Jonathan Bellis was one of British Cycling’s brightest lights – until a life threatening scooter crash on September 19th 2009 in his then home of Tuscany.
The versatile man from the Isle of Man spent practically a year in hospital and even then had to return for another operation at the end of 2010. Prior to the accident it looked as if Bellis was headed for the very top.
In 2006 he was a member of the victorious GB team in the European Junior Team Pursuit Championships – a feat he repeated one year later at U23 level. In addition that year he won silver in the World Junior Points Championship and bronze in the World Junior Team Pursuit Championship.
And in 2007 as well as the team pursuit championships he took gold in the European U23 scratch and a magnificent bronze in the World U23 Road Race Championship behind Peter Velits.
The good results carried on in 2008 with two wins in U23 Six Days, Berlin and Copenhagen, and he was third to Peter Kennaugh in the National U23 Road Race Championship.
CSC gave him a stagiaire place for the autumn and he promptly landed three top ten placings in the Tour of Britain, and for 2009 he carried Bjarne Riis’s new colours – Saxo Bank – and a promising debut year ensued in the Pro Tour ranks.
Then came the crash.
Whilst we were at the Copenhagen Six Day a few weeks ago we met Etienne Ilegems who’s a soigneur at the Sixes as well as working for Topsport Vlaanderen on occasion. With his ex-Sky mechanic son, Ken he also runs the Belgian amateur squad, ILLI-Bikes Cycling Team – and that’s how we got to hear where Jonathan was going to spend 2013.
In our usual fashion, we thought we’d best ‘have a word.’
How long since the crash, Jonathan?
“Three years (Sept 2009), but I spent nearly a year in hospital and at the end of 2010 I had to go in for another operation.
“I sustained a hernia in the crash and it was affecting my breathing – I lost weight and just didn’t feel good.”
You were an excellent track rider, why didn’t you take that route?
“The road is where my heart is and where I want my career to be for the foreseeable future.
“You should never say “never” but I don’t see myself on the track in the near future.
“When I was on the GB Junior and U23 squads it was compulsory that you rode the track if you were part of that system.”
How were CSC and Saxo?
“Scott Sunderland from CSC had been keeping an eye on me, he’d seen my ride at the Worlds and that got me an invite to one of their training camps. I rode stagiaire for them at the end of 2008 and got some good placings in the Tour of Britain and that got me the contract – I signed it at the Franco Belge.
“My first year was good, the young pros tended to ride as a group – me, Michael Mørkøv, Alex Rasmussen, Dominic Klemme . . . I had a few top ten placings and wore classification leaders’ jerseys in the odd stage race.”
How was Bjarne Riis with you?
“He was good, he came to the hospital to see me and renewed my contract for 2011, the team was supportive and I’m grateful for that. But my condition just wasn’t there – not for the World Tour.
“Looking back, I’d have been better riding at Continental level, I just didn’t have the physical condition and the best I could do was to survive a race.
“It was hard.”
How was your time with AN Post?
“I still wasn’t in the best shape, last year. The team had a good programme but we’d agreed that I’d do my own thing; I rode a couple of kermises each week – but it was a struggle.
“I was back at my home in Italy in the early season and then moved up to Belgium – that’s where the majority of my racing was – in April and of course, it took a while to settle in.
“Last year was a learning curve with new people and surroundings. And racing on my own wasn’t what I was used to, I missed being part of a team. But it helped to bring me back up, I’m still only 24, I turned pro when I was young.”
How did the winter go?
“I spent the winter in the Isle of Man – there’s always a good group to train with, the roads are familiar and there’s a tight cycling community on the island.
“If you need physio or massage there are guys there to take care of it.”
Do you miss Tuscany?
“I do a bit, the lifestyle is so relaxed and the weather is so good for training.”
Tell us about ILLI-Bikes.
“Paul de Geyter, my manager was looking for a team for me, a few teams came back to us but ILLI-Bikes seemed the most appealing. I get my bike and all my clothing supplied and there’s a good bonus system in place if you’re performing well.
“I’ve not met Etienne Ilegems face to face yet but we’ve talked a lot on the phone and he seems very straight talking and well-organised; the team has a good programme so I’ll have plenty of racing.
“What’s nice is that I’ll also be riding the odd race for the Isle of Man national squad – I’m looking forward to that.
“And I’ll be riding stage races, it’s a long time since I finished one but they’re what you need to really build your fitness and form.”
And as a man who’s suffered in cycling, is it a compassionate sport?
“When you’re on top, everyone wants to be your friend, but when things go wrong you soon find out who your real friends are. Shane Sutton and Max Sciandri are two men who I can’t thank enough; but as for the teams, it’s a business and if you can’t perform then there’s no job.
“I want to show what I’m capable of at my new team and I’m confident I can get back to where I was. I’m not saying I’m going to be a super star but if you look at what my contemporaries are doing in the sport…”
There must have been a lot of frustration for you, though?
“You just have to accept how things are and get on with it from where I’m at.
“I traveled back over on Monday (February 25th) and so from Tuesday it all begins again.”
What are you looking for from this season?
“I want to give something back to ILLI-Bikes for showing faith in me – show that I can do it, not just talk about it.
“I had a little bit of a knee injury recently but that’s cleared up and I’ve had the best winter I’ve had since the accident – I’m just looking forward to getting my head down for the new season.”