By Jonny Long
Fred Wright's dad, Phil, is an actor, he's been in Line of Duty, Call The Midwife and Eastenders. But on Sundays, he also used to work at a bike hire place in Dulwich Park, south London.
Sometimes his wife would bring Fred and his sister Lottie along, and Fred, aged four, would ride around Dulwich Park on either a banana bike, which you had to lean to steer, and was equipped with a really heavy gear, or a 'fun racer', really heavy but with a tiny gear. He used to speed around while his dad sorted customers out with their hires.
A few years later, Phil would take Fred to a Good Friday meeting at Herne Hill velodrome to watch Bradley Wiggins.
"He wasn't really interested," Phil says. "He started off doing the mountain biking, slowly came to the track, but because I think we'd always cycled as a family to get about, I think by the time he hit the track, he was always kind of good from the word go."
'Good' has turned out to be a bit of an understatement. Last year, Fred Wright stepped up to the WorldTour as he chose road over the track, joining the Bahrain-McLaren squad helmed by Rod Ellingworth, his debut season blighted by the coronavirus pandemic. He made his first appearances at the biggest Classics races and also a Grand Tour, the shortened Vuelta a España. His sophomore season has seen him line up for his first Tour de France as the youngest rider in the race.
"I think he was about ten or eleven, or younger probably," Phil says of when his son first expressed interest in becoming a pro. "He said to me, 'dad, has there ever been a top bike racer whose dad was rubbish?' So I guess he was thinking about it then and probably ruling it out because I was never good."
His dad reckons Fred's first national title (U14 in the Omnium) probably changed his mind, having watched his dad compete in triathlons "a long way away from the front", and then when father and son started lining up against each other in Track League at Herne Hill, and Fred started beating him, that was also maybe when he first began to believe.
"That's what really gets me...I guess a bit emotional, about it," Fred says before the start in Brest, choking up over the phone. "I think of all the people at Herne Hill who've helped me. I know my dad's gonna be tuning in, he said to me he's gonna be watching it in the [velodrome] pavilion every day so that's pretty cool."
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There's a picture in the Wright's hallway of the family watching the Tour go through Kent in 2007. The second in from the right is a young Fred. Phil put it up on Instagram and Fred then shared it on his account. His Bahrain-Victorious team-mate Marcel Sieberg then told him he was riding in the peloton that day, a fact that served as a freakish reminder to the 39-year-old German of the passing of time.
I was at Wright's first race for Bahrain-McLaren in Saudi Arabia, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe. The circus of being on a WorldTour team was still very new to the then-20-year-old. You'd spot him walking across the hotel lobby, making sure he kept up with his room-mate Mark Cavendish as they went to drop off their laundry.
A year later, you can see he's settled in with how things run, knows how to act like a pro and race like one too. However he still wears his heart on his sleeve and retains the giddiness of a fan when you ask him about the Classics and Grand Tours he's already raced - there is no stony-faced pro to be found here!
After spending a lockdown sat in front of computer games in Manchester, along with his housemates, Ineos' Ethan Hayter and Bora-Hansgrohe's Matt Walls, he got round his first almost-three week stage race at the Vuelta, managing fourth in a sprint in the final week, and then his first introduction to the Classics was eye-opening, learning it's not just all about the strength (which he certainly has) but about things falling in the right place for you on the right day.
Before the start of his debut Tour, the 22-year-old is, simply, "well excited".
It was pencilled onto his programme at the start of the year, a slow-burning realisation he'd be lining up at the world's biggest bike race. But when he actually got the call, madness ensued.
"When it came out it was like, 'Oh my god, he's going to the Tour de France!' Which is just mad," says Phil.
"I don’t really know what to expect from a lot of it, it’s all going to be a bit crazy I think," adds Fred.
Crazy turned out to be exactly the right word.
"I do get very worried in the sprints still," Phil says of watching his son race. "And on the descents, because I'm a rubbish descender, but I think my wife gets more worried because she's never been in a bunch in races."
The family have grown used to watching their son pop up on the telly over the past year, though, and have already had practice in receiving the horrible call saying he's been in an accident, picking Fred up from the airport with a broken nose and scar on his head after he went through a wall in Switzerland while racing with the U23s.
"I still can't believe how he does it," Phil adds. "It blows my mind to see him in those sprints and talking to him about what happens in a sprint, at the top level it's mind-blowing, the competitiveness of it, all those guys competing for space.
"Knowing them as babies and then to see them with that bravery. It's just, it's crazy. Something I just couldn't do."
At the start of stages, most riders meander their way through the buses, cursory glances at the mixed zone in case they're needed by the media. If anyone was measuring the top speed of riders making their way through to the sign-on, Fred Wright probably has it. Zipping through, his excitement palpable.
At the end of the first week he stops for a chat, banged up from the onslaught of crashes in the first week.
"I was involved in the crash where Geraint went down," Fred reveals. "It was a bit of an unexpected one, I just sort of went into the back of Jack and hit the deck. It's been a bit of a mad one. Not like anything I've done before but it's so much fun, really enjoyed it, but obviously, that day on stage three where we lost Jack [Haig] was really gutting."
Texts pinged in from home, with added emphasis on the usual 'stay safe' reminder. "I'm trying as hard as I can [to stay safe], I've also got a job to do!" was the reply.
"The TT [on stage five] I really enjoyed," Wright says. "I was just sort of cruising around. I've never done a time trial before where there are fans everywhere.
"My visor sort of came off and it was raining so I didn't really want it and some guy messaged me like 'I got your visor,' someone had just picked it up off the side of the road. A nice little memento for them."
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With their GC hope Jack Haig on an early flight home, Bahrain-Victorious reset their goals, taking three stage wins through Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohorič.
On the stage 20 time trial Wright finished a very respectable 15th, less than two minutes down on stage winner Wout van Aert.
"I'm actually quite pleased, I thought you know what, first Tour de France...I just went all out. I wasn't looking at the vineyards in that time trial, I was staring at my Garmin screen."
The picturesque surroundings of Bordeaux can wait, Wright is busy announcing himself to the wider cycling world.
"I'm maybe not surprised but I'm just happy I can...I thought maybe I'd just come here and get my head kicked in and have to survive but the fact you're saying I've had an impact on the [whole] race is nice," he tells ITV's Daniel Friebe.
His room-mate, Matej Mohorič, found himself at the centre of a minor storm when he celebrated his second stage win of the race with a finger to his lips, shushing the doubters after the Bahrain-Victorious hotel was raided by French police earlier that week.
"I made the mistake of looking on Twitter and going 'oh, this isn't very nice'," Wright says.
He and his team-mates had been subjected to searches of their bus and belongings, a daunting prospect for any rider, let alone the youngest on the race making his debut.
"It was stressful, my emotions were kind of going up and down a bit, but in the end, if they've got to do it they've got to do it, the team gave them everything and we've got nothing to hide."
Well, it wouldn't quite be the full Tour de France experience without some sort of run-in with the French police now, would it.
After that penultimate time trial, Wright's first Tour de France was basically in the bag.
"Although Paris isn’t as easy as people think," he warned. "I spoke to Stefan Küng yesterday, he said in his first Tour de France he only took two gels on the last stage and he regretted it. I’ll fuel well with a burger and chips tonight and I should be alright tomorrow.
"I've really enjoyed it," he continued. "I'm almost sad it’s finished to a certain extent. My body’s completely finished now but it was such a good experience. Coming home I’m going to be like what am I doing for the next couple of weeks, life’s going to get a bit boring, but it can only be that when you’ve done the Tour de France."
Wright's first Tour seems to have emboldened him, shown him he can probably set out to achieve whatever he wants in this sport, that the biggest race in the world isn't too big for him.
"I see myself winning a stage in the future, looking at the way the races went and the breakaways went, I kind of see myself doing what Matej [Mohorič] has done in the next few years," he says. "There’s a lot to learn from the timings of his attack and he’s so aero on the bike. It’s been so nice sharing a room with him and seeing him go through the process of winning a stage."
Wright says his mind has often wandered to thoughts of home, of everyone at Herne Hill velodrome, as he's cycled around France these past three weeks.
"He just loves and enjoys the whole scene. It's such an interesting world to be in," Phil says. "I think he realises he’s a real child of the Herne Hill community."
But first, before Britain beckons for its latest rider to conquer the French Grand Tour, a soirée in Paris is in order.
"A big party I reckon," Wright says of his plans after exiting the Champs-Élysées, having made it to the podium at the first attempt on account of Bahrain-Victorious winning the team classification. "I’m going to get nice and drunk. I haven’t had a…I don’t think it’s going to take a lot, one sip now and I’ll be finished."
Drink it in, Fred Wright, as this Tour appears to be the first of what will eventually be a wine cellar stocked with vintages.
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