The Dave Rayner Fund helps support plenty of riders in the UK each season who, without the fund’s support, simply would not be able to race abroad. Once such rider is Elliot Redfern, and the Englishman now calls the Basque Country home. He is racing his second season as an U23, and he spoke exclusively to U23 Cycling Zone about the trials and tribulations of living away from home, the Basque Country and the Dave Rayner Fund, amongst other things.
We began the interview chatting about 2017, a year which saw Redfern move abroad to the Basque Country to race with Eiser-Hirumet. It was also his first year as an U23, so we had lots to discuss.
“My 2017 season was a challenge and certainly much different to what I had hoped it would be. I fully expected the season to be tough, as I moved up from a junior to U23 rider but this was made even more difficult due to a heel injury I picked up just as I started my winter training in 2016, after there was a change in the style of the shoes I had always worn. This was particularly frustrating, as it plagued the whole of the winter season which, as I was extremely motivated to be entering a new age category and racing in the Basque Country, was far from ideal. After such a great year as a junior, it had been my intention to prepare and build my fitness to a new level, but these plans were seriously spoilt. As a result of the injury, I found myself very uncomfortable on the bike, riding in what felt like a twisted position, knowing something was really different and definitely not right, for the whole race season. This caused a huge amount of stress, as I was competing knowing I was nowhere near my best which was a struggle, at times, to deal with and despite going for numerous bike fits it wasn’t until the end of the year that I found out my bike had been fitted with the wrong length cranks to what I thought they would be, and something I never thought to check. However, although it did seriously affect my season quite a bit, it wasn’t all bad, as I hate to let things defeat me and I hate to let people down, so through sheer determination, I battled it the best I could and I actually did okay in some races. All in all, I got round nearly 50 races with some pretty good results for a 1st year, including a top 15. I also learned so much about the racing here, developing my techniques, and I had some great experiences which have set me up for a much more promising year in 2018, especially as I have now sorted out all my issues and am back to normal. So it wasn’t a great start to my U23 career, and having to deal with it on my own, during my first year living away from home, was also a massive challenge, but thankfully my team, Eiser Hirumet were so supportive, as were my parents in whatever way they could be from a distance. Also, I think it has shown my strength of character and has made me even more determined for the future!”
Despite the fact that Elliot does have a few compatriots on the squad in Ashley Dennis, George Jary and Max Williamson (the latter duo also being Rayner Fund riders), Elliot feely admitted that life in the Basque Country has been a little difficult to adapt to, especially with the dialect in the region being one of the most complex in the pro peloton. However, he does really enjoy where he is calling home now.
“Man, don’t get me started on the dialect! It has to be the most confusing language in the world, and anyone who understands more than the odd word, or even learns it, gets total respect from me. I am struggling enough just learning Spanish! Seriously though, the Basque people in general are so, so friendly and they have made it super easy for me to settle in and adapt to the way of life here. I live in a town called Durango, which has everything you need, and is a really cool place to live, instantly it felt like home. It has helped having the other English riders here with me, plus most of the guys from my team also live close by, and they really took me under their wing, involving me in social events, introducing me to a whole load of new people, making sure I never felt left out or lonely, and I now have some pretty close friends. As for riding a bike in this area, in my opinion it is paradise! The roads and mountains in the surrounding area offer everything a cyclist dreams of, and as the Basque people love cycling, they are really respectful to you on the road. I can honestly say training is never a chore here. The only slight problem is the weather, it does rain a lot more than you would expect – but I am from the UK so I am used to the odd drop of rain or two!”
Elliot and his fellow Brits on the team are far from the first to flee the dreary UK winters and mediocre summers in order to ply their trade abroad. Climbers like Dan Martin and Adam Yates moved further afield to France to learnt the ropes, but not many have chosen Spain as a destination. So, for Elliot, why Spain?
“Personally, I wanted the first couple of years as an U23 rider to be about my development, and doing whatever it takes to make me the best that I can be in the future. I have never wanted to just get on a pro team and not be able to justify my position within the team. The attraction of the Basque Country for me was both the calendar and the terrain. I wanted to ensure that I would get enough race days early into my U23 years, enabling me to learn, develop, improve and gain lots of experience which will hopefully benefit me later in my career. Also, in my opinion this really is one of the toughest U23 scenes in the world, and it gives me the opportunity to gain some well-respected results.”
“In addition to this, I find the racing here suits me very well. I absolutely love hard races, which push you to the limit, and the races here are literally a war of attrition every weekend with the strongest guys who get over the climb or get to the finish first. I am particularly strong in races where the climbs are long, and the group gets smaller and smaller the further up we get. There is never just one climb in a race either, there are always plenty and we rarely have any races below 2000m of climbing. Also, the best riders from all over Spain compete in every race I do, including Lizarte and Caja Rural’s U23 and Elite riders, so every race has a very professional feel and style to it. There are never any small local or regional races which you might tend to come across more in France and Belgium. Therefore, I chose Spain because my goal was to get abroad, experience an international calendar on different terrains, and it was exactly what I needed to aid my development, and while I didn’t totally dismiss staying with an English team, who tend to be more focused on British Races, I didn’t feel I would achieve this initially. However, some UK teams like Team Wiggins, who have such great development programmes, are now teams that guys like me are really trying to work towards.”
To those loyal U23 Cycling Zone readers, Elliot is not the first Dave Rayner Fund rider we have spoken with, as back in November we profiled SEG Racing’s Stevie Williams. While Stevie in not on the fund’s roster this season, Elliot, George and Max are joined by riders like Mitcheton-BikeExchange’s Jacob Hennessy, Lotto-Soudal U23’s Jacob Vaughan and Megan Chard, who rides for Health Mate – Cyclelive, a UCI women’s team, so Elliot and his teammates keep pretty prestigious company. The Fund does different things for each of the 36 riders they sponsor this season, so we asked Elliot to speak a little about the fund, as well as what it does for him.
“The Dave Rayner Fund was set up in memory of Dave Rayner, who was a British professional cyclist who lost his life at the age of 27, to support young British cyclists racing abroad to achieve their goals. They provide amazing financial support by funding us monthly to help with basic living expenses abroad and without it many guys like me, would not be able to accept an offer to race abroad. Personally, I wouldn’t be where I am now without it as I would not have been able to support myself otherwise. It takes a huge amount of pressure off both me and my family and means that I can focus on doing everything right to achieve the dream of becoming a pro cyclist! I am so, so grateful to the Dave Rayner Fund for their support and belief in me.”
Turning attention back on Elliot, we ran through his 2016 season, his last as a junior. He had some great results for both his club team and his country, including fifth in La Philippe Gilbert Juniors. The rider in third that year was Jens van den Dool, who we spoke with back in December. He described that race as Liege-Bastogne-Liege for juniors. So does Elliot see himself as more of an Ardennes style puncheur, or a purer kind of climber?
“The Philippe Gilbert race is one of the hardest races on the junior calendar by far and with it finishing up La Redoute, it is definitely considered to be the junior version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and I was super pleased with both my ride and my result that day! I wouldn’t say I am necessarily an Ardennes puncher, but it certainly played to my strengths, as I said previously, I get totally motivated by tough races, and this was one of those, with climbs coming thick and fast. However, I don’t feel like I have one area that suits me specifically more than others, although I would say that my main strength is my ability to hold a high power for a long period of time, whether that is up an 8km climb, in a time trial or even a tough breakaway. This also helps in races where it is a case of ‘the last man standing!’ I was very fortunate with the junior team I rode for, HMT Cycling with JLT Condor, who had a really varied calendar which gave us the opportunity to experience many different styles of racing, flat and fast, tough and hilly, or long stage races with time trials. It was as a result of this that I was able to establish myself as a very consistent rider, I am always up there or involved in the race, whether that is for my own benefit or to help a team-mate. With each year of cycling though, I am finding out more and more about myself, which areas suit me best and where my real strength lies. For now, I am very tall and skinny, so I am enjoying climbing in the Basque Country!”
The racing scene in Spain is notoriously savage, with Elliot’s Eiser-Hirumet squad competing with Caja Rural’s U23 team, Movistar feeder squad Lizarte, as well as teams funded by both Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador. We asked Elliot to talk a little more about the scene in Spain.
“Tough! I may be repeating myself, but I do genuinely believe it is one of the hardest U23 amateur scenes in the world! The amateur scene in Spain attracts riders from all over, including Colombia! Although I haven’t done too many races in mainland Spain, when racing in the Copa Espana races, I have noticed that there is a definite difference between Spanish races and Basque Country races. Not only is the level exceptionally high, but the style was also noticeably different. In the Copa Espana, the courses are easier to judge and see where the deciding points of the race are, however, the Basque Country races are so unpredictable and the amount of strong riders here is unbelievable, so you never know how it might play out. Races in the Basque Country are not as long as some European races, but with the terrain being much harder, the races tend to split to bits, often resulting in half the field being pulled. In fact, most foreign riders planning on racing the Basque calendar are told that just to finish the race is a result in itself!”
“I race every race against some big names, and big teams, such as Lizarte and Caja Rural U23, who are at a very high level, and do tend to control the races, with teams full of guys who could potentially be WorldTour riders next year. This makes it even harder for young riders like me, at 19 years old, to get top results, but there is occasionally the opportunity to catch them out and then it is down to your ability to make it happen. Still, these experiences are great for development, as you have the chance to understand what the big teams are about, the way they ride and the way they control races. It is certainly not a place for the faint hearted, it takes a lot of mental strength and an amazing amount of ability and talent to do well here. You just have to be prepared for it and have the guts and determination to succeed.”
Still just 19, Elliot is still not under masses of pressure to score results for his team, but he understandably wants to step up a level for 2018. He also hasn’t raced any of the big U23 events for Great Britain, and after featuring prominently on the British national scene for junior races, admits he would love to receive a call up for an U23 race from British Cycling.
“The Eiser-Hirumet team provides us with numerous opportunities to achieve our goals, and with over 50 races ahead of me this year, all of which offer the opportunity of a result, my main goal this year is to target the U23 Tourneo Lehendekari series, followed by the U23 stage races such as the Vuelta Bizkaia and Vuelta Bidasoa. It is always my main aim and goal to win a race, but I also want to show a consistency in my results regardless. I also intend to support the elite riders in my team in any Copa Espana races I get selected for. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Basque races aren’t part of the UCI calendar, but I believe that with the level and difficulty of each and every race they could easily be classed as UCI races.”
“A huge target for me outside of Spain, and what I consider to be the next step on my path to the top, would be to race in the biggest U23 UCI races in the world, such as the U23 Giro D’Italia or the U23 Liege-Bastonge-Liege, especially after my experience as a junior rider. I try not to think too far ahead, but to pull on a GB Jersey and represent my country in any race is a massive dream and it is something everybody would love to say they have done in their career. Until then, I will keep working hard, do the best I can here in the Basque Country and hopefully one day I will be given that opportunity!”
We ended the interview in traditional U23 Cycling Zone fashion, asking Elliot which race he would love to win as a pro one day. For the man from Somerset, he chose the biggest of them all.
“It may be a cliché, but for me it has to be the Tour de France. It is the most iconic and recognised race in the world, and to survive the race physically and mentally shows what an unbelievable athlete you are. It is a race which produces legends and to be stood on the podium there would be a dream come true!”
Elliot Redfern is a talented climber who is due for big things. It is worth following the story of both Elliot and his three British teammates, Ashley, George and Max, in the future, as all four are set to be among Britain’s best climbing talents. The Basque Country is an unforgiving place, all you need to do is watch the WorldTour stars struggle in the upcoming Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco at the start of April to see that. But for those who can tame it, it creates legends. Following on the slopes tamed by the likes of Valverde, Contador, Purito Rodriguez, Michal Kwiatkowski and others in recent seasons, there is no telling just how far Elliot Redfern can go in the sport. But just like the terrain he trains in, it certainly looks like he is only going up.
U23 Cycling Zone wishes to thank Elliot for taking part in this interview and we wish him all the best for the season ahead. We also wish to thanks Eiser-Hirumet press officer Josu Atxotegi for setting up the interview. You can follow the team on Twitter at @EiserHirumet, while Elliot’s handle is @RedfernElliot. Elliot also maintains an interesting WordPress blog, so if you’ve enjoyed this interview and want more from Elliot, we highly recommend giving his blog a read.