From the cobbles to the classroom – Flora Perkins on balancing racing and school as a neo-pro
Riding for Le Col-Wahoo in 2022, the British rider impressed in her first race and looks forward to a big year ahead. Once her A-levels are out the way...
On Sunday 22nd of February, Flora Perkins lined up for her first ever race as a professional rider. It was Omloop het Hageland, and Perkins impressed with her debut for Le Col-Wahoo. The young Brit stormed over the cobbles, making her presence known in the race with some gutsy attacks.
The following week, however, Flandrian landscapes and fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled racing would have seemed like a distant memory. Perkins was home in London, back studying for her A-levels, only able to daydream about the bustle of bike racing and rubbing shoulders with the world's best.
The British rider has a tough few months ahead, where she will look to juggle the commitments of a professional contract with Le Col-Wahoo and the hard work required to secure the academic achievements she’s after. However, those who know Flora will be aware that she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.
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Perkins grew up racing with VC Londres, a club based in the heart of South London. Her parents took her there for what she describes as “easy childcare”, little suspecting that their daughter would grow up to be one of the most exciting young prospects in British female racing. It was Flora’s own innate competitive spirit that got her on a bike in the first place, though.
“I remember, I was still using stabilisers on my bike, and we were on this family camping holiday,” Perkins explains. “My parents were setting up the tent, and my brothers were off on their bikes as they didn't need stabilisers. I was like, right, I'm not waiting. So I just jumped on my bike and went without them, and that was it.”
Herne Hill Velodrome was where Perkins would go on to discover her love for racing and, as she honestly admits, her love for success. “I quite liked winning, so I just kept on coming to the track,” she says. “But to be fair, for a long time, I wasn't brilliant. I'd be dragged around at the back on a coach's wheel. Then I started doing crits and track league and kind of built from there to regional and national stuff.”
She was picked up by British Cycling while racing in the youth category, joining the ODA (Olympic Development Apprenticeship) programme. While her results as a youth were still impressive, Perkins admits that she wasn’t training seriously at this point. Instead, she headed to criterium races and local track leagues as her main source of riding – racing for fun. Once she made the switch to the juniors, though, her commitment to cycling stepped up, and this showed quickly in her results.
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“I didn't make it to Junior Academy once I left the youth ranks, as I wasn’t selected by British Cycling. I was like, what do I do now?” she says. “Another rider in VC Londres, Leo Hayter [winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23 and now riding for Hagens Berman Axeon] had a coach at the time who was Peter Georgi [father of Team DSM rider Pfeiffer Georgi]. He just told me to give Peter a ring and he [Peter] became my coach for those two years.”
“I think he was a big part of the change. I was training smarter and properly. As a youth, you don't need to train the same. He helped me lay the base down and we built on it with intensity and stuff. I really got into it through the lockdown time. I just got stronger from that and he changed my mentality as well, made me a harder rider.”
After two years with very little racing due to the pandemic, Perkins was first able to reap the rewards of her hard work in May 2021, at the Banbury Star road race in the UK. Part of the British National Team Series, the race attracts some of the strongest amateur riders in the country. As a junior rider, few expected Perkins to storm away on the attritional course and take a solo win. As it turned out, she put her name well and truly on the map.
“My grandparents live in Banbury, so my dad's side of the family were out watching me,” explains Flora as she reminisces on that first big win. “I just really enjoyed it. I think not having any expectations was great. I just went hard, I didn't compare myself to other riders, I just went for it and it paid off and I won that day.”
Some strong performances in Junior National Series races later, and Perkins had got the attention of British Cycling. While they hadn’t selected her to join the Junior Academy two years previously, Flora’s results in 2021 forced the coaches to recognise her potential, and she was selected to race a Junior Nations Cup round in September. It was a three-day event that attracted the brightest young talent from across the world, and Flora went to the race with a strong British team which included the now multiple world champion, Zoe Bäckstedt.
“The first stage was a sprint finish and I was nowhere because we were trying to work as a team. We did a lead-out. It was messy and didn't go well,” explains Perkins. “In the time trial I just did the best I could, and on the final road stage Zoe was in the leader's jersey.”
It was Perkins’ responsibility to help protect Bäckstedt's jersey at the race – a team role she had seldom played in her young career. Flora was covering the move of a French rider who launched an attack when the two of them got a sizeable gap on the rest of the bunch. “I was in a good position, so I went for it. A bit later, I got caught by a few others which was kind of a saving grace because I was dying by that point. Then it was a sprint finish which I didn't win but because I'd done ok in the time trial, I won the GC.”
She says it with modesty, but the gravity of this result shouldn’t be underestimated. Not only did the Nations Cup victory secure her a place to ride for the British junior women’s team at the World Championships in Flanders a few months later, it also put her on the radar of Le Col-Wahoo, the team she’s riding for in 2022 in her first year as a professional.
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Perkins’ performance at the World Championship a few weeks later, where she impressed with tactical astuteness beyond her years, was what made Le Col-Wahoo certain it wanted her on its roster for the upcoming season. “I'm really pleased to be here now,” Perkins says. “I think it's a good fit. I feel really comfortable here and I’m so happy with the support they give us.”
Still only 18 years old, Perkins is aware of how much she still has to learn, and sees Le Col-Wahoo as the perfect place to develop. “They recognise the need to progress because we are quite a young team in many ways,” she explains. “They just fill in the gaps where needed and shape a program of racing that is going to help me in the long run, not necessarily for this year, because I don't want to be the best U23 in the first year. I want to be the best in ten years or five years. They recognise that progression and see the long journey.”
Such little racing experience means that Flora still has to learn the type of rider she is and what races suit her. “The biggest target, although it's a bit cliché, is to learn a lot,” she says. “I think having some older riders on the team has been great for that.”
Despite her clear determination to have a successful career on two wheels, Perkins admits that she sometimes worries about the big step up from junior racing straight to elites. Unlike on the men’s side of the sport, female riders are without a dedicated U23 category. Within one winter, junior women racers are forced to make the step from riding 70km events to elite races nearing 140km against seasoned champions.
“I go in phases of feeling excited and nervous. Sometimes I'm like: I'm absolutely fine, I'll be ok, I'll be looked after. And then sometimes I worry I'm going to be out of the back,” she says.
Would having U23 races to aim for help her distinguish some clear goals? “I think for where I am, I definitely would like a U23 Worlds,” she says. “I think that the U23 Euros is brilliant, because if you're a U23 rider and you haven't gotten to a team like Le Col-Wahoo, or you want to make that step up to WorldTour, how do you prove yourself? You can't, or it's hard to. U23 races would give you a shot. We can't write that on our CV, it's something that the boys have that we don't.”
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Perkins is quick to add that she doesn’t see mimicking the men’s racing structure as entirely desirable. “I don't know if we should add an entire U23 series, but we should maybe sort out what we have now, so keep the 1.1 and 1.2 races for the smaller teams to show what they can do. I haven't given it lots of thought, but that's just my reaction.”
Unsurprisingly, Flora hasn’t had much spare time to ponder a complete redesign of the women’s racing calendar when considering her agenda for the next few months. The British rider will aim to finish her A-levels before heading full-speed towards a packed road and track racing calendar in the latter half of the year.
“It’s a lot, but I can handle it,” she says with a smile. “I’m so well supported by my team and British Cycling, so I’m just excited for the year ahead.”