Stepping Stones - James Fouché

Words & Images: Russell Jones


“I was going to go for the early breakaway because I find that’s just the easiest for me, and then thought I’d try and hold on to whoever caught us. Luckily the first move of the day stayed away.”

James Fouché looks shyly embarrassed when asked about his New Zealand National Championship win back in January. With his head down his eyes flit around while he tells of the day. Bashful, yes, but retold in a very matter of fact way.

“It got to 3 or 4 laps to go and I was feeling pretty good so I just tested the legs to see who would follow. I looked back and had a gap over the top of the hill so just kept going.”

It’s true to say the then 20-year-old’s solo win by over three minutes on a field that contained WorldTour and Continental-level professionals certainly raised some eyebrows. More will probably be raised on hearing it wasn’t even one of his goals for the season. “I was just getting back into it as I don’t really race when I go back home as it’s my off-season. I did the Tour of Southland and then the Criterium Nationals the week after in November but that was it, and those two races are just for fun.”

Today his torn and bloodstained New Zealand national champion shirt lies crumpled on top of the pile of post-race washing, his first real objective of the year coming to an abrupt halt just 300 metres from the finish line of the Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften (U23 Tour of Flanders) in a crash that also took down his domestic teammate (but international rival) Tom Pidcock. That’s bike racing for you, especially on these brutal roads.

The broken brake levers and cracked helmets that litter the Cycling New Zealand team pits tell of a tough day all round. Fouché is quiet and obviously reflective while the others excitedly recall snapshots from battle. It’s a tight-knit group: many have raced together since schoolboy days and all of them have terrible haircuts, the consequence of some prerace shenanigans with a shaver resulting in priceless team bonding and camaraderie. These youngsters are fully appreciative of being given the opportunity to start this round of the UCI Nations’ Cup. Their Australian neighbours are not fielding a squad despite two places on the podium last year.

For Fouché this race is simply another stepping stone, and despite collecting scars from the Flanders cobbles it has certainly whet his appetite for more. “I’ve done quite a bit of riding around here, you know, getting to know the roads, and I love racing these races. It’s just harder, if you know what I mean, you’ve got to be on for the full five hours. Everyone is hurting.”

It was these races that kept this Kiwi awake back in New Zealand. “I’d rather watch a one-day race like Roubaix than the Tour de France. I’d stay up for the Tour of Flanders too but never to watch the Tour.”

Despite this, Fouché has a small habit of collecting jerseys in the multiday tours he races in, with an apparent hankering for claiming King of the Mountains titles. So far this year he’s notched up the climber’s prize in the Tour of Antalya, Volta ao Alentejo, while also repeating his mountains jersey from last year in Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux. “These KOM jerseys I’ve won, I’ve got them over shorter climbs, not the big mountains,” he reflects, hinting at a preference for the power climbs rather the high-altitude peaks. “I reckon I can do about 5 km at the max, most climbs over 5 km I just leave it to the climbers.”

“I really don’t see myself at all being a tour rider at all, but I’m still learning and learning about myself. I was heavier last year than I am now so maybe during the Baby Giro we’ll see how I am climbing. I think at the moment my focus is on the one day races.”

Based With The Rest

Like pretty much the rest of the Kiwi professional cycling whānau Fouché spends his season in Girona, and has already settled into the nomadic life of the racing cyclist. “I quite like it as when I’m there I get to cook for myself and be like an adult,” he smirks, “although I’m hardly there as I’m always at the races. The travel is kind of hard sometimes but equally it’s good as you don’t have to repack every time – you just keep it all in the suitcase and go.”

All a far cry from his Southern Hemisphere upbringing, breaking the mould and finding cycling after the default Kiwi sport. “I basically only did rugby because my mates were doing it. I played from when I was 10 until I was 15 and as I was quite big I was a prop.” While dabbling in triathlon at school Fouché made the switch to focus just on cycling six years ago, quickly making a name for himself at the 2014 Individual Secondary Schools National Championships by winning everything on offer. “It was a two-day event. An 8 km time trial and then a hillclimb up Mount Wellington which is about 1 km long, so that was two individual events. Then day two was a joint criterium and points race. I won the TT and the hillclimb and I won the criterium race and the points.” Yet again shyly lowering his voice, Fouché continues “The criterium was 10 points a lap then 100 for the final lap,” before raising his head and beaming a smile. “I got them all. It was good fun!” I think that’s called having an appetite.

That hunger has continued. Fouché bagged the Junior Oceania road title in 2016 and the U23 New Zealand road title in 2018 while representing his country twice at the Junior World Championships. “Richmond [2015] was really fun and I enjoyed that. The racing was really tough and it was a nice course. I wish they had the Richmond course each year as it was a bit like the Tour of Flanders: short climbs but not with the dead flat sprint finish as it was up a little climb just to make it harder.”

Pick Your Own

Shunning the now almost traditional path of ‘national squad team pursuit rider morphing into professional roadie’ route, Fouché preferred to cut straight to the chase. The highlight of his first foray into Europe back in 2017 was a two-week stint in Belgium. “I did 5 races and it was a successful trip as I came 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 4th and then a peloton finish for my last one. Fast and aggressive racing, which I enjoy.”

This showing of form, together with his growing antipodean palmarès, contributed towards getting the Team WIGGINS nod for the 2018 season. Well, that and a little help from his friends. “One of my good mates, Arron Gate, he mentioned me to his manager Andrew McQuaid. Andrew has a company called Trinity Sports Management and it came from there. Once I got into the team I thought I wouldn’t be good enough but once I’d done a few races I found it was OK.”

“It’s really good, we’ve got a strong team this year. Everyone’s really friendly and knows what’s happening and what we all need to do. My role is normally to get in the breakaway, but in Le Triptyque I was one of the leaders together with Tom Pidcock and Rob Scott.”

Now in his second season with WIGGINS Fouché got his nose in the wind while infiltrating breaks in this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, while also finding himself in the position of racing against his teammates when lining up for New Zealand in the Nations Cup series. “In the last break in Gent-Wevelgem there was me and Rob Scott, it was pretty funny. I’d got held up in the crash after 30 km but luckily I had a few of the other New Zealand guys with me so we spent an hour chasing to get back to the front. Once we got back on there was only 40 of us left. A few went off the front so I jumped across just before the Kemmelberg the last time and then we rode it out to the finish. With 2 km to go I just died a bit and couldn’t follow the attacks, but that’s the way it goes.”

He may have finished 6th that day but Fouché and his coaches, Patrick and Tammy Harvey, are looking forward to other goals set for later in the season for the 21-year old. “The Worlds is in Yorkshire this year, which I think will be a good course for me. Short, steep, suffering. I’ll have a go at the TT too, so it should be good.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a shot across the bows to me.