Perhaps it was the ‘Scottish’ weather at Harrogate which made the Scots perform so well at the recent World Road Championships?
Anna Shackley was 12th in the Junior Ladies Road Race; Alfie George 7th in the Junior Road race and VeloVeritas regular, Stuart Balfour spent much of his u23 Championship ‘up the road’ to help set up GB team leader, Tom Pidcock for his eventual bronze medal; Balfour finished in 39th spot.
We caught up with Stuart the week after his excellent ride.
How did your winter preparations go?
“It was a good winter for me; I based myself mainly in Scotland for most of it.
“I find for me – even though the weather is not so warm – it’s a good place to spend the winter.
“I have all my friends and family nearby and it gives me a chance to disconnect from the cycling world when I’m not training.
“Then come the season I don’t find it so hard having to be away from everyone for long stretches of time.
“I was lucky enough to go away on a training camp with Israel Cycling Academy in December which was a great opportunity to see how the team runs and get some good miles in with the riders.”
Are you still with the Dave Rayner Fund, this year?
“Yes, I’ve spent another year with the Dave Rayner fund which has been a massive support again for me this year.
“Without their help, life abroad in the amateur scene would be nigh on impossible.
“They also give the riders more exposure back home so we don’t end up getting forgotten about.”
The Tour de Bretagne was your first big target, how did it go for you?
“For me the Tour de Bretagne was a bit of a disappointment. I had good legs and confidence going into it but the race just never went my way.
“I struggled to get into any of the early breaks and then behind it was always very controlled.
“A lot of teams came with a sprinter to protect so even on the harder days it would be controlled as much as possible for a big sprint which is not my sort of race at all.”
You had two Nations Cups in East Europe, what were they like?
“They were tough races.
“U23 racing is always chaotic but then at the Nations Cups it gets even worse.
“Both the Polish Nations Cup and the Peace Race were hilly races though.
“Poland was shorter steeper climbs with one hitting 25% and then the Peace Race was slightly longer flatter climbs.
“In Poland we went in with a clear leader in Ethan Hayter, so all was in for him to win the road stage – he came close, with second.
“In the Peace race I got the chance to ride for myself which was a great experience.
“I rode consistently and managed 25th on GC which was a solid result after not having spent much time riding at that level.”
How about those montagne in the ‘Baby Giro’?
“The Baby Giro was probably my favourite stage race of the year.
“The team and the places where we raced were just unreal.
“The team worked incredibly together, each one doing their job 100% and it’s down to that we managed to have such a successful race.
“With four stage wins and Ethan taking the points jersey at the end.
“I took on a big team role for most of the race and then suffered for it a lot on the higher climbs.
“The Mortirolo stage has to be one of the hardest races I have ridden.
“It was full on from the start and there was no way that you could get through that stage without having to go deep.
“Especially the way the Colombians flew up the mountains.”
You rode the National Road Race Championship, how did that go?
“The National Road Champs was a bit of a disaster for me.
“It’s safe to say I was pretty cooked going into it, with 16 days of racing already in that month I knew it was going to be tough to try and recover for it.
“From the start the legs were just not cooperating, there was no jump or any sign of freshness.
“It was just a slog the whole way for me sadly.
“I was disappointed not to have the legs as it was my first race back in Britain as an u23 so I felt I had to prove myself.
“It was definitely a race I was disappointed with.”
You were 11th in Kreiz Breizh – a nice result, that’s a tough one.
“I felt really strong at Kreizh Briezh and I was confident in myself going into it. I was 17th the year before but this year the level had been raised a lot with three Pro conti teams there.
“It was always going to be a difficult one to start with because of the opening team time trial.
“As we are just a small team it was a lot about limiting losses; we ended up losing 33 seconds in the first stage so I was playing catch up.
“I managed to get in the winning break on the first road stage finishing up 8th which was a solid result and my first top 10 in a UCI race.
“I felt strong in the final stage coming into Rostrenen.
“It’s become a home race for me now with my parents soon to be moving 10km away from the finish.
“Sadly I couldn’t quite get that top 10 on GC I wanted missing out by one second – but that’s bike racing and I still came away happy from the race.”
L’Avenir – plenty of mountains there, what was that experience like?
“Everyone told me that L’Avenir would be a savage race and they were not wrong.
“It definitely felt like a step up from the Baby Giro.
“Everyone was at 100% to go for a result and everyone was willing to take any risk necessary to do which caused absolute chaos in the bunch.
“There was so many nasty crashes from the start like nothing I had experienced before.
“We came into the race with a really strong team and a team that we knew had the chance at winning not just stages but the overall as well.
“We spent the first half of the race looking for stage wins and then protecting Tom for the overall.
“This gave me the chance to get up the road in the break on Stage Three (where I managed to get the most aggressive rider) but sadly it didn’t stick to the finish and I got caught with three kilometres to.
“In the end though my teammates pull it out of the bag with a one-two on the stage so it ended up being one of our most successful days at the race along with Fred winning the day after.
“The following stages were sadly not as good, losing both Tom and Ethan in bad crashes before we hit the mountains.
“After that I got free range to do what I could and try to see what we could still get out of the race.
“I was already quite far down on general but managed to climb my way back up to 26th in the end.
“I surprised myself a bit in the long climbs and I feel it is an area I could really focus on and manage to jump up there to stick with the best at that level.”
You were second in Plouay – tell us about that result.
“I really wanted to do the double at Plouay, having won last year, as no one has won it yet two years in a row.
“I rode aggressively which you have to in a race like that but after being away for nearly three laps as a two-up I ended up just doing too much.
“Once the final selection was made I knew exactly where I need to be but sadly when the moment came, I didn’t quite have the legs to go and missed that winning move.
“Then with one kilometres to go I jumped away and stayed put to take second place.
“I can’t be disappointed as I knew I gave everything but I had to take on a lot of work myself which cost me in the final but to be up there again on such a prestigious race is definitely a good feeling.”
What was the GB game plan for Harrogate?
“Tom Pidcock was our main leader for the race but both Jake Stewart and Fred Wright were also there to really go for the win and we had confidence in them.
“We had options depending on how the race panned out.
“If it had been more controlled for a sprint then we knew we had Matt Walls who’s been one of the strongest sprinters this year to finish it off.
“My role was to do a similar job to that at the baby Giro to work more for the team.
“I was to follow moves at the start if there was anything dangerous and then to work from the top of the climb to the finishing circuit and then see how the race played out from there.”
When did you go away – and how long were you away for?
“I jumped away about 40km into it.
“It was a part that we were told to be alert for as it was small winding roads and quite dangerous.
“I followed a few strong nations and we ended up getting the gap and from there we had to push hard as the peloton was not happy with the number that was ahead.
“We were never allowed much time which made it a constant hack in the break.
“In the end I was away for around 100km.”
What’s your take on the Eeckhoff declasse?
“It’s a complicated one.
“I haven’t seen exactly all the videos and evidence there is but I know to make the decision after the race has finished is a tough decision to make.
“It had a big impact on the final result so who knows what would have happened if they’d DQ-ed him earlier in the race?
“I think it’s a harsh decision but I don’t know exactly what happened earlier in the race.”
Was Tom Pidcock satisfied with how the race went for him and the team?
“He seemed fairly satisfied but I think to win the World Champs in your home county is the only thing he wanted – but to still be on the podium after that nasty crash he had at L’Avenir is still a massive achievement.
“It takes a lot to come back from something like that so I think he should definitely be satisfied with that result.”
Overall, are you happy with how 2019 has gone?
“It has been a really tough year, the first half especially.
“Things have been a constant fight for me but I managed to come through it and not let people stand in the way of me proving myself.
“The opportunities with BC have really made my season and I am really thankful for them.
“I ended up doing most of the biggest races in the world at u23 level and to race a home World Champs was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I have definitely come away from this season with some unbelievable memories and I feel I have shown that I can hold my own amongst the best for my age.”
What’s 2020 looking like?
“For the moment I have nothing signed for next year.
“I’m hoping I will manage to get some firm ideas soon and manage to keep progressing from where I am now.”
The Baby Giro, L’Avenir and the Worlds – experiences most of us only dream about, VeloVeritas wishes Stuart well for 2019.