‘It was mental fatigue’ - Tom Pidcock on juggling different disciplines, the three-year plan to Tour de France victory and life in the spotlight
The British rider has found success across the board in his career so far, but doesn’t think he can balance so much racing forever
Tom Pidcock seems relieved to sit down when I finally get him one-on-one for an interview at Rouleur Live 2022. He plonks himself down on the sofa, rubs his eyes and takes a deep breath, readying himself for more questions. The 23-year-old arrived in London on the Eurostar from Brussels just a few hours earlier, and he explains his morning has been “non-stop”, filled with media requests, photoshoots and his appearance on stage in Truman Brewery. It’s not just today, either. For Tom Pidcock, life is pretty non-stop.
He won the World Cyclo-Cross Championships at the end of January this year, and not long after went full gas into a Classics campaign with the Ineos Grenadiers. It was then stage racing season, and Pidcock took aim at the Tour de Suisse, then the Tour de France, where, of course, he took that famous stage win on Alpe d’Huez. Back to knobbly tyres, Pidcock won the European Mountain Bike Championships, and a week later attempted to do the double and win rainbows at the Worlds. He failed, finishing in fourth place when he firmly believed he could have won. This is something that he brings up with a sort of eagerness to set the record straight.
“The biggest thing in my head [for next season] is the mountain bike Worlds. I want to go prove what I can do. No one knows I was ill this year and people think that I just lost the race which irritates me a little bit,” Pidcock says. “I prepared so well but then I was sick and then I had a puncture and then also the gridding didn't help, it just wasn't going to happen.”
Tom Pidcock after finishing fourth at the UCI MTB World Championships 2022 (Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
Pidcock isn’t really used to failing when he puts his mind to something. He wanted to win a stage of the 2022 Tour de France, so he did it, and he did it on Alpe d'Huez, one of the most iconic climbs in the race’s history. For most riders, this would be a career-defining moment, a result that could secure contract renewals for the next few years, the sort of victory that confirms you’ve really made it in professional cycling. Pidcock isn’t really like most riders, though.
I ask him if he’s happy with his season. “Of course there was some success,” he replies. “But at the same time, there was a lot of misfortune with illness and things like that. I feel like there was much more in it, potentially.”
“Winning at the Tour, it was a massive result. But the next day there is another stage. There's already the next thing, whereas a one-day race, like the Olympics or World Championships, that's the one day of the year. It kind of resonates longer than the Tour. The next day you line up on the front row and then, that's it, the caravan's moved on.”
Pidcock doesn’t seem to want to dwell on that Tour de France stage win. Like the Tour caravan, he’s most interested in moving on, fixated on the one big loss he had this year at the mountain bike World Championships and how he’s going to set the record straight in 2023, to prove everyone wrong. With this, I wonder if the opinions of others mean a lot to the Yorkshireman, and if that’s a lot to take on at times.
“I have abnormal amounts of media attention compared to other people. I don't know why. The team manages all of my interviews and stuff,” he says. “When they don't manage it like before mountain bike Worlds, there is just too much stuff going on. It was a bit chaotic, it's one thing that was too much during that week.”
It’s clear in Pidcock’s next answer that he does hold value in the opinions of those around him. “It’s like with the Red Bull helmet, it's a stamp of approval that you're good enough to wear a Red Bull helmet,” he says. “If you have media attention, it shows that you're a good rider. In your bad times, you know it's going bad because the media forget about you. The good times, it's all about you and it picks you up, but it can also put you down.”
The pressure that so much time in the spotlight puts on Pidcock’s shoulders is something that he admits he’s felt this year. His decision to opt out of riding the road World Championships in Australia – on a course that was tailored for his strengths – was surprising to many. He explains his reason for pulling out was “mental fatigue. After mountain biking I was a bit done,” he says.
It’s for this same reason that he was hesitant to commit to riding a cyclo-cross season this winter. “A few months ago, I was like, nah, I don't want to do it, that's the last thing I want to do. It's a big build up and then it's close to the road season and mentally it's hard.”
Tom Pidcock on Alpe d'Huez on his way to winning stage 12 of of the 2022 Tour de France (Image: CorVos/SWpix)
Pidcock has now announced he will do his first ‘cross race on November 19. “Now I'm looking forward to it, wearing the rainbow jersey. My first cross race of the year is always a race I'm never going to win though. Of course, I'm ambitious but I'm not unrealistic.”
It’s with this realist mindset and level-headed approach that Pidcock answers my questions about an attempt at riding for the general classification at the Tour de France in the years to come. His Alpe d’Huez victory excited people, it proved the British rider’s ability to climb in the high mountains with the best and raised hopes about him wearing the yellow jersey in years to come.
“It's something I dream of, like I'm sure many people do, but of course, I have to be realistic,” Pidcock says. “Next year, I'm not going to win the Tour de France. But in three years, maybe I could. I think [Tadej] Pogačar makes it look easy, almost. I don't think it is so easy. I think, physically, for me, I could be close next year, maybe if I went all in, but I don't think I'd be able to win. I need more age, experience, strength and everything.”
In order to target the general classification at the Tour, it’s likely that Pidock’s training will need to be more specific to that type of endurance effort, something that may not align with Pidcock’s desire to continue racing cyclo-cross, mountain bike and road racing. “I think in the future I might have to specify on one thing, I think ‘cross would be the first thing I would drop,” he says.
There’s a clear predicament for the Brit when it comes to making radical changes to his training and racing schedule. He’s always been good while balancing off-road and road racing, could dropping this have a detrimental effect on his performance?
“I'm able to sprint even though I'm less than 60 kilos. Is that because I do cross? And if I stopped doing it, would I then lose that?” he says. “Sometimes it's difficult, when my teammates are on holiday and things and I'm in Belgium, training in the rain. But then again, it's what has made me the rider I am, so I can't forget that.”
Tom Pidcock at Rouleur Live 2022 (Image: James Startt)
In 2023, Pidcock will try to attempt success in the Classics, mountain biking and the Tour de France. “I have to say that I need to wait to be selected first,” he says with a wry smile, “but I should be at the Tour next year.” The Ineos Grenadiers rider admits that he’s not sure if this will be for more attempts at stage wins or if he’ll try to ride for GC for the first time, this is still to be determined by his team.
Among all of the chaos of his schedule, the questions thrown at him by journalists, the stories written about his future and his potential, it’s hard for Pidcock to get away from it all. He says that launching his new app, Link My Ride, has been a good escape from his own cycling bubble. “I’ve enjoyed seeing what’s going on in the wider cycling community,” he says.
It’s this sort of escapism that the young talent seems to yearn for. “When I'm in off-season I really try to be normal without the bike and without my phone a lot of the time. I really enjoy backpacking, going camping in the mountains in Andorra,” he says. “It's really grounding. There’s always so many things flying around in my head, so it’s nice to get away.”
Wherever his future may take him, be that a rainbow jersey, a yellow jersey, another Olympic gold, or nothing of the sort, it seems that Tom Pidcock is searching to regain some balance, and he’ll need more of that to reach the success that many expect of him.
“It's quite a lot, isn't it, when you're racing all the time and you're in that world,” he says to me. “That's your whole life. It is nice to just think about something else. Sometimes I need that.”