At 22 years old, Fred Wright is the youngest rider in this year’s Tour de France. In what has been a whirlwind start to his career as a professional cyclist, Wright has already had some experience in Grand Tours, completing the Vuelta a Espana in his truncated 2020 season. “This is another level though,” Wright explains from his hotel in Andorra where he’s spending the second rest day of the Tour.
Early nights and optimum recovery are imperative to complete a race like the Tour, but Wright explains he had made an exception the night before, staying up late watching the Euro 2020 final. “By the time it finished, it was like 12pm but I wasn't going to miss it. I even delayed my dinner just to make sure,” he says. “I was sad to not be with people and to celebrate at the pub and stuff, but as soon as the result happened I was actually quite happy to be on my own.”
Despite the camaraderie and unity of his team, Bahrain Victorious, showing through their excellent Tour de France so far (they currently lead the Team Classification and have two stage wins), Fred explains the football was slightly divisive: “We've got three staff members that are Italian, so everyone was rubbing it in a lot. Sonny [Cobrelli] just got his new Italian champion's bike as well today.”
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When it comes to bike racing, though, Fred explains that it’s been important for him to help his team to success. “I did a pretty good job for Pello [Bilbao], getting him bottles and ice and helping him into the climbs when I'm still there,” Fred says. “I'd like to also help the guys in breakaways over the next three days. The more guys we can have trying to get in a breakaway, the easier it is for someone like Wout [Poels] or Dylan [Teuns], who could potentially win the stage.” A Tour debutant's sole task can often be to finish the race, gaining valuable experience for later years, but Wright has played a crucial role in both sprints and hilly stages.
He talks about how he’s been aiming to help Cobrelli to get results in the flat stages. “It's not quite worked out the way we wanted yet, unfortunately,” he says. “All credit to Quick Step, they just do it so perfectly. I think it's hard to get everyone together in the right place at the right time. I alway get a bit excited, really, being on the front of a bunch in the Tour, that's pretty special.”
Like many of us, Fred has revelled in seeing the success of fellow Brit Mark Cavendish in sprint finishes, a rider who he spent time with when they were team-mates last year. Cavendish acted as a role model figure to Fred during the British rider’s first year as a professional. “He just deserves to be happy and enjoy cycling,” Fred says. “Whether he’d win one stage or whether he wins the next two sprint stages, just to see him enjoying cycling, that's what matters,” he explains. “He told me the Tour was different,” Wright says. “He used to always say: the Tour is the Tour, it's not like any other race.”
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Fred has certainly found that to be true this year. Perhaps making his debut even more difficult is that this race has been one of the most stressful editions of the Tour de France in recent history. The first stages were marred with crashes and chaotic finales. Wright came away relatively unscathed, but was caught up in the madness a few times. “The early stages were just super, super stressful. “Now it's a completely different bunch compared to the first few days,” he says. “It's amazing how much it calms down.”
What is it that makes the Tour de France so hectic? “I think just everyone wants to be in the front,” he explains. “Everyone's got their DS in their ear going: ‘right we’ve got a narrow road coming up' and everyone's worried about GC and doesn't want to crash. Everyone not wanting to crash means there's almost more crashes because people are more stressed.”
Fred explains that the bunch was comparable to the peloton during the Classics earlier this season, the fighting for position being reminiscent of the battle to reach a cobbled section or steep climb first. “But the Classics is almost controlled carnage because you can always know when the craziness is going to happen. In the Tour, once the race kicks off, it's just crazy the whole time,” he says.
He likens starting the Tour de France to starting his first ever professional race at the Tour of Britain a few years ago, lining up with experienced riders who he looks up to, unsure of how he would match up. Still, it’s fair to say the young Brit has been pleasantly surprised with his form so far, explaining how his legs felt good on the rest day spin and that he’s recovering from his efforts well.
Photo credit: Daniel Hughes (available to purchase as a print here)
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Wright describes stage 11, where the peloton twice ascended the mythical Mont Ventoux, as one of the most difficult days of the race. “It was more of a mental thing rather than a physical thing," he says. “I'd got a bit too cooked in the heat. The last time up was just horrible. It's such an iconic climb, but I just did not enjoy any of it.
“Even with the fans, I didn't enjoy it. There's no hairpins. You forget how nice it is to have a little hairpin every now and again just to break the rhythm and just have a little rest, but Ventoux just goes up and up and up.”
One thing that has spurred Fred on has been seeing his family and friends on the side of the road, something that has been a new experience for him after most of his races as a professional so far have been without fans, under covid restrictions. “My dad gave me a big shout. It makes it more emotional,” he says.
“I also saw Tom Gloag [a rider for Trinity racing who grew up in the same club as Wright, VC Londres], it was weird how you can suddenly pick someone out among the hundreds of people,” he says. “He handed me a Mars Bar. It got me over the last climb!”
For Fred, the atmosphere and encouragement that spectators bring to the race add to the experience, but he acknowledges the need for more regulations after the infamous Allez Opi Omi sign caused a mass pile-up on the first stage of the race. “I think it's when people face the wrong way, that's always when it's going to be terrible,” he says. “You do see people with their phones out because they want to have a photo of themselves with the race coming from behind them. That just should be banned, but I don't know how you'd regulate it.”
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Leading the team classification of the race means Bahrain Victorious don yellow numbers and helmets. Wright explains that this hasn’t been a goal of the team, and he recognises the secondary nature of the competition. “Movistar have always won it and people say it doesn't mean anything,” Fred says. “But I think it's really cool. We're leading it but it's not like the DS, Rolf [Aldag], is telling us: ‘everything for the team classification.’ It has got to the point now where actually there's a chance that if we win it we'll be on the podium in Paris, though. I think actually that'd be a pretty cool thing to have at my first Tour,” he explains.
Fred looks forward to reaching the Champs-Elysees and seeing his parents and girlfriend at the finish, but is under no illusions that it will be a quiet ending to his race. “It's pretty hard once you get to that circuit and on the cobbles, I've been told not to just to prepare for a completely easy stage with a sprint finish.”
It’s true that if there’s one thing this Tour has shown us all, it’s that riders can never be complacent and we should expect the unexpected. Wright seems to be taking that into his stride, though, and is gearing up for a big final week.