter and had to have a week off before the race, which was difficult to handle.”
That race will live long in the memories of British cyclo-cross fans. After achieving his initial objective of getting a quick start to keep him out of trouble on the first icy corner, where a big crash took out most of the field, Pidcock bided his time, getting the feel for the newly slippery course. He’d made a last minute decision to switch to file tread tubulars, which seemed wise – the icy adverse cambers began to steadily claim their victims, but Pidcock stayed on his bike.
As the threat from French rider Maxime Bonsergent fell away, Pidcock took the lead, with fellow Brits Dan Tulett and Ben Turner later climbing into second and third. Pidcock punctured and slid out on a couple of bends but was always in control. Behind him, Turner and Tulett had a nerve-jangling last lap in which both crashed as they fought out the remaining medals. All three wore black armbands to commemorate Charlie Craig, the talented young rider who’d passed away a week before. As the national anthem blared through the podium speakers and three Union Jacks were winched skyward, the British crowd, including Tom’s parents, sang and cried.
The rainbow jersey Tom received on the podium is now framed in the hallway of his house. The red, white and blue skinsuit he wore in the race, unwashed and liberally flecked with Luxembourg mud, hangs in his bedroom.
A few hours after the race, Stefan Wyman, husband of British star Helen and well versed in the lore of ’cross, tweeted: ‘I need a canti CX frame. I want to ride like a British Junior. Canti brakes, please let me back in your club.’
It was an insightful soundbite, because not only did it announce the arrival of a new generation, it seemed to signify a different way of approaching ’cross. Less serious, more playful, more instinctive. Never mind data analysis and periodisation, just let your back wheel slide, ride on instinct, pull a wheelie over the finishing line. Suddenly the earnest and, at times, obsessive way the Dutch and Belgians have tackled cyclo-cross looked redundant.
Yet Pidcock’s playful style of riding, and the audacity to attempt whips while leading the World Championships on an icy course, belies the seriousness with which he approaches the sport and his career.
By the time the World Championships came around, Pidcock had already agreed to join the Telenet Fidea Lions team run by ’cross legend Sven Nys. Pidcock’s contract is for two years, and during that time he will focus on ’cross whilst maintaining a presence in road racing. The jump from junior to under-23 will be challenging, but Tom doesn’t seem fazed. His lap times from last season’s big ’cross races were only marginally slower than those of the winning under-23 riders.
Contrary to many people’s expectations, he is moving not to Belgium but to Monaco, where he will share a house with two friends. There will be a lot of travel to and from the Low Countries during the winter, but Tom thinks the warmer weather and the terrain near the Italian border will be better for him than the low skies and cobbles of Flanders. But won’t he be expected to join Sven’s famously hard Wednesday training sessions, deep in the sandy forests near Antwerp?
“I’ll do a few,” he says, “but I don’t really practice on a ’cross bike.”
Hang on. What?
The world cyclo-cross champion doesn’t train on a ’cross bike. He lives 200 metres from Roundhay Park, where Roger Hammond was the last British rider to win that same rainbow jersey 25 years ago, and he doesn’t take his cross bike over there to train.
“Nah. I’m quite relaxed about cross, I don’t really know that much about it, or the other riders.”
So the famous bike handling skills that have drawn comparisons to Peter Sagan, where do they come from?
He shrugs and smiles. When you’ve a gift, don’t interrogate it, just enjoy it. From a childhood spent on two wheels, is the likely answer. He began racing at seven. He always rode to school, whatever the weather.
The champion doesn’t train on a cross bike – I bet that blew the minds of his new team-mates. His mother Sonia, only half-jokingly, says, “Just wait till he does start practicing…”
“Yes, we only found that out quite recently at a training camp, that he only really trains on his road bike,” Pidcock’s new boss Sven Nys tells me. “And it makes it even more special, what he can do on a bike. I first saw how special he is at Zonhoven, which is a really technical and challenging track.
“He did something incredible in that race. He was riding like a Belgian guy, riding sections that others were struggling on. He’s a good cyclo-cross rider, not just a good athlete, but a good cyclo-cross rider, and that makes me want to work with him.”
Extract from issue 17.7 of Rouleur magazine