“This is a really cool job” Bahrain Victorious’ Fred Wright on his first Grand Tour
He wasn’t supposed to ride the Vuelta in his first year as a professional, but a lot of crazy things happened in 2020. Fred Wright speaks to Rouleur about his experiences as in the WorldTour so far.
Being part of the World Tour has many perks. One of these is certainly having the luxury of professional chefs taking care of your team's nutrition at each race – a far cry eating soggy pasta in race car parks, as you might expect at U23 level. Fred Wright was enjoying this opulence whilst he competed in the BinckBank Tour last year: “Our team chef was making such amazing food,” he explains. “I was joking with him and said: maybe I'll try to come to the Vuelta just so I can keep eating your lovely food!”
It really was just a joke to the 21-year-old neo-pro. Riding a Grand Tour in his first full season with the professionals was never on the cards, but 2020 was a year where everything was turned upside down. We all had to expect the unexpected, no one more so than Fred when he got told he’d be starting the Vuelta a Espana.
“I didn't really know what was coming up,” he explains. “I think that was almost a benefit, actually. Normally with these things, you would have a big build-up and do specific training, and then you hit the start of it and you worry about how your legs would go and everything like that. But I went straight from Flanders to the Vuelta, so I knew I was doing it but I didn't have any time to actually think about it. That kind of made it easier because I just ended up taking it day by day.”
With some stellar results in the U23 ranks, including wins in prestigious races like the Baby Giro and Tour de l'Avenir, Fred knew that he was suited to stage racing and could deal with consecutive days of high intensity. However, a three-week Tour was another step up, and after only one season of racing with the pros, there was no telling how his body would react to the strain.
“I think one of my best traits is that I can just keep going and don't complain too much,” Fred says, “When you race on horrid rainy days, I think that that does come to my benefit.” There were a couple of foul weather days in the Vuelta last year, and Fred performed well in the conditions, taking a fourth place on stage 15, something he admits exceeded any expectations he had going into the race.
“It wasn't necessarily that I had amazing legs,” he explains, “it was the fact that it was a really cold and wet day. You just have to motivate yourself.” To even finish the Vuelta was an achievement, crossing the line in Madrid was a proud moment for Fred, and a huge accomplishment for a neo-pro.
However, like all things in recent months, the post-race celebrations were hindered by coronavirus, the world’s biggest spoilsport.
“After the race, we had pizza on the bus, but I've heard stories of what it's like in Madrid usually when the Vuelta is over,” Fred says. “We just had a beer and took a flight home that evening. Normally, there’s a lot more entertainment.”
Whilst Fred recognises his fortunate position as a rider in the WorldTour and is thankful to his team for the opportunities they have given him so early on in his career, he explains that coronavirus has somewhat dampened his experiences in races like the big Classics.
“It’s been so weird — my first two years as a pro, I haven't actually had races with fans at them,” he says. “There's a lot of benefits to having crowds in the Belgian classics, just in terms of an enjoyment level. Flanders was such a cool race this year and last year and to do that again next year, with fans, that would just be another level.”
Hailing from South-East London, Fred has strong roots in the cycling club he grew up racing for, Velo Club Londres. He explains that normally, the club would travel over to watch the Classics, but those plans had been curtailed due to the pandemic.
“It kind of gives me goosebumps to think of them all watching,” he says. “I'll probably start crying on the Kwaremont.”
The Classics are races in which Fred hopes to get results later in his career. He explains that he’s in a good place to learn about what it takes to perform in these events at Bahrain-Victorious. “I owe quite a lot to Cavendish [who was on the team with Fred last year] and the older guys in our team like Marcel Sieberg and Heinrich Haussler. They're basically at the end of their careers and I'm right at the start, but they're still helping me out and telling me off when I'm doing stupid stuff in the bunch. It's really useful to have that experience.”
Victory in the Roubaix velodrome is Fred’s long-term career goal, but his invaluable work as a domestique in recent months hasn’t gone unnoticed by his team, who praised what he did for Wout Poels in the Vuelta last year. “I'd love to be able to have a real good crack at the Classics every year and then go back to being a team rider for the Tour and try to help there.” Fred says.
He explains that the team work required in the WorldTour is one of the many changes he’s had to get used to as he stepped up from the U23 ranks. “It's a part of racing that I don't think gets documented that much,” he says. “You can go through your whole career just being a helper, but it's so important. Those guys spend most of the race working. It's only the last sort of 30km where the big guns start coming out.”
Fred learnt his trade on the track as part of the Great Britain Senior Academy, so his focus hasn’t always been on the road. He explains that growing up, his eyes were firmly set on going to the Olympics with the GB track team. “I tried as hard as I possibly could to make it happen,” Fred says, “but it wasn't to be.”
Still, his relationship with British Cycling helped Fred find his way into the World Tour. Rod Ellingworth, who previously worked for the GB Senior Academy, was a key factor in his signing with Bahrain. “He spoke to my agents and then I met with him and I was like, wow, I can't really not go for this chance.”
Despite initially hoping to find success in the velodrome, Fred thrived in the professional road racing scene, something that he didn’t expect when he first made the switch over. “I've really enjoyed having less pressure on me. On the track, I used to just get so nervous before team pursuits whereas the stakes aren’t as high in road races, so I tend to perform better.” he says.
“Doing the Vuelta opened my eyes a bit, I was like: wow, this is a really cool job.”
It hasn’t been plain sailing, though. Fred talks about some rough days he’s had on the bike but explains that in his position as a neo-pro, the team is more relaxed if he doesn’t always perform.
“I had one race in Italy last year that was absolutely shocking and I couldn't do anything,” he says. “Personally, I was totally, totally gutted, but the team was really nice. They were just like: well, that's the way it is. They didn’t say: why weren't you on the front here or why didn't you make it over that climb?”
Fred hasn’t catapulted himself fully into the life of most professional cyclists just yet. While many riders move abroad to settle in warmer climates, Fred is living in Manchester – the city he moved to at 18 when he joined the GB Academy. He shares a house with Ineos Grenadiers’ Ethan Hayter, a rider he has grown up with and raced against since they were in the youth ranks.
“I mean, there are the occasional times where we get on each other's nerves but to be honest he is one of my best mates so it's never been difficult at all,” Fred says.
Both at similar stages in their respective careers, living together is convenient and allows Fred and Ethan to train together when they are both at home in the UK. Fred explains that he’s noticed a big difference in his training since completing the Vuelta last year. “My base fitness has basically just gone up to a whole new level and even in the winter, I didn't feel like I had to do very much to maintain that,” he says.
He hopes to ride the World Championships in Flanders later this year. With the postponement of Paris-Roubaix to October, the tail end of the season is going to be a big target. “Those kinds of races suit me,” Fred explains. “Just long and hard, basically. A lot of suffering.”
While he realises that results are important, a raw passion for the sport is clearly what drives Fred. His love for riding has been the catalyst for what has been a promising start to his young career.
“It's such a fine balance between being really switched on and then tipping over the edge and getting injured and making yourself ill,” he explains. “I’ve really always had that base level of enjoyment that stopped me getting too serious.”
“I think you just have to love it. If you don't really love going out and riding the bike for a long time, it’s a difficult job to do.”