Exploring the Great Britain Cycling Team Academy at the Tour de Yorkshire 2019
It’s been a while since we last spoke to our old mate Matthew Brammeier, so we decided to visit the former pro, now lead academy coach with the Great Britain Cycling Team (GBCT) men’s endurance programme, at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire. It turned out to be a fascinating insight into how the outspoken and occasionally controversial pro rider has matured into a confident and astute leader, now able to bring the benefit of his diverse and complicated career as a rider to aid the development of the next crop of British talent. Before we delve into the second part of Matt’s riding career and his aspirations for the academy we first travel with the team through stage one of the Tour de Yorkshire 2019.
We met up early on the morning of the first day of the race at the team hotel in Wetherby. Here I left my car and grabbed a quick coffee in the restaurant. Matt and I had a brief chat in the lounge about the day ahead, but there wasn’t much time to hang about gossiping, so we headed more or less straight away to the far corner of the hotel car park that GBCT were calling home for a few days. Team staff were buzzing around making sure all the last-minute preparations were complete. There was a nice atmosphere around the place and everyone was clearly looking forward to the days that lay ahead and mixing it with the big boys’ teams of the UCI WorldTour. I was introduced to staff and riders before we set off with as little fuss as possible.
We drive in convoy with the other GBCT vehicles towards the start town of Doncaster. In the driver’s seat is of course Matt, with me (feeling important) riding shotgun. Behind Matt sits the team’s road captain Dan McLay, on loan from UCI WorldTour outfit EF Education First. At first I’m not entirely sure who is sat next to Dan in the back. I think to myself that it could be the young Scot Sean Flynn, but he was especially quiet - perhaps nervous ahead of the big race, or maybe just going through his own private pre-race routine. The in-car chat between Brammeier and McLay catches me a little off guard, but perhaps I should know better. Matt is explaining to Dan some half-baked theory on how the Amazon rainforest only produces enough oxygen to maintain the animal life forms that live within the Amazon rainforest, and how in return the animal life forms that inhabit the Amazon rainforest create just enough carbon dioxide to maintain the plant life of the Amazon rainforest. So in terms of the rest of the planet the Amazon rainforest has net zero benefit, he suggests. “It’s like you’ve got these two glasses,” he continues, and mimics pouring water from one to the other and back again. “See? Oxygen...and carbon dioxide.” I did not see. I was a bit baffled if I’m honest, and I’m not entirely unbaffled even now.
We arrive at the start almost without error. Here we are greeted by an official-looking chap. I drop my window and enquire where the GB mechanic’s truck is parked, fully expecting a broad Yorkshire accent to respond. Instead I get only a blank stare back. The Lancastrian in me does a metaphorical eye-roll before repeating S-L-O-W-L-Y for the benefit of my Tyke cousin, “The Great Britain team, please mate?” From the back seat comes an entirely unexpected interjection from McLay, who in fluent French was able to converse with said official and quickly establish where we needed to park. I turned to McLay, in equal amounts of embarrassment at my faux pas and amazement at his linguistic ability. “ASO innit,” he mumbles before retreating back into his beard, and the world equilibrium was restored.
The lads sign on underneath menacingly black clouds. I briefly imagined that the weather could just hold, but as the start approached the raindrops were already assembling, ready to unleash themselves upon this unusually lively corner of God's own country. What to wear seemed to be the main debate amongst the team as some opt for the ‘gabba’ style tops (or 'Kabbas' as I overhear them described, due to them being made by Kalas), while others go for the more traditional ‘layers’ approach, topped off with a rain jacket. McLay appears to be wearing every single item of kit issued to him. That's experience right there.
We roll out of 'Donny' and within a few minutes of the flag dropping the weather has already gone biblical on us. The heavy rain rebounds from the sodden Yorkshire tarmac, which reflects the headlights of team cars and race motos alike. It feels more like dusk than the middle of the day and an ark may have been a more appropriate means of transport. Barely out of the neutralised zone and before we can settle into the race, the words “CHUTE, CHUTE!” are heard on race radio. Within seconds we overtake the incident where a couple of riders have gone down hard to our right. By the look of the Euskadi guy his race is done. I recognise the tell-tale manner in which he’s sat on the ground nursing his arm. It’s a classic broken collarbone injury for who I later confirm was Spaniard Mikel Aristi. My pity for him at lasting but a few minutes into a four-day stage race is tempered by my relief that it wasn’t one of ‘ours’. We press on, as the race inevitably does, leaving the medics to mop up the unfortunates behind.
The race immediately goes to plan as Joe Nally and Sean Flynn of GBCT both get themselves into a small break of just six. They are joined by former GBCT academy man and winner of 2017 Gent-Wevelgem U23 Jacob Hennessy, now of Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes and fellow Brit Dan Bigham of Team Ribble. Jesper Asselman (Roompot-Charles) and Kevin Vermaerke (Hagens Berman Axeon) complete the sextet.
Matt checks with the second GBCT car to confirm who is carrying the spare bikes for our two lads in the break. The consensus is that it’s us. There then follows one of the most exhilarating things you can do in sport without actually contributing personally. Our car needs to move up from our position in the race convoy following the peloton, passing 120 or so riders, as well as motos and other race vehicles, and navigate our way to the head of the race where the breakaway has formed with a modest gap of a couple of minutes.
Nothing can really prepare you for the adrenaline rush, no matter how many times you’ve experienced this before. It’s real heart-in-mouth stuff for this nervous passenger. I try my best to melt into my seat, making myself as small as possible, not easy for someone 1.92 M and 85 kg (on a good day). But I want Matt to have sight of his mirrors at all times. The horn is depressed almost constantly as Matt moves us up bit-by-bit on the narrow and twisting roads somewhere between South and North Yorkshire en route to our ultimate destination in Selby. We’re mere centimetres away from a dozen or more riders throughout the nervous couple of minutes it takes Matt to pilot us safely to the front. All occupants of our car are silent throughout as the mechanic and I respectfully observe the skill and patience required to choose where and when to go for a gap, and when to hold your ground and maybe risk the wrath of the angry bunch yelling expletives through the half-open window.
As we pass the pointy end of the bunch I breathe a sigh of relief that our little escapade is complete, and for the moment we can settle into the more mundane task of following the breakaway. The fan boy in me was thinking that at least I might get to hand out a bidon or two.
But we don’t have long to wait before the action kicks off once more. We hear on the team radio that Ethan Hayter has been involved in a crash and he needs to change his bike. Yep, that’s right, his bike is of course on the top of our car. And we have just manoeuvred ourselves to the opposite end of the race. Of course, turning around and heading back is not really an option! All we can do is find a lay-by, pull over and wait.
The old heads around me immediately take advantage of the lull in proceedings to exit the vehicle for an opportunistic nature break. I think about it for a fraction too long and by the time I’ve decided to join them they are already zipping up and heading back to the car. With visions of the team car speeding away while I’m stood there with my old feller in hand, I decide to hold it in. The mechanic gets Ethan’s spare bike off the roof and waits patiently at the roadside as the peloton and its entourage, that we battled so stressfully to overtake for what seemed like an age, pours past us in a handful of seconds.
Still sat in the passenger seat, terrified to move, my eyes probe the wing mirror for a sign of Ethan’s arrival behind, but nothing. Matt is constantly on the team radio reassuring Ethan we have his bike and are waiting on the left side. What seems like an eternity passes before Ethan calmly appears. He seems physically OK following his tumble, but his cleat has become twisted and he cannot continue until it’s resolved. Adrenaline pulses through my own veins as all I can think about is the ever-growing gap that Ethan is now going to need to work extremely hard to close to get back to the rear of the bunch. But he’s the coolest customer in town as the mechanic tweaks his cleat and re-tightens the bolts. But it’s not quite right. Inside I’m yelling “GO MAN GO...THE GAP IS FUCKING MASSIVE!” But undaunted by the situation Ethan calmly feeds back to the mechanic how the cleat needs further adjustment and waits patiently for the mechanic to complete the task. Only once his shoe and pedal are once again perfectly aligned does he coolly climb on board his new bike to chase down the peloton, setting off seemingly as relaxed as if he were pedalling to the shop for a packet of Yorkshire Tea.
We spend the next relatively uneventful portion of the race following the main bunch. There are some nice moments after the feed, when the race appears to have settled down a little following the early frantic moments of the break establishing itself and a glut of crashes and collisions. A few of the elder statesman of the WorldTour spot Matt driving and swing across the road to say hello. Bernie Eisel, smiling as ever, shares a joke and Nathan Haas is keen to offer Matt the benefit of his motoring advice. “Yer almost killed us all back there mate,” he playfully yells through the window – huge grin on his face. “Almost,” replies Matt smiling, but without ever taking his eyes off the road ahead.
The other highlight of the day was lunch. An exquisite ham salad wrap was delivered courtesy of the cooler box in the rear, accompanied with a mini can of Coke, of a size which, it seems, is only ever served up by airlines or in feed zone musettes at bike races. To much hilarity amongst the other two car occupants Matt even conjured up a pre-planned mini napkin to ensure no crumbs made it onto his new team issue top. The relative crumb-free benefit of the wrap over other bread types was debated at length, to the point where the requirement for the napkin was questioned. Closer inspection of said napkin then revealed a rogue blob of BBQ sauce had stealthily seeped from the bottom of the wrap. We were reluctantly forced to admit the napkin had been an inspired call and had fully justified its inclusion.
One legacy of Keith Lambert’s time as senior men’s academy coach appears to be the mid-race brew. Matt’s preparation for this started as soon as I arrived at the hotel. He'd already boiled the kettle in his room and filled a flask with tea. He later tasked the swanny with sourcing some milk. All was packed into the car before we left the hotel ready for a post-feed brew-up. I recall being at the same race last year when I went with the swanny to the feed. After handing out the rider musettes his next task was to wait for Keith to pull over to the roadside and hand through the window his flask of tea, and on that occasion a packet of McVitie’s digestives. On long days like this sustenance and morale are just as important for the staff as the riders.
Towards the end of the race, despite his mammoth effort Flynn gets shelled from the lead group. As is so often the case for riders who have fought a long hard battle in the breakaway, he slides ungracefully back through the main bunch and straight out the rear of the peloton. We spot him and offer bottles and gels, but the manner of his shake of the head says it all. He's totally spent and we won't see him again until he arrives at the team bus several minutes down on the main bunch of finishers.
Between the race radio, team radio and the live ITV4 broadcast that we are receiving courtesy of a tablet hastily gaffer-taped to the dash, we see Nally is still up top, although the break has now thinned to just four. Following the final climb of the stage Jake Hennessey called it a day in the knowledge he will start stage two wearing the King of the Mountains jersey. The weather almost certainly played its part as he dropped back in search of the relative warmth of a place in the middle of the bunch, leaving just four out front. And with only a few kilometres left it dawns on us that Nally and the remaining other three in the break are actually in with a chance of staying away.
For a moment I let myself imagine the pure joy this would bring to all involved. A young academy kid just learning his trade. Not only executing the day's plan of getting in the break, but seeing it through to the end and maybe, just maybe, delivering a memorable victory. The excitement was palpable as Matt started shouting at the TV, "Come on lad, come on!" We exchange a knowing glance as we both acknowledge the enormity of what might be just about to happen and I start to imagine myself in one of those pieces of in-car GoPro footage at the Tour de France when the DS and his sidekick embrace each other while whooping and hollering as their rider solos to a mountain top finish of the queen stage.
Such was the level of emotion inside the car, and belief in our man, that Matt pulled the car over and stopped so that we could witness the final moments of the race on our improvised in-car TV. Inside the final kilometre and under the red kite they go. Holy crap: he might just do this. But the bunch are bearing down on them fast. This is going to be really close, but have the sprinter’s teams mistimed their planned capture?
In the thick of the chase, monitoring and manoeuvring but of course without contributing, is McLay, who is expertly piloting Hayter to the pointy end of the gallop. Ethan had expertly rejoined the business end of the race following his tumble and bike swap, and was now ready to offer Plan B as the team’s designated sprinter for the day. But only if the bunch caught the break.
By now we’re all screaming at the tiny flat screen taped to the dash, praying the data connection doesn’t start buffering – or worse, give up completely. Come on Joe, come on, you can do it lad! A few hundred metres to go and the bunch are thundering down upon the four escapees. ‘Kinell . . . they’ve got this. Five hundred metres and they are still away. Four hundred. Three.
With whatever is left in their weary legs the four survivors of the day-long break finally open up the sprint. Given the speed of the peloton roaring down upon them, now just metres behind, no obvious increase in the speed of the now-sprinting breakaway four is detectable. Indeed, they suddenly appear to be going backwards unfeasibly quickly. At just one hundred metres to go the four are spread across the road, very much focussed on their own race, seemingly blissfully unaware of the mayhem that is lurking behind them, and already reaching wilfully for the line.
With barely fifty metres left Asselman of Roompot launches himself ahead of the others. The bunch suddenly overwhelm the remainder of the break and there is chaos behind as we try to see who finished where. Asselman was the clear winner, but the rest was pretty hard to decipher, especially in the dull and murky conditions, where everyone's kit was soaked to a similar grey colour.
Finally the stage result appears on the screen and we see that Ethan has come through to finish sixth. Nally was swamped on the line and ended up in twelfth, just behind the likes of Cavendish, Lawless and Zabel, but ahead of fellow breakees Bigham in 14th and Vermaerke in 18th. No shame in that whatsoever. A hell of a ride for the youngster.
We eventually rejoin the race route and make our way to the team parking area at the Selby finish. Sean rolls in 124th of 126 finishers, over ten minutes down. Everyone makes it safely back to the camper, albeit in various states of near-exhaustion and universally frozen. All the lads want to do is get out of their sodden kit and into something warm. Within minutes they are reappearing from the camper wearing winter coats and woolly hats, with Tupperware containers of hot food in hand. The exodus from Selby is impressively well organised as the bikes are all packed away rapidly and we are on our way in only a few minutes. There is less banter in the car returning to the hotel post-race. I can only recall a wee small voice coming from the back seat proclaiming he’s never felt so tired in his life.
My disappointment for Joe at getting caught so close to the line was tempered slightly at how privileged I felt to have witnessed the events at such close quarters. Having spent the day with the team I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. Although I still had a load of questions for Matt and the team I decided to leave as soon as we arrived back at the hotel and let them recover for the next day. I arranged to catch up with Matt after the end of the race.
It’s a while later when I eventually get around to calling Matt and asking him a little more about the race, the academy lads he’s working with and more generally his own aspirations for his role as Senior Men’s Academy coach.
Matthew Martin Brammeier has already enjoyed a remarkable career in professional cycling. Back in issue one (in late 2013) we ran an interview with him that covered his career to date: ‘No Fairy Tales - A Survivor’s Story’. The feature explored his early days as a junior, when he raced alongside the likes of Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas, and joining the Great Britain academy where he experienced modest success on the track. Then getting both legs broken when he was run over by a cement truck in Manchester and later being invited to leave Britain’s elite programme by coach Rod Ellingworth. Deciding to go it alone outside of the system and moving to Belgium and eventually getting a ride on Sean Kelly’s An-Post team, before switching nationality from British to Irish and becoming Ireland’s national road race champion four times in a row and time trial champion once.
We pick up our conversation where the last interview left off in 2013. Matt’s team Champion System had just folded and he was unsure what the future held, despite an encouraging performance at the Tour of California. I remind him of Stage 4 when, according to the TV commentary, he went “the wrong way” at a roundabout with 2 km to go. This enabled him to get the jump on the bunch, but despite the pre-race plan none of his teammates came with him. Without any support he was caught shortly before the line and robbed of a memorable career-defining win.
“I went the right way!” he defiantly maintains.
Following that performance in Cali Matt got talking to some bigger teams but nothing transpired and he ended up signing for the new Azerbaijan-based Synergy Baku outfit for the 2014 season. I ask him what he made of the different race programme and environment away from his familiar European surroundings.
“At the start I hated it. It was total chaos. Twelve-hour bus journeys to the start soon put a stop to me complaining about transfers at the Tour of Britain! But looking back it was actually one of the most fun years I’ve had on the bike. When I stopped taking myself so seriously I actually started to really enjoy it. The team was what it was. It gave me enough money to get through a season and enough races to keep me in the spotlight to move back up to where I wanted to be.”
I venture to enquire about one of Matt’s career high points – the King of the Mountains jersey at the 2014 Tour de Langkawi. How the hell did you pull that one off?
“Talent,” comes the single-word response, with a shrug.
We explore his time as a young rider living in Belgium and the challenges that brought, not least the weather and dealing with the ultra-competitive environment where ‘flick or be flicked’ seems to be the way of the world.
“I did a few weeks in Girona over the winter of 2011 and totally fell in love with the place. The pace of life, the roads, the weather. I just loved it. Belgium is a great place for young up-and-coming bike riders and of course cyclo-cross riders, but after a while I found it difficult to train properly there and stay serious. So I moved to Girona in 2013 and split my time between there and Belgium.”
The change of location and the re-focus appeared to do the trick as at the end of the eventful 2014 season with the Azeri outfit Matt got back into the big time, earning a two-year contract with what was then everyone’s favourite second team MTN-Qhubeka. Most riders are afraid to drop down a level, and worry they will never return to the top races in the world. But Matt made it back and quickly repaid his new team’s faith in him with a victory in a stage of Ster ZLM Tour. He also won his own weight in beer at Tour of Flanders. He was once again reunited with Bernie Eisel, Mark Renshaw, Mark Cavendish and many staff from his HTC days. I ask him what it meant for him to get back to that level, competing in those races he dreamed of as a kid, and being in a supportive and familiar environment where every rider appeared to be offered a chance to lead the team when they had the form.
“Of course I was super happy to be given the opportunity to step back up. Clearly it was always going to be a challenge. I think my determination not to give up in 2014 was enough in itself to open the door back up. I had a great couple of years at MTN and enjoyed my one and only pro win there! I’ll look back fondly in years to come on those years for sure.”
I hesitate to push too much on the next topic, because I know what a profound effect it had on Matt, but I take him back to Stage 6 of the 2015 Tour of Utah. He’d had a fantastic ‘comeback’ season and seemed to be loving life on the road again. Then that collision. I genuinely still feel sick thinking about it even now. It was all over social media at the time so you will find it easily enough if you haven’t seen it already and feel the need to understand what I’m talking about. I have only seen it once and that was more than enough for me. I woke that morning to my phone buzzing like crazy. Knowing that we’d worked together at HTC, Matt’s family were even contacting me to see if I knew how he was. I did not. There was hardly any information coming from the race coverage. No one knew what state he was in – not even his team – only that he’d been involved in a very serious incident. His family here in Europe going frantic with worry, and, in the absence of any information, fearing the worst. Still now whenever I see a bad crash in any race I think about Matt’s incident and how terrified we all were for his welfare at that time, and how shockingly poor communication of his status was.
I tell Matt I have the impression that his life as a pro was never quite the same after that incident and the bizarre situation where his friends and family watched his crash live on TV, then for hours afterwards had no clue whether he was alive or not. Thankfully in time he made a full recovery, but somehow things seemed different afterwards. It seemed his attitude to the sport had changed and he started to get actively involved with the rider union and safety issues.
“It definitely added a bit more perspective to my life and made me start to realise what was important. I made a good comeback from the crash but in all honesty even if I didn’t know it at the time it was the beginning of the end for me. I struggled to take risks, fight for position and in general it killed my competitiveness. I just didn’t care as much any more. As soon as you lose that fight it's all over. Cycling is too hard not to be fully committed – and just a little bit bonkers.”
We move on to happier memories and the team’s connection with the Qhubeka charity. Matt not only did his bit as part of the team but also started his own initiative collecting unwanted cycling kit and sending it to an academy in Africa.
“I saw the opportunity to do a little bit more and give something back to the sport that almost killed me twice,” he suggests wryly.
“Most of the lads on the team were amazing blokes. There were a couple who seemed to get a little entitled at being Africans on the first African team, but they didn’t last long.” I don’t enquire further to understand who he’s referring to.
2017 saw the arrival of the first Irish-registered pro cycling team Aqua Blue Sport, and naturally they valued having a multiple Irish national champion on their roster. Matt got a two-year contract and hooked up once again with some UK and Irish lads he knew well. I ask what kind of experience he had racing with this team.
“Year one was a right laugh. We had a great group and it was so much fun. Naturally success followed. Year two went to total shit. Expectations were crazy high and we all paid the price for some stupidly overambitious aspirations. At the end of the day the owners had no idea about cycling. As soon as they got more involved it went to shit.”
The team rapidly grew in status as a ProContinental outfit and gained perhaps some eyebrow-raising invites to top races in their first year. The team owner later suggested he’d bought his way into those races. I ask what this suggests about the state of pro cycling.
“As far as I’m aware it’s pretty common practice. But it does my head in that it's become a general conception that cycling is ‘broken’. Formula 1 drivers buy their way onto teams, is F1 broken? It’s existed for many years as is and it is totally fine. If anything it's overambition and greed that’s going to kill our sport eventually.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the Aqua Blue Sport experiment was perhaps fatally flawed from the start. Rick Delaney had the ambition to create a self-sustaining business model that funded the team through sales of cycling-related products via a now-defunct online retail site. Riders appeared to lack confidence in the equipment. Was the experiment always doomed to failure?
“From day one the sums didn’t add up. We were told ABS would take 5% commission from sales. We apparently spent over £2m in our first season. That would take a bigger turnover than Chain Reaction & Wiggle put together if my maths are correct! There was definitely some other hidden agenda. We were asked to test equipment the year previous. It was tested and we hated it. This was communicated but of course we were only the bike riders, what did we know about bikes?”
As many predicted would happen, the team folded at the end of 2018. But Matt had already signalled his intention to step away from racing. Was it the body or the mind that told him it was time to hang up the wheels?
“Bit of both. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Couldn’t hurt myself in racing or training anymore. And on top, the team was a joke. Of course I had something else lined up for quite a while before. That was motivating me so much more, so the time was right to go for something new.”
Then, perhaps a surprise to some, he returned to the place where it all started at British Cycling and the Great Britain Cycling Team, but this time on the other side of the fence as lead men’s academy coach. It turns out the same guy who sat him down all those years ago to tell him his career with Great Britain was over was the same person who reopened the door for Matt’s return.
“It was a conversation I had with Rod some years ago. I was always kept in the loop of possible opportunities and as soon as it opened up I jumped at it.”
Clearly Matt didn’t harbour any reservations about returning to British Cycling after being let go from the track programme as a promising youngster and had no regrets about switching allegiances to race for Ireland. But I ask him about the antics he, Cav, and G got up to during their youth. Allegedly doing donuts in the velodrome car park and changing the wheel circumference on their cycle computers to make it look like they’d ridden the training distance prescribed by their then-coach Rod Ellingworth. They were a proper pain in Rod’s arse - does he not fear the same tricks will come back to haunt him?
“The lads are a lot more well-behaved these days, thank god, and let’s leave it that way thanks!”.
I’m intrigued to know how the academy set-up has evolved since Matt’s time on the programme.
“Everything has really moved forward. I’d say the current crop of juniors are at a similar level to what we were at as U23’s. However the ethos remains the same – work hard and learn the trade.”
There seems to be an abundance of talent amongst the current crop of youngsters. I ask how he sees these lads progressing.
“We definitely have some good guys coming through. It's a real strong group which is testament to what we are all doing. The Olympics is possible for one or two of the lads and we could maybe have two or three moving into the WorldTour next season too.”
So the ultimate question then - what difference can Matt and his unique experience bring to the academy?
“I’ve come in with some pretty lofty aspirations. Some years ago the academy was ’the place to be’ and the best development team in the world. It was where everyone wanted to be. Over the years the sport has evolved and we now have some healthy competition out there. I have full faith that we have the best support team in the world and it’s my goal to build the academy into the most successful development team in the world. Success to me isn’t just about performance, it’s about setting these lads up for their futures and crafting them into happy, resilient, complete bike riders.”
One of Matt’s first changes was to switch the training base to Girona, a place where he’s has many fond memories of life on and off the bike.
“For me location isn’t all about the roads, the weather, or the transport links. The move was more about off the bike and the lads being able to have a happy life away from bike riding. I feel Girona is the ideal place for them to enjoy themselves off the bike and live their lives as committed bike riders at the same time.”
We finish off with a chat about the lads who I’d had the privilege to join for that day in the car at the Tour de Yorkshire. I was curious to better understand why they were chosen to race, what their roles where and how Matt felt the race had gone for them all.
#181 Dan McLay
Dan is no stranger to the academy set-up. The WorldTour sprinter with EF Education First has experienced track success as a junior in GBCT colours. In 2009 he took bronze in the Madison at the UEC European Track Championships and in 2010 became junior world Madison track champion with Simon Yates (now of Mitchelton-Scott). Dan’s experience made him the perfect road captain. “It’s basically like having a coach inside the peloton,” Matt told me. “You can see a lot on the TV, but not everything, so it’s invaluable having an experienced pair of eyes on the lads up close.”
Dan’s role was essentially to mentor the young sprinters. Show them how to position themselves in the bunch, which wheels to follow, when to move up while navigating those critical final few kilometres. Dan would be there to help guide Ethan to sixth on Stage 1 and in return he was allowed to go for the stage win himself on Stage 2, where he finished fifth.
#182 Charley Calvert
Charley was a late replacement for the injured Jim Brown. Matt tells me he almost made it into the academy in 2018, missing out “by the skin of his teeth,” being very unfortunate that the group they already had was considered especially strong. He was selected for this race because they like his attitude on and off the bike and they wanted to take a closer look at him. He performed really well throughout this race and a handful of other Nations Cup races where he has also really impressed.
#183 Sean Flynn
Matt explained that the academy system is about give and take so when they can they like to offer opportunities to athletes who might not necessarily make a major contribution to the team’s particular goals or may have no particular ambitions in that particular discipline. The federation wanted to give promising young Scottish mountain biker Sean Flynn some high-quality race experience and he repaid them fully by getting in the break on Stage 1. While his focus is mainly on MTB right now he could well be one to watch for the future.
#184 Ethan Hayter
Matt is visibly enthused when he talks about Ethan. “Hitter,” he says simply. Last year was his first Tour of Britain and perhaps he lacked confidence. “He still has not realised just how good he is, but it’s slowly starting to dawn on him,'' Matt says. Tour de Yorkshire was a great opportunity for him to race against some big teams. He crashed first day and still got up and back on to contest the sprint. He went in the break on a hilly last day. The race didn’t really pan out as they had expected, but Ethan was versatile and able to adapt to the situation. It was also an impressive performance considering it was his first road race of the year.
#185 Joe Nally
Joe’s Stage 1 ride was described by Matt as “the performance of his career so far.” He played it smart in the break all day and did everything that was asked of him. In the end he was pretty close to winning and that’s exceptional for one so young at that level of racing. The performance he delivered should give a lot of confidence for the future.
#186 William Tidball
Will is described as really promising for a 19-year-old. This was the biggest race he’s ever done and he got through it well. He was able to contribute to the lead-outs in the early stages but unsurprisingly was less effective on Stages £ and 4. He did well, especially considering he was thrown in at the deep end.
#187 Ben Turner
Ben came into this race off the back of a full CX season. He’d had a bit of a rest and was building back up, so the team didn’t have huge expectations of him in this race. They know he’s talented and capable because of his CX performances and so they take the opportunity to have a look at him on the road as and when they are able to, then consider if they can bring him in for major competitions in future. Sadly he got sick during Stage 2 and was unable to complete the race.
So overall the race was considered to be a success for the academy and the lads who raced. All part of “learning the trade” as Matt often puts it.
These are fascinating times for the GBCT set-up. The track facility in Manchester with world-class coaches and support staff is very well established. There has been phenomenal multiple Olympic success, notably by the likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins. British riders have had an unparalleled period of success on the road too in Grand Tours with Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and of course Chris Froome. Arguably though the Academy has not fully delivered its potential in contributing to the road success in the same way it has to track, and perhaps the UK could have enjoyed even greater success with a broader base of talent. So many other riders like Matt himself have been forced to find their own way as a pro outside of the medal factory that is the Podium Programme.
Matt’s experience as a young rider on the programme, who got let go, then forged his own pathway to ultimately learn his trade, becoming multiple national champion and making it with some of the biggest teams in the world can offer invaluable insight into delivering a programme that may capture more of this talent in the future. His extreme highs and lows have given him a unique perspective not only on what it takes to make it in the world of cycling, but importantly on what kind of things drain the motivation and lead talented athletes to walk away.
The UK domestic road scene is in a strange place. Races such as the Tour de Yorkshire, Ride London and the Tour of Britain attract huge crowds at the roadside and on television. But the races that make up what was the Premier Calendar, and to some extent the national championships rarely capture the attention of the nation’s fans in this same manner as when the WorldTour boys come to town.
The existence of high-calibre UK domestic road teams appears as precarious as ever. Recent years have seen the loss of teams like (Rapha) JLT-Condor, NFTO, ONE Pro Cycling and now Madison-Genesis. Whilst the perpetual churn of sponsors has been a fixture of all of pro cycling for many generations the situation seems set to continue. Uncertainty over a team’s survival can never be good for the development of talent and at best diverts valuable resources to the never-ending search for the next team sponsor. Riders are constantly unsettled, lurching from one failing or failed team to the next.
The GBCT academy team has an ambitious programme of European racing as well as guaranteed places alongside WorldTour teams in the biggest UK races. With Matt at the helm the welfare of these riders on and off the bike will be better than ever before. The UK appears to now have a fantastic pool of potential road talent. Perhaps it always has. But maybe the key to transferring that talent from potential to an unparalleled period of road success will lie in the strengthening of the academy set-up under the guidance of a man who genuinely has been there and seen it all.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 22.