In cycling, there is a traditional route to the top. It usually starts early, involving learning to ride a bike young at the behest of keen parents, heading to races every weekend, and missing school parties in favour of Sunday club rides. As riders get older, the dream is to wear the national jersey, representing home countries on a global stage, getting the chance to ride some of the biggest junior and under-23 races before, hopefully, getting picked up by a professional team. For a long time, Jack Rootkin-Gray was on this pathway. Until he wasn’t.
“I got on the British Cycling Academy and I moved to Manchester when I was 18,” he explains. “But I don't think I was ready to live on my own. That made it a daily struggle. At the time, I didn't really like cycling for a multitude of reasons. The end product was that I hated what I was doing every day. It was awful. The worst year of my life.”
For those who are part of British Cycling's Development set-up as juniors, moving to Manchester is a sort of rite of passage if they offered a spot on the next stage of the programme. As Rootkin-Gray points out, these 18-year-olds go from being ferried around the country by their parents to fending for themselves in a house share near the Manchester velodrome – a completely new area for those moving from the south of England, like Rootkin-Gray was. The British rider’s dissatisfaction with his living situation at that time inevitably impacted his performances on the bike, resulting in subpar results.
“I was put on review for a year, and you never really feel motivated by it. It just feels like you're in the transition of being rid of. You’re on eggshells the whole time. It's not like a normal cycling year where you might start negotiating your contract through summer and by the end of September or October, you know what you're going to do next year. You could just be out in March, which I nearly was, and then out again in June. How do you expect to get anywhere good if you’ve been ditched in the middle of the year?”Image: Zac Williams
What Rootkin-Gray once thought would be living his dream quickly turned into a nightmare when British Cycling let him go from the programme midway through the 2022 season. He explains that, with his under-23 years slipping away, it felt like all odds were stacked against him. His coach at the time, Matt Brammeier, put Rootkin-Gray in touch with Cornwall-based domestic team, Saint Piran, who offered him a spot for the remainder of the season. While this wasn’t the step up to professional level that Rootkin-Gray once would have hoped for, he explains that it was both a lifeline and a wake-up call.
“When I worked out that I was going to get kicked off, I was motivated. I was like, right, I’m doing this in my own way that works for me. I'm not going to let this stop me from achieving the goal I’ve literally wanted since I was seven years old. At that point, the fire was really inside me,” Rootkin-Gray explains. “When I went on to Saint Piran, I was already friends with Alex Richardson from the London scene and he just took me under his wing. We became really good friends. He made me believe in myself, which was the main thing I needed.”
The season that followed Rootkin-Gray joining Saint Piran was one of impressive proportions. The team dominated the British Cycling National Series, regularly taking clean sweeps of the podium. Abroad, they were holding their own too, with Rootkin-Gray winning the Ringerike GP in 2023, a UCI 1.2 race in which he beat some stiff competition. The British rider puts his success down to being able to make his own choices about where he based himself, who he spent time with and the equipment he used during his two years on Saint Piran – arguing that he needed more freedom in order to flourish.
“If you’re constantly being told to do things but you're not seeing results, that becomes a problem. When you do as you're told, and you don't see the right outcomes, you start to doubt things and get in trouble for changing things, which makes it all harder,” he says. “Away from that strict structure, the day-to-day becomes more enjoyable. I found an environment which helped me enjoy it again which was the biggest thing for me.”
Rootkin-Gray discusses riding and training in the London cycling scene, doing laps of Richmond Park and riding through Surrey and Windsor with some of his closest friends.
“People that aren't from London think: how on earth would you train in London? They imagine Oxford Street and all the traffic lights, but it's really not like that. If you are a bit smarter and you pick the right route or use the park, you can do a good enough job to get to a really high level,” he says.Jack Rootkin-Gray during his first race for EF Education-EasyPost, the Tour Down Under (Image: Getty/Tim de Waele)
Finding consistency in his training quickly turned into results for Rootkin-Gray, and mid-way through the 2023 season he was back on British Cycling’s radar, selected to ride for the national team in some prestigious under-23 races, such as the Course de la Paix (The Peace Race), where he ended up securing a stage victory. In less than two years, Rootkin-Gray had gone from hating the time he spent in the British Cycling jersey to winning races in it, all through figuring out his own path to success. His fourth place at the under-23 World Championships in Glasgow was a culmination of Rootkin-Gray’s hard work and affirmed his position as one of the most exciting young British riders of his generation.
“I just was able to put together a consistent run of training. I looked back and in 2021 I did something like 366 hours of training, so I made a massive change with how much I did and the results came quickly,” Rootkin-Gray says.
If there was ever a WorldTour team that aligned with Rootkin-Gray’s slightly unorthodox approach to racing and training, it’s EF Education-EasyPost. The British rider’s results last year caught the eye of the WorldTour team and Rootkin-Gray describes them as a “perfect match.” Signing a two-year contract with EF at the end of last season was something that the 21-year-old could never have imagined when he was struggling to live in Manchester as an 18-year-old.
“If you’d have told me back then, I would never I would never have believed it. This is always what I've wanted to do and had seen myself doing, but from the point of being kicked off British Cycling, I didn't believe at that point that it was still possible,” Rootkin-Gray says.
He adds that EF Education-EasyPost is a team that looks at the personality behind the rider rather than solely at results and power numbers, something that was important to him joining the team: "they look a bit deeper to try and find undervalued riders that they can invest in," he says.
Image: Zac Williams
When he was part of Saint Piran, Rootkin-Gray spent plenty of time and resources optimising his own kit and training choices, allowing him to find a unique set-up that was suited to his personal needs. Fittingly, EF Education-EasyPost is a team that is known to allow riders more freedom to try out new things – the likes of Ben Healy could be seen making their own aerodynamic optimisations to his kit and bikes last year.
“The biggest thing for me was always clothing, being able to choose what clothes you wear, what position you ride and what helmet you ride, for example. Everyone saw Ben last year fashion his own skinsuit and now EF has made that an actual skinsuit he's going to wear with a more road friendly pocket. That's a nice thing about this team, the riders get a lot of say.”
Rootkin-Gray is also allowed to continue with his own coach as he moves up to the WorldTour – many teams require riders to train with staff employed by their organisation. He expects this to help him make a smooth transition to the WorldTour in 2024 as he won’t need to deal with too many big changes despite moving teams. Longer term, the British rider sees himself as a rider who will be suited to the tough and punchy terrain of the Classics and his ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal.
“I’m down to ride Roubaix this season which is equally exciting and terrifying,” Rootkin-Gray laughs. “But I’m just hoping to do a good job for the team and learn a lot.”
If there is a running theme through Rootkin-Gray’s career so far, it's learning. The journey he has been on from moving across the country as a fresh-faced teenager, to reaching the point where he was questioning if he wanted to carry on with the sport altogether, to finding friends and a routine that helped him rediscover his love for cycling, it has been a rollercoaster ride to a WorldTour contract.
“The biggest thing has been growing up,” Rootkin-Gray says. “I went to Manchester with a child's mind. When things didn’t go right, I had to learn pretty quickly. I’ve changed a lot as a person, and I realise that now.”
Cover image: Zac Williams