Young Scot, Stuart Balfour is off to France again for season 2017 – VeloVeritas decided we needed to hear this young man’s story…
How did you get into cycling, Stuart?
“I got into cycling when I was eight years-old.
“It all started when I was given old videos of the Tour de France from friends in my village, I would sit and watch them on loop for hours and from there I caught the cycling bug.
“I joined my local cycling club, Peebles CC, and began time trials.
“From there I started to race and ride more and more and was really well supported through the club, learning a lot, especially looked after by Gary Robson and Shona Hamilton who taught me the importance of etiquette on the bike and how to ride my bike ‘like a proper cyclist’.
“From there I started to race around Scotland at crits before going down south to the North West Youth Tour, and from there it snowballed onto British national races and international races as I moved up the age categories.”
Tell us about your best Scottish results.
“My best results in Scotland were mainly through youth, winning Scottish Champs in road and track races.
“But I haven’t raced in Scotland much since my first year junior after joining HMT Academy with JLT Condor and getting a more international calendar and then moving into the French system as I went into u23.”
How was 2016 in France?
“Last season was a rough year for me, with signing for the continental team Dynamo Cover in the winter and then the team collapsing just before the New Year I was left without a team going into 2016.
“Luckily I managed to find a small French team in the Ardèche called UC Aubenas. It’s a DN3 team but offered me plenty of chances to prove myself and move into higher ranks.
“I moved out there in February and started to settle into the French races, but at the start of March I had to get emergency surgery after having an adhesion and a small perforation in my intestines, I was in hospital in France for around 10 days before being able to fly home, but only a few days after returning home I was rushed back into hospital after having an arterial haemorrhage and losing just over half my blood.
“Luckily the doctors managed to clot the artery before I went into cardiac arrest.
“From there I spent more time in hospital before finally being able to go home and start my long recuperation. I spent around three months slowly getting back on the bike and getting my fitness and strength back.
“I went back out to France at the start of June to finish the last half of the season.
“Slowly but surely I started to get my race legs back and managed to pull in some good results, finishing 12th at GP de Charvieu-Chavagneux (elite national) in July and then 10th in GP de Chardonnay (elite national) in August.
“At the end of August there was a big stage race in the elite national calendar in France, the Tour du Piémont Pyrénéen, where I was 26th and 11th U23.”
And you were with Mark Stewart at the Tour of East Flanders…
“The Tour of East Flanders was a really good race, much different to a lot of the races I’d done through the season – the way they rode was a different style to France, a little more unpredictable and crazy.
“This may have been because of the amount of cobble sections we had to deal with each day but there was definitely more tension in the bunch compared to other stage races I have done in France.
“It was also good for me as I got to ride a slightly different role than I had been for most of the season as we had a real shot at the GC with Mark.
“It was good to be able to ride more with a team and sort out a lead out for example as I was used to riding more as an individual during the season as it was a small team and I hadn’t had the opportunity to ride as a unit since the season before with HMT academy.
“I was pleased with how I managed to finish, ending up 36th on GC and seventh first year U23 rider, and managing to pull out a top 30 in the queen stage after having a team-mate in the winning break.”
Do you still ride the boards?
“I didn’t race the track through the winter this year as my main focus has been on the road season for 2017.
“So I have mainly been getting long miles in the legs and spending most of my time out in France with the new team getting to know the area.
“I am sure I will get back on the track soon though as I really enjoy track racing and there is also the opportunity, hopefully, to race the DN1 Coupe de France Piste so I will need to get back on the track if want to get selected for that.”
Season 2017 en France?
“For the 2017 season I have moved up to DN1 with Côtes d’Armor-Marie Morin (the old club of AG2R’s Cyril Gautier and Mikaël Cherel).
“They have a big support system for the riders and I am getting well looked after on and off the bike.
“The team bike is a Giant TCR Advanced 2017 for this season which is riding really well and looking forward to racing it.
“I have also moved into my new apartment which they have found for me. It is a great little place and will be perfect for me and my other British team mate, James Owen.
“We have multiple training camps that started back in November with a team bonding weekend with some five-a-side football, a meet with the sponsors and lots of talk about the 2017 calendar. They have a great philosophy within the team of having a really relaxed environment and enjoying the time off the bike but when the racing and training start it is very much focused on making sure we have one of our riders crossing the finishing line first.”
Do you have a coach?
“My coach is not part of the team but he lives in Brittany as well which makes it much easier as I can see him regularly and he can see me race and train.
“We’ve worked together for over a year now and have built up a good relationship together especially through the hard times last season as he helped a lot with my recovery after my surgery and always made sure I was doing the right things on and off the bike.
“I also have been working with a few other people out in France; Nicolas Fritsch (ex-World Tour rider with FDJ and Saunier Duval) and Clement Gourdin, a French agent.
“I have learnt a lot through them and it’s great to have people helping me who know the French system and bike racing so well. It was through them I made the connection with Côtes d’Armor-Marie Morin and I feel that without them I would be lost – it’s very difficult to get into big teams in France as a foreign rider on your own.”
Why France and not Belgium?
“Having a good group of French people around me made me want to stay in France rather than move to another country, it made it easier for me to make connections with French teams.
“Also, a big reason is I like the variety of races you get in France; as one weekend you can be doing a pan-flat race with a big bunch sprint and then next you can be up at 2000m in the mountains.
“For me it made sense to come to France as well as I already had a basic grasp of the language as I had studied it throughout school, and France really stood out for me as a place to come to race due to their great team system: they have three groups of “Division Nationale” teams, at the bottom is DN3, then DN2 and DN1 at the top.
“It’s made of around 67 teams all together with fewer teams in the higher divisions.
“They will ride the Coupe de France races for their division and the winning teams will move up a division and the bottom teams in the table will move down – it gives a great opportunity for a young rider like myself to move up the ranks and prove myself to top level teams who are always watching riders coming through this system.”
What do you do with your ‘down’ time?
“My free time is normally spent binge-watching Netflix from the comfort of my bed or the sofa, not very exciting!
“But I will spend a lot of time this year exploring the area as it is the first time I have stayed in Brittany and we have a city not far where there is plenty things to keep me entertained.”
How is the lingo going?
“I will also spend a lot of time trying to improve my French as I feel it’s really important I can speak the language at a high level if I want to make it through the French system, and it is already improving massively in the time I have been here.”
How’s the programme looking?
“My season will kick off mid-February this year when we go down to the Vendée for a week’s camp of racing and training. It will be tough to start my season so early being used to a later start in Britain.
“From there it is full on with a mix of Elite nationals, U23, UCI races and the DN1 Coupe de France which is very important for the team.
“We have some very high profile races through the season, for example Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23, Paris-Tours U23 and Tour de Bretagne.
“There are plenty of opportunities for us to really prove ourselves as a team which will be really important as the team makes the jump from DN2 to DN1 this year after a hugely successful season for them last year with 40 wins and over 100 podiums.”
You’ve headed over sharp – early January?
“I have spent a lot of time in France over the off-season mainly because the weather in more reliable and I don’t have to worry so much about the ice and snow over the winter.
“Also it gives me a month or so before the season starts off to really settle into the new place and find my feet out here.”
2017 is about?
“For me is still a big year of learning and improving because I am still young, only a 2nd year U23.
“A big focus for me will be trying to make a name for myself out here in France; this will involve not just trying to get the best results for myself but also how I work within the team.
“I have been lucky because in my team there are a lot of very experienced riders who have already competed at the highest level so it will be great for me to learn from them on and off the bike.”
We wish Stuart well and will be keeping an eye out for his results.