In the living room of Tom Pidcock’s home in a leafy suburb of Leeds, two trophies share a windowsill. Both are glass, both roughly the same size. One is for a third place in an under-14s circuit race, the other is for a Telenet UCI cyclo-cross World Cup. Together they express the heady ascent from talented youth rider to world champion and neo-professional that seems to have taken aback even the Pidcock family.
“He continues to surprise me,” says his mother, Sonia, as she pegs out a basket-load of washing, predominantly cycling kit, in the back garden. “Even over the last couple of weeks he’s got another couple of jerseys.”
Good old British understatement. The two jerseys she’s referring to are the Junior National Scratch Championship on the track and the Senior Elite National Circuit Race Championship. In the latter, on restricted gearing, Pidcock used his famed bike-handling skills to embarrass a field of professionals, attacking with 500 metres to go on the tight circuit in Sheffield and holding off riders from Bike Channel-Canyon, Madison Genesis and JLT Condor.
The person least surprised about his success is Tom himself. “I always thought I was going to be a pro. I just told myself so,” he says with a wry smile. He’s lounging on a sofa in a British Cycling hoodie and tracksuit bottoms and seems sleepy, tired. Or maybe it’s just the laconic body language that all elite riders display; why move fast and burn unnecessary energy?
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Having just turned 18, he has more than a decade of racing behind him. Success came quickly and he was a prolific winner through all the age categories, but translating victories in youth circuit races into a rainbow jersey is something else entirely. And on initially meeting Tom it isn’t entirely clear how he’s done it.
The morning of January 28, 2017, in Bieles, Luxembourg. The sky was leaden, and the colourful ribbons of the cyclo-cross World Championships looked meagre against piles of rock, disused industrial machinery and an incongruously modern shopping centre. As soon as the juniors were told to stop their warm-up laps, rain began to fall, and because the temperature was sub-zero, the rain froze when it hit the ground. Tom appeared from the British Cycling camper, wearing a black down jacket over his skinsuit and, as he began his warm-up, flicked the hood up, staring down at his front wheel. No picture for the gathered photographers, no facial clues as to how he was feeling for us journalists.
Did he feel pressure coming into the race as favourite?
“Yeah,” he says, with the benefit of seven months’ hindsight. “But you just acknowledge the pressure and get on with it. It was difficult getting to the Worlds though, because I over-trained that winter and had to have a week off before the race, which was difficult to handle.”
That race will live long in the memories of British cyclo-cross fans. After achieving his initial objective of getting a quick start to keep him out of trouble on the first icy corner, where a big crash took out most of the field, Pidcock bided his time, getting the feel for the newly slippery course.
He’d made a last minute decision to switch to file tread tubulars, which seemed wise – the icy adverse cambers began to steadily claim their victims, but Pidcock stayed on his bike. As the threat from French rider Maxime Bonsergent fell away, Pidcock took the lead, with fellow Brits Dan Tulett and Ben Turner later climbing into second and third. Pidcock punctured and slid out on a couple of bends but was always in control.
Behind him, Turner and Tulett had a nerve-jangling last lap in which both crashed as they fought out the remaining medals. All three wore black armbands to commemorate Charlie Craig, the talented young rider who’d passed away a week before. As the national anthem blared through the podium speakers and three Union Jacks were winched skyward, the British crowd, including Tom’s parents, sang and cried.
The rainbow jersey Tom received on the podium is now framed in the hallway of his house. The red, white and blue skinsuit he wore in the race, unwashed and liberally flecked with Luxembourg mud, hangs in his bedroom.
A few hours after the race, Stefan Wyman, husband of British star Helen and well versed in the lore of ’cross, tweeted: ‘I need a canti CX frame. I want to ride like a British Junior. Canti brakes, please let me back in your club.’
It was an insightful soundbite, because not only did it announce the arrival of a new generation, it seemed to signify a different way of approaching ’cross. Less serious, more playful, more instinctive. Never mind data analysis and periodisation, just let your back wheel slide, ride on instinct, pull a wheelie over the finishing line. Suddenly the earnest and, at times, obsessive way the Dutch and Belgians have tackled cyclo-cross looked redundant.
Yet Pidcock’s playful style of riding, and the audacity to attempt whips while leading the World Championships on an icy course, belies the seriousness with which he approaches the sport and his career.
By the time the World Championships came around, Pidcock had already agreed to join the Telenet Fidea Lions team run by ’cross legend Sven Nys. Pidcock’s contract is for two years, and during that time he will focus on ’cross whilst maintaining a presence in road racing. The jump from junior to under-23 will be challenging, but Tom doesn’t seem fazed. His lap times from last season’s big ’cross races were only marginally slower than those of the winning under-23 riders.
Contrary to many people’s expectations, he is moving not to Belgium but to Monaco, where he will share a house with two friends. There will be a lot of travel to and from the Low Countries during the winter, but Tom thinks the warmer weather and the terrain near the Italian border will be better for him than the low skies and cobbles of Flanders. But won’t he be expected to join Sven’s famously hard Wednesday training sessions, deep in the sandy forests near Antwerp?
“I’ll do a few,” he says, “but I don’t really practice on a ’cross bike.”
Hang on. What?
The world cyclo-cross champion doesn’t train on a ’cross bike. He lives 200 metres from Roundhay Park, where Roger Hammond was the last British rider to win that same rainbow jersey 25 years ago, and he doesn’t take his cross bike over there to train.
“Nah. I’m quite relaxed about cross, I don’t really know that much about it, or the other riders.”
So the famous bike handling skills that have drawn comparisons to Peter Sagan, where do they come from?
He shrugs and smiles. When you’ve a gift, don’t interrogate it, just enjoy it. From a childhood spent on two wheels, is the likely answer. He began racing at seven. He always rode to school, whatever the weather.
The champion doesn’t train on a cross bike – I bet that blew the minds of his new team-mates. His mother Sonia, only half-jokingly, says, “Just wait till he does start practicing…”
“Yes, we only found that out quite recently at a training camp, that he only really trains on his road bike,” Pidcock’s new boss Sven Nys tells me. “And it makes it even more special, what he can do on a bike. I first saw how special he is at Zonhoven, which is a really technical and challenging track. He did something incredible in that race. He was riding like a Belgian guy, riding sections that others were struggling on. He’s a good cyclo-cross rider, not just a good athlete, but a good cyclo-cross rider, and that makes me want to work with him.”
Okay, perhaps now we can start to see how this has all come together. This subtle assertion by his mother shows a certain steeliness in his family.
Tom’s father Giles represented Great Britain in the 1980 Olympic road race in Moscow, so there is cycling pedigree on that side. Sonia, a physiotherapist, has paused her career to focus on supporting Tom and his younger brother, who also races. Build in the support network of the British Cycling Academy, the Oldfield/Paul Milnes Elite Racing Team he has represented for three years, and the wider network of the Yorkshire racing scene, and we can see how raw talent can be elevated to world-class performance.
“He’ll go soft in Monaco. You watch. It’s not the same as round here. He needs these roads to keep him strong. He’ll lose top-end speed riding down there, you watch.”
I’m standing in a lay-by halfway up the famous Cow and Calf climb with Tom’s training partners, Gavin and Will. Tom has disappeared into the nearby rocks with Benedict, the Rouleur photographer, and I’m getting the lowdown from Gavin on the famous Yorkshire grit. I suspect anyone with a London accent gets the same speech, but having had the pleasure and pain of riding in Yorkshire a few times, I understand how this landscape can shape young cyclists.
By way of evidence of Yorkshire’s superiority over Monaco, Gavin and Will tell me about the Buckden run, a Saturday group ride that takes place during January and February with a mix of elite men, women and juniors.
From Tom’s house in Leeds, it’s a round trip of 110 miles, the last 30 of which are done at race pace. To follow it, on Sundays there’s a ‘café’ run of 85 miles with plenty of hills and sprints thrown in. “And do you still go out if it’s raining?” I ask.
“Of course we do,” comes the reply I fully expected.
In the manner of teenagers, Gavin and Will are more than happy to throw good-humoured insults at Tom, and he takes them with good grace. They try to perpetuate the image of Tom as big-headed and a show-off, but we all know it’s not really true. I get the impression they’re going to miss riding out into the hills with Tom once he moves to Monaco.
Benedict and I follow Tom and his friends on their Monday recovery ride. It’s probably a rather erratic session for them, with our car sometimes pacing them, sometimes following them, and frequent stops for photographs.
Whenever we stop, Tom is focused on helping Benedict find the shots he wants. He moves around quickly, occasionally chivvying his friends along. When we stop at a café in Ilkley, Tom immediately knows what lunch he wants and how he’d like it cooked. I order for us all, and when the café owner gives me a receipt, it says Tom’s nickname, Pidders, at the top. Around here, the rainbow jersey commands respect.
The trio spin along sunlit lanes towards Eccup Reservoir. Whenever the view opens up, Tom takes a moment to gaze out to the horizon. We stop to set up some photos and while Benedict riffles through his selection of lenses, Tom rides onto the verge and begins picking and eating blackberries.
He’s been riding these roads for most of his young life, with his family, with his friends, and he’s in tune with the landscape. Out on the road we pass several cyclists coming the other way, and Tom, Gavin and Will all raise a hand or nod in greeting.
To have a reigning world champion riding on the top Belgian team, managed by Sven Nys, is a big step for British cyclo-cross. For Tom, though, it’s just another step on the career ladder. Telenet Fidea Lions will provide him with a camper, bikes, kit, technical support, and of course some salary, but Tom will keep around him the small crew of people he trusts and respects.
For the last two years he has worked with Seth Smith, the founder of Oldfield/Paul Milnes Elite Racing Team, and a stalwart figure in the Yorkshire cyclo-cross scene. Smith has acted as coach, mentor, mechanic and all-round adviser, and as soon as he began working with Pidcock, he saw his potential.
“When I first met him he had a reputation for being something of a loose cannon,” Smith says. “But really he’s a respectful, incredibly studious, mature young man. We get on brilliantly, never had any problems. I mentor him, help him. At a race, we discuss things, come up with ways to tackle the challenges.”
Through cyclo-cross, Pidcock has begun to learn about the relationship between a star rider and the crowd. Because in ’cross the riders are always visible, often within touching distance, they feed off the energy of the fans. Those with panache and brio will win popularity. Perhaps this is part of what attracted Nys to Pidcock: the first glimmerings of celebrity, the kind of charisma that builds brands.
Nys says, “Like Mathieu van der Poel, Tom is still having fun on his bike. Van der Poel is seriously busy building his career but having fun at the same time. It’s important to keep that going as long as possible. Tom knows that there’s no pressure on him to perform in his first season with us, no pressure from me or from the team. We will try to give the young riders some attention, but not too much attention. Let them learn by making mistakes. And learn from the other guys on the team. In Tom’s mind, winning is normal, but he’s going to lose more than he wins.”
The coaching staff at Telenet Fidea Lions will hone Pidcock’s skills, develop his precision and, according to Smith, Tom will take this in his stride. Quite rightly, he is keeping to himself his long-term career goals, but he is happy to admit that his favourite race is Paris-Roubaix. This year, he won the junior version in convincing style. A concerted shift to focusing on road racing in his early 20s seems a likely scenario, and who could impose any limits on his future?
Pidcock’s biggest asset is not his one-legged pedalling around icy corners, nor his whip over speed bumps, nor his lightning fast attack. It’s not even his no-handed wheelie carrying smoke flares. His biggest asset is his personality. He’s modest but not self-effacing; confident but not an egoist; serious but not tense. The showmanship of his victory celebrations tells us, not that he’s a show-off, but that he understands his sport. They are his trademark, the emblem of his brand. To be successful in modern cycling, a rider needs to stand out. Winning isn’t enough, because professional sport is entertainment.
When you talk to Tom, he gives you his full attention. You can tell he’s listening, absorbing, analysing. When it comes to his career and his racing there is total focus, limitless ambition, and the humility of knowing that there is more to learn.
Perhaps we need say no more than this: the kid’s a natural.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 17.7