Inspiration is powerful in cycling, but when the reality of life on the road bites, it’s acceptance, determination and strong support that will keep you going. Rupert Cornford speaks to James Wilkinson during his third season in Europe.
When the 2014 Tour de France started in Yorkshire, 16-year-old James Wilkinson was standing on the slopes of Holme Moss. He was a young cyclist, who rode regularly with his local club near Chester, but it was in this moment, on the same climb Dave Rayner had graced decades earlier, that his dream to become a professional cyclist came alive.
As the raced approached, led by the publicity caravan and thud of helicopter rotors, roaring crowds began to stir something inside him, something that was to change the course of his young life. For anyone passionate about cycling, the passage of the peloton is something special: the build-up and anticipation fires every fan into a frenzy, but at the Tour de France it’s on a different level.
“I was waiting by the side of the road,” recalls James. “The crowds were all up on the hill; I have never seen so people in my entire life. You could hear it coming from the lower slopes of the climb, everyone was cheering and suddenly all the riders came passed. I was really amazed by it all, and I thought ‘wow’ I really want to do that.”
Four years later, James is telling me this story sat on a bench outside Nantes railway station in northern France. He’s on his way back to Brittany after a ten-day break in Lyon with friends towards the end of a tough season. In his third year of racing in Europe, after two seasons in Belgium and now France, the intensity of this world hit him hard at the beginning of August. It’s a story of lessons learned and a strong support network, in his journey towards turning pro and keeping the Tour de France dream alive.
“I’ve had a good season in general,” he says. “I took a week off in June to refresh myself a bit and was feeling quite good at the beginning of July. I was making the moves, getting in the breaks. But I didn’t have the power at the end.”
“I felt like it was to do with my physical condition, but I overcooked myself and when I had another stage race planned at the start of August,” he adds. “I did the first day and pulled out in the first 70km. I just couldn’t do anything – and it made me realise there was something wrong and mentally I wasn’t in a good place.”
Sitting alone in his apartment in south Brittany, where the Hennebont Cyclisme team is based, was wearing him down. Feeling alone and scrabbling to understand his drop in form, he decided to head south to see friends and “get my head back in shape”. What followed was time on new roads, in new surroundings and the fresh perspective of others he knows in the world of cycling. He stayed with his friend Pierre Vernie just outside Lyon, someone he met in Belgium, and has remained close to.
Our conversation highlights the importance of his support network, people to call on who can give perspective on a life on the road. He talks at length about those he confides in during the season, including girlfriend Alex Novacki, a sprint cyclist based in Manchester – “she can tell quite quickly how I am doing when we speak”; former Dave Rayner rider Mark Baker. Alan Roberts, who knows the Wilkinson family and has equipped him with a bike this season, and British professional rider Steve Cummings, who has had his fair share of challenges this year, are also part of the inner circle.
“I spoke to Steve about things, and there are certain situations he has been in over the years – and how he came back; he explained to me how I should do it,” says James. “Because I was worrying about finding a team for next year – it was stressing me out. I was wanting to do well so badly, and it wasn’t going my way. Steve said: ‘if you are not going well and the team see that; it’s how you come back from it, how you respond to the situation that will help. Forget about what’s happened and think about the next races’.”
In his period of soul searching, James now understands its common for riders to feel burnt out in August. It’s good to follow the training plan “if you are feeling up for it” but equally good to rest. “Rather than thinking you have to train more because you aren’t feeling good and digging yourself a bigger hole,” he says.
He has been glad of the break, and although a day’s travelling across France with his bike and bags in tow has left him feeling tired, there is a lucidity in his understanding of what’s happened and the way he speaks about the rest of the season. At the time of our chat, he is looking forward to racing again and has the GP Plouay in late August, with a sprinkling of races until his last in mid-September.
The 16-year-old on Holme Moss is now 21 and three years as an amateur in Europe has laid down the challenge. It’s been hard work – he was self-funded at the beginning – but has strong support from a core team, including the Dave Rayner Fund who has been with him since mid-2016. His confidence has been knocked – it’s a phrase he uses a few times during the interview – but the lessons are being experienced, learned from, and he’s looking to the future.
“I have been determined to find a solution, get back on track and fix it before the season ends,” he says. “I just need to keep reminding myself that I should just do the best I can and let it happen.”