This is an edited extract of an article originally published in issue 44 of Rouleur.
Editor Andy McGrath and photographer Timm Kölln spent a week embedded with the 17 and 18 year olds of the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme at the 2013 Junior Peace Race in the Czech Republic. Their rivals for victory included eventual race winner Mads Pedersen and Mathieu van der Poel. Whatever happened to them?
Everything was down-to-earth and low-budget. The managers drove from British Cycling HQ in Manchester to Bohemia with supplies, the teenage GB racers built their own bikes each morning, slept in the local ice hockey team stadium and ate spaghetti with chocolate powder some evenings.
It was an eye-opening cycling education. Just turned 18, Geoghegan-Hart finished fifth overall and stole the show with his talent, maturity and charisma.
Fast forward seven years and a lot has changed. ODP coach Matt Winston is part of management at Team Sunweb and half of that six-man team currently race in the WorldTour - Scott Davies (Bahrain-McLaren) and Ineos Grenadiers pair Chris Lawless and Giro d'Italia star Tao Geoghegan-Hart.
Chris Lawless is a rugby league nut; team-mate Jake Ragan had a cricket trial for Lancashire and Tao Geoghegan-Hart was a talented swimmer. They all alighted on cycling while its profile grew and now find it’s got some cred in the schoolyard. “My mates gave me stick for it at first, but I ended up saying ‘look at the size of my calves’,” Ragan says. “Now’s the best time to be doing it. My friends are buying bikes and coming up to me asking to go on rides. It used to be this rich people’s sport.”
It means sidelining further education too. So when I idly ask Tao what he’d study at university, I realise this is a loaded question. The tacit insinuation is: what if you don’t make it in cycling? “I’d do English. But that’s not going to happen,” he replies.
(left to right: Scott Davies, Chris Lawless, Jake Ragan, Germain Burton, Zach May and Tao Geoghegan-Hart)
In a little over three years of racing, Tao has hungrily devoured the ins and outs of the sport. He comes to the race having just won the Tour of Istria, the second round of the Junior Nations Cup.
He’s a born racer and acts as de facto road captain, tactically cannier than the rest. Off the bike, he has an easy charisma that sets him apart from the (natural) teenage apprehension in the rest of the Junior Peace Race peloton. His long, loping levers and magnetism are reminiscent of David Millar.
But, like everyone else, Tao and the ODP lads have their work cut out against the dominators of the junior scene, Denmark. As their third Nations Cup win in a row looks more likely, their strength-in-depth takes a toll on the bunch. “Maybe the Danes have a little engine in the bike? Forty kilometres left, an attack goes, the Danes ride on the front and close it down,” a beleaguered Belgian rider says on the morning of day three. “Phhh, okay, 30km to go,” he says, miming someone checking a watch and puffing out his cheeks.
Ahead of the crucial third stage, nosing over the German border with two long climbs up to Zinnwald, their coach Matt Winston delivers a stirring call to arms. “We have to get stuck in and really take the race to them. If they’re gonna win this bike race, let’s make it hard for them… If you do that and end up 30th on GC, well, we put the race to them. Better than to mince around and finish 14th on GC, one and a half minutes down.
"Chris, attack and as soon as it is brought back, Jake, you hit ‘em. Ride clever, ride with the other teams, make it aggressive on the climbs. Force the Danes to chase right from the off. All they’re gonna see is a GB jersey up the road."
You can feel any lost optimism returning. It’s hard not to feel roused by this rhetoric infused with scimitar-sharp race reading. Winston tells it like he’s already seen how the race will pan out. Then the final bit of motivation is dished out on the start line in Teplice, showing a different kind of hunger. “You promised dinner [out] tonight!” Tao says.
“If you win… okay, if you podium,” Matt says.
Tao turns and says: “I’m just going to follow Mads Pedersen and, with 20k to go, say ‘right, I’ve got a dinner riding on this’. I get the dinner, you get the overall.”
Chris and Jake follow orders to the letter, hurting the pursuing Danes before the road ramps up past a 12 per cent sign and some knackered old cars at the beginning of the first haul to Zinnwald.
The air thickens with wood smoke. At the plateau, it’s a lonely landscape, all pine trees, pylons and a hulking red brick farmhouse. Both Scott and Tao are in the lead group, due to decide who the leader is on the road. In the driving seat, Matt Winston is beside himself as another Dane drops back. The plan is coming together. “I do love a good bike race,” he says, slapping his thigh.
Then Scott vanishes. It transpires that he was so knackered from chasing back on that he rode straight off the road, slap bang into a muddy drainage ditch (below).
At the finish on Zinnwald, Tao outsprints his fractured group for second place—another dinner at the restaurant secured—but there was no dropping the stubborn race leader Mads Pedersen.
Birds are chirping in the near-silence and fresh air up here, but there was no saccharine Disney moment. Tao doesn’t sugarcoat his thoughts during the climb. “Fuck this. It hurts too much, dunnit? You just want to get off your bike every single second, you just want to sit up every single second. Stop pedalling and die. Lay down by the side of the road and just… stop.” He pokes in the ground subconsciously with a stick.
It’s all money in the pot, I suggest. “Prize money? I don’t give a shit about that. Honestly, I don’t. I didn’t take a penny from Croatia. I gave it to them, all the lads had it. It’s not something that motivates me at all. I don’t care about that, I’d much rather get the wins and the results, that’s what I want. Getting up there, getting the team up there, is much better. I know what you’re saying.”
We’re back to dirt and stones, the gritty dream. This is torturous, a means to a future, not some frivolous teenage game.
On the drive back towards Teplice, past prostitutes and dubious border massage parlours, Tao is excitedly recounting his day with his team-mates and praising them for pushing the Danes to breaking point: “You boys, you’re some fucking boys! That’s what I like to see. They’ve never been hit like that before.”
Sock completely blackened from his excursion into the ditch, Scott finishes a few minutes after Tao. When he gets to the British Cycling van, he’s so tired that Martyn helps to prise his feet out of the pedals. He totters over to the open doors, falls gently into its belly, shuts his eyes and lies there among the cycling bits and bobs.
The dreaming can resume.