Finding Britain’s future stars: The coach behind the GB talent factory
We are witnessing the rise of the most successful generation of British neo-pros in history. To name just a few: Tom Pidcock, Jake Stewart and Ethan Hayter. Stuart Blunt, coach of British Cycling’s Junior Academy, worked with these riders through their formative years. He speaks to Rouleur about his principles, ethos and the qualities needed to make it to the top
For any teenager, the ages between 16 and 18 are a unique and often difficult phase of life — a limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
Many important decisions need to be made, be it about going to university, taking a gap year or heading straight into the world of work. The prospect of living away from home for the first time looms on the horizon and preparations must be made for a new phase of life.
In the cycling world, riders of this age will be in the junior category, where they will often have their first taste of real international competition. This opportunity to test themselves against the best from all over the world means that dreams can either be made or crushed. For some riders it might be an affirmation that they have what it takes, for others, it can be a realisation that they do not.
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Photo Credit: Alex Whitehead/ SWPix
Once a rider reaches the age of 18 and finishes their time in the junior ranks, should they decide to pursue a career in professional cycling, they may be required to move to the continent to race for teams abroad.
Solid grounding and preparation is essential to such big life changes, and Junior Academy coach Stuart Blunt is only too familiar with this. For the last 20 years, he has worked with riders from Laura Trott to Tom Pidcock, helping to produce some of Britain's finest cycling talents.
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Despite his wealth of experience, Stuart has noticed and faced new challenges in recent years when it comes to nurturing young talent. “Under-23 teams now are looking for the next Remco,” he explains. “Ever since he came on the scene and has done what he did, there has been more and more push for juniors to go straight into the top level. Some of them are going straight into the World Tour, which I think is too much,” he says.
Stuart cites the Junior World Road Race Championships in Richmond, explaining that the race was nearly 90 miles including the neutral section – something he thinks is too demanding for riders at that age. “By the end of that race, the only rider really racing was Quinn Simmons,” he says. Simmons won the race, and stepped straight into the pro ranks. “He went to the WorldTour after that and you could see he was the only one with that physical ability.”
“He’s an example I’d use of someone who might be physically good enough to go to the World Tour, but you’ve got to be switched on. He’s made some mistakes and said some things. He might be a big engine, but he’s still a kid,” Stuart explains.
Preparation for the next stage of a young rider’s career is a key part of the work British Cycling do at the junior level. Work on the velodrome, specifically in the Team Pursuit, is something that Stuart believes has been essential to their production of such prolific winners.
“It’s simple things, like if your man one goes off the line too fast or too slow, or if someone doesn’t deliver an effort, it seems like nothing, but everything you do impacts on your teammates. Everyone gets it wrong, but it’s about putting your hand up and being able to accept that. At the same time, you have to be able to point things out without attacking someone or bullying them. That’s all life skills,” Stuart says.
The most recent cohort of riders to graduate from the Junior Academy and end up in the World Tour includes Tom Pidcock, Jake Stewart, Ethan Hayter and Fred Wright. Stuart believes that it isn’t just talent and results that has bagged these riders a spot on the world’s best cycling teams.
The extensive teamwork and honesty required when training for the team pursuit gives his rider skills that are transferable when they move to the professional ranks. “Ian Stannard came to a camp the other day,” Stuart explains. “He was saying how he’s found that our lads will come through [to the World Tour] and are able to have those difficult conversations, they sit there and they just do it naturally.”Pidcock and Stewart’s outstanding season openings are a testament to their grounding at British Cycling. Both of their results came from their abilities to contest the win in a reduced bunch sprint, something that Stuart thinks is helped hugely by their background on the track. He admits it was surreal seeing the two of them competing for the win in such prestigious races.
“At Nieuwsblad, I hadn’t even clocked that Jake was in the front group,” he says. “I was watching Hayter and I thought he was going to win it with about 6km to go, but they ended up in the deck. Then I saw Tom talking to an FDJ rider about 3km out and I’d not realized Jake was there. I thought it was really nice that they still know each other, those two young lads in different jerseys, but they are still mates together and doing these big races, it’s got to be good for them.”
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Managing such talents like Pidcock and Stewart comes with its challenges, however. “As coaches, we have to be mindful that there will always be quiet people in groups and leaders and followers,” Stuart explains. “The hardest riders to see aren’t the Freds or the Jakes and they’re not Tom. They’re like your future Hugh Carthys. It’s hard to see them because they don’t get an opportunity to show themselves domestically or in Belgium. They aren’t in a position where they get the opportunities to show what their strengths are, until they hit that first big mountain in Spain or somewhere.”
Despite varying characteristics and personalities, Stuart can see the similarities of those who make it to the top level. “They’ve got a killer instinct for winning races.” he says. “You can see it with riders like Tom, because his character shows it, but even the quieter characters like Fred (Wright), when he sees the sniffle of a win, he’ll go for it.”
Stuart speaks fondly of Wright’s win in the Junior European Omnium Championships in 2017, remembering his domination in the tempo and points races. “He had people on their knees, but the nice Fred doesn’t come out, that’s the kind of instinct. They’ve all got that ability to win. They deliver when they need to.”
“They helped keep Tom’s feet on the ground. Fred’s one of the nicest lads you’d ever meet but he’d pull Tom up if he needed to,” Stuart explains.
When Tom Pidcock won Paris Roubaix Juniors and the World ITT Championships in 2017, people instantly took an interest in the training this wunderkid was doing, but Stuart explains that there are no secrets within the Junior Academy and simplicity is at the centre of its operation. “It’s hard work and good grounding,” he says. “It’s about getting the basics right and I genuinely believe in the merits of combining track and road.”
Stuart explains that riders on the junior academy don’t train using power meters, “I’d rather they do an effort wrong and learn about it, and themselves, than rely on a box on their handlebars,” he says.
He discusses the Junior European Championships last year, citing the German junior team who rode on Olympic bikes. “They had all this kit, but technically rode the TP poorly,” he says. “I’d much rather take a group of lads who can ride the event properly and then worry about the extra kit later.” He acknowledges that GB invented marginal gains and explains that there is a time and a place for aerodynamics and in-depth power testing, but argues that development is far more important at a junior level.
Although the structure of the programme has remained similar since riders like Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish came through it years ago, Stuart explains it has evolved somewhat. “At that time, we hadn’t really achieved anything in the sport, so they were more expectant and demanding on the bike riders,” he says. “Now the number and standard of riders trying to get on Junior Academy means you have to be so committed to the sport, so that side of things is taken care of.”
“It doesn’t seem like this unreachable dream that it was. Everyone has seen our success and that’s changed things,” he says.
Stuart encourages young riders to be wary of the growing pressure to be at the top level of the sport at such an early age. “If you can just play on your bike, do it for as long as possible,” he says. Tom Pidcock, for example, is a rider who has continued to have fun with his racing, throughout the junior and U23 ranks, Stuart argues.
“I think the biggest thing is to remember why you do the sport. Not everyone is going to make it on to the British Cycling pathways or get accepted in the first team they apply for, but when we all started riding bikes, you didn’t do it for those reasons, you did it because you loved it.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone who wins more than they lose,” he says. “It’s easy to get knocked back and lose heart, but you’ve got to deal with it, take it on the chin and prove people wrong. Kids don’t need to rush off and join a super team. It’s not always what it’s cooked up to be.”
Cover Image: Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com