At 22, Welshman Owen James is knocking on the door of turning professional. In a quick-fire interview with Rupert Cornford, he opens up about just missing out, smashing his mates on training rides and how you can avoid becoming a robot on the bike.
This is my second year with the Cotes d’Armor team. I came here with Stu Balfour last year, and we’ve become really good mates; now Lewis Bulley is here, that’s great. When you are with the team, and speaking French, it’s nice to come back to the house, speak English and come back down to earth. Many pros will tell you stories about staying in a crappy little dive somewhere, but this place is great. We are lucky here. If you have a crap race and come back to a nice house, it’s a relief.
I did my first year in Europe with Zappi’s. It’s a British team, but we raced in Italy. At the time it was really hard – not eating much, in the typical Italian way – but when I look back on it, it was probably one of the best things I have ever done.
I had signed with Dynamo Cover for 2016. It was a pro team promise but it fell through. I met the owner and went to his house. I think there were 16 riders that had been signed. Out of the blue, we got an email, saying there was no sponsorship. Over the past few years, I have always been there or thereabouts – it can be like knocking your head against a brick wall sometimes.
I was close to packing it all in but gave it one more year. After it all fell through, I was lucky British team Catford Banks gave me a ride for 2016. I got a job as a labourer, so a typical week would be Monday to Friday working, and training in the evening. At weekends, I would normally be miles up north somewhere racing the Premier Calendar. A few times, I remember going to work in the morning and racing the Tour Series in the evening. It was hard at the time, but I was probably the leanest I’d ever been, and it felt easier to come out to France and ride full time.
I got the call about this team sitting in a café in Newport, South Wales. I was sat with my mates when the offer of riding in a division one French team came through. After a quick Google of the team, I accepted just five minutes mins later.
When we first came here, I didn’t speak much French. You are sat at the dinner table and thinking ‘I don’t understand a word’. At the first race, I thought, what have I done, what am I doing here? For the first half of the season, I felt horrible. The other riders think you don’t want to speak to them, but you just don’t understand. It’s completely different now, I feel like one of the boys.
Me, Stu and Lewis train together and have a laugh. Last week, it was a Wednesday ride and we all went out and smashed each other for four hours, sprinting up every climb. I think that’s probably the best way of training to be honest. We were laughing, we had a great training session, and nobody looked at their power meters. You need to do a ride like that now and again.
The best moments have been the road trips… The races you do well in, the ones you win, you remember. But being with the boys in the middle of nowhere, and absolutely starving on the way back from a race, pissing ourselves laughing… those are probably the best moments. Sometimes, how hard it is, you have just got to laugh at it really.
As a cyclist, you have to strike a happy medium. You can have your perfect diet and go to bed at ten… but that can crack you completely. During the week, you go out for a beer or two with the boys; that’s the only way I can get through it. I don’t think I could be completely perfect for four years. Obviously, you are still going to get up at 8am and go training. But you have got to have a laugh along the way.
I am not an under 23 anymore. It gets harder after that. I think looking back, I could have been more serious in my junior days, but I’d advise not to take it too seriously really. Otherwise, you are just a robot riding a bike.
I want to finish the season strong. It’s that time of year when you are nervous as hell, trying to get into a continental team or a pro team. I think it’s the same for everyone. Nobody knows. I have got a good agent working for me, who is an ex pro, so fingers crossed I get something.
Owen James is riding with the Cotes d’Armor Marie Morin Veranda Rideau team, a division one French team, based in St Brieuc, Brittany.