“Am I with you guys, then? Sick.”
Josh Tarling plonks himself down on the plush sofas in the reception of the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide and stretches his legs out. He’s staying here in the lead up to the Tour Down Under, his first race of the season, and there’s just a few days before everything kicks off. I open my notebook as we’re about to start our interview and flick to the page that has a couple of questions written on it that I’ve planned to ask the British rider. Tarling’s eyes glance down to the table and he starts reading my notes as I speak. I joke that he can’t look at the questions before they’ve been asked.
“Ah, I can’t read very well anyway,” he laughs with an air of self-deprecating humour.
A few moments later, Dario Cioni, Tarling’s coach who works for the Ineos Grenadiers comes and sits beside us. The team's usual press officers aren’t in Australia, so Cioni is here to keep a watchful eye on Tarling as we chat.
“He’s here to make sure I don’t say anything stupid. It’s too late, Dario, I’ve already done it!” Tarling quips across the sofa. Cioni smiles and shakes his head. He’s used to this.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite expecting the jovial, playful nature that Tarling has brought to our meeting. Maybe it’s because his results last season were so formidable that it’s easy to forget that Tarling is still a teenager, only about to start his second season as part of a WorldTour team.
At the end of 2022, when it was announced that the Welsh rider would be joining Ineos on a three-year contract, there were questions about if it was all too soon. Tarling wasn’t out of juniors, yet he was talking about moving to Andorra and earning a WorldTour salary without having even experienced life outside of school, skipping the under-23 ranks entirely. How would he cope with the change and pressure, both mentally and physically, at such a young age? The World Championship medal and European Championship jersey that Tarling has won this season tells us that he’s managed absolutely fine.
“I’m a lot more adult now [than last year]. I’m still not that good at it but I’m getting more organised… I’m not, am I, Dario?” Tarling says, as Cioni shoots back a rueful grin. “No, in my head I’m getting better. The cycling part has been the easy part actually and over the last year I got better at the outside of cycling stuff, being at home cooking, looking after the house.”Image: Zac Williams
Tarling has found a home at Ineos Grenadiers, the UK-based team who have a history of helping young British riders flourish in their careers, allowing them space to develop without too much pressure. Tarling credits a well-planned race calendar last year as part of what made the 2023 season such a success and says it helped him learn a lot about life as a professional athlete.
“I wanted to do everything, to be honest, but they were really good. They let me do loads of big races, but also they took me to some horrible races like Renewi Tour and Wallonie where it’s Belgian crosswinds and you have to learn a lot,” Tarling says. “They were good at looking after me. I crashed in Renewi and I really wanted to do the Tour of Britain after but it was the Euros TT soon after that, so they made me stay at home so I could recover and then train full for the TT, which was the right idea.”
The likes of Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas have ensured that Tarling has been kept grounded in his first year as a professional rider, despite his results exceeding expectations. Tarling explains that the relationships he has built with his teammates have been an important part of making his first season in the WorldTour a memorable one.
“I was rooming with G at the camp and then the first race was full echelons with Luke in Bessèges. I roomed with Swifty in Paris-Nice too. You get a jumpstart on everyone else because they know so much. Swifty is class, he helped me with my wet bags and stuff,” Tarling says. “When I went out with them the first few times, I didn’t know anything because I was so new, like whether I should buy the coffee and that kind of shit, but they just helped and told me what to do.”
Tarling references his crash at Paris-Roubaix early last year with a sheepish honesty, noting that he wasn’t sure how Rowe would react afterwards, or if that would impact their budding friendship. The 19-year-old slipped out on a corner mid-way through the race, causing Rowe, who was on his wheel, to come down with him. It led to some nasty abrasions for Tarling, who battled valiantly on to the velodrome regardless, only narrowly finishing outside of the time cut.
“Luckily we’re all good. It helps that I did my job already at the start. What was funny is that when we recon’d it, Luke said that a guy always crashes on this corner, and then it was us two. I didn’t mean to,” Tarling reflects. “I still finished because Roubaix is point to point, so I’d rather say I finished it, that’s just cool. Even the commentators are famous there, I got interviewed by Gilbert at the end who has won it before.”
Being one of the last riders at Paris-Roubaix is to be expected of a neo-pro like Tarling, and simply finishing the race is an achievement on debut. At that point in the season, few could have expected what would come next for the Welsh rider.
It all began with “Project White Shorts” – Tarling’s project to take victory in the British National Time Trial Championships.
“After the Classics there was a good point to whack some training and it was nice weather in the UK, so I went back to do some club 10s, 25s and 50s to train. We did a lot of testing power-wise to work out what my zones were because I was new to the team, so they didn’t have a bank of power data” Tarling says. “Part of the reason for the time trials I did in the UK was working out what watts I’d have to do at Nationals. That helped a lot because going to the Nationals I then had a pacing plan.”
Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Tarling would go on to win his first ever elite National Time Trial Championships by over one minute, proving to everyone that he was every bit capable of holding his own in an elite field. That was only the start of the his exploits against the clock last year, however. After the Nationals victory, Tarling went on to secure a third place at the World Championships in Glasgow and then he won the European Time Trial Championships a few weeks later, beating the likes of Stefan Bissegger and Wout van Aert on the flat course in the Netherlands.
“Wout is super cool. On the podium we were just talking about his baby. He’s super nice and before the Euros he called me ‘a machine’ or something in an interview. The morning of the Euros I read that Wout thought I was cool,” Tarling smiles. “Remco is a bit quieter. He’s scary, isn’t he? He’s Remco.”
Coping with the pressure of racing established superstars like Van Aert and Evenepoel is almost as impressive as Tarling’s physical attributes. He explains that before important races, he tries to switch off and escape from the noise around him.
“I try not to be nervous by distracting myself. I just try to think like I'm doing club 10s. You know all the training is going to make you a better bike rider, you have to try and block out the goal,” Tarling says. “I try to have my family around me and be really distracted, put the good tunes on before the race, and watch a bit of Netflix. During Nationals I was in my colouring era. [Filippo] Ganna bought me an iPad during the Classics and I bought an Apple pencil, so I was doing some colouring in the van before the TTs.”
Perhaps due to his career still being in its infancy, Tarling admits that he’s struggled to switch off over the winter, thinking about his next goals and how he will live up to the standards he’s set for himself in 2023. Surprisingly, many of those goals lie on the wooden boards of the velodrome, rather than in time trials on the road.
“I always like moving onto the next thing fast. Most of my off-season I spent watching track races because I knew I was doing track races starting this season,” Tarling says. “It would be cool to do track and road at the Olympics. Two is better than one, isn’t it? Team GB is only allowed to take so many riders so if you can double up, you’re a lot more useful.”
Tarling adds that he missed riding on the track in 2023, believing that spending time on the boards improves his pedalling technique and skills on the road.
“It helps my road a lot. To go quick on the track, you have to pedal smoothly and that helps on the road. Also the explosiveness, that helps the road and the TT because you can get back up to speed quicker,” Tarling says. “I just like it, innit. Track’s cool.”
Image: Zac Williams
If he wants to race track in the Olympics, Tarling needs to qualify, something he aims to do by racing some of the Track Nations Cups, starting with one in Adelaide after the Tour Down Under. He has his sights set on the Madison event at the Olympics, as well as the team pursuit.
“I used to love Madison when I was younger,” Tarling says. “I was always good at the TP and the IP but in terms of enjoying it, I prefer Madison. It’s more enjoyable and there’s so much going on. Also it’s racing, TP is fine lines which I do enjoy and there’s an art to that, but Madison is just a different kind of race.”
It seems that Tarling is keen to move himself away from being a time trial specialist, noting that his key goal for 2024 is to win a road race. He also adds that he wants to go back to Roubaix and “prove himself”, believing he’s got the skill and physical strength to perform well in the toughest one-day races. Above all, he adds that he still needs to get some white shorts to go with his European and National champion jerseys.
“I still haven’t got white shorts, it would look even better with the Euro jersey,” he laughs. “You need to write it all over Rouleur: Tarling wants white shorts!”
Even as the interview gets more serious and Tarling discusses how he feels pressure to pick up this season where he left off so strongly in 2023, he can’t resist sharing jokes and smiles. He might be targeting Olympic medals and rainbow jerseys, but Tarling is still just a teenager living his dream, something that shines through in his answers.
“I was on a high at the end of last season,” he says. “Remco did a cool YouTube video and said well done to me and stuff which was so nice. Kind of weird though, innit?”
It seems as if the Welsh rider is just as shocked as everyone else has been about his breathtaking rise to the top so early in his career. He still comes across as a fan of the likes of Evenepoel and Van Aert, almost as if he doesn’t quite realise that he’s managed to beat them this season on his day. He might joke about his intelligence and make light out of his talent, but Tarling has already achieved so much in just one year of his professional career. If he can hold on to the fun he seems to have while racing, there could still be so much more to come from the 19-year-old.
“Thanks for that. Nailed it,” he smiles as our interview draws to a close. “Even managed not to say anything bad, right Dario?”
Cover image by Zac Williams