“I don’t really want to go into the knee,” Stevie Williams asks. “Every interview I’ve done in the last three years has been based around that. A lot of people are sick of it. The story is out there.”
It’s an understandable request. One of Britain’s strongest natural climbers and a winner of the prestigious U23 race the Ronde de I’Isard in 2018, the Welshman has been plagued by left knee trouble ever since turning professional with Bahrain-Merida in 2019. In many of our previous chats, it’s been hard listening to his deflation and frustration.
But, as he pleads, knee talk will be limited. Because Stevie Williams the cyclist who wins bike races is now the story, the 25-year-old completing a remarkable comeback in October when he won the penultimate stage of the Cro Race that secured him the final GC.
“At the end of the day, the knee was a major thing,” he says. “But in Croatia it was nice to be able to prove to myself that I am able to do this, that I am recovered.
“I don’t need to be known for this injury. I am known to be a race winner and I can be at the top of the sport.”
It’s been a long road from the Isard to now. Successive knee operations were followed by just eight races day in 2019 and 19 in 2020, before it all came together this season, steadily building form, confidence and enshrining the unwavering belief he had himself.
“Even in those tough years being out with injury, I never said I would never win again,” he says. “I’m at this level for a reason, and I was telling myself that I’d won races before as a younger rider.
“I’d remind myself I can be around this level, that I’ve raced and won against those who are doing so well now.
“At the start of this season I told myself it was essentially my first year as a pro and it was about finding my feet.”
It was at July’s Settimana Ciclistica Italiana, his fourth stage race of the season, that he realised that his name could soon start to populate the top-half of the results.
He reflects: “I just knew that every race I was going to the leg was getting stronger and better, and the Settimana was a turning point for me in terms of confidence and knowing I could race at this level.
“At the Bretagne Classic, a month later, I surprised myself because it was a race that’s not ridiculously hilly, but I was there racing in the final, trying to seek the right moves. That’s when I thought that I have good legs going into the final part of the season.”
And some legs they were. Even if it was largely against tired opposition coming off the back of a full season, Williams was the standout climber and GC rider in the race. He went head to head with fellow Briton Simon Yates, and came out on top on the Queen stage.
“That was my best shape I’ve had in years. If anything, actually. Ever. I was really proud.”
It was one of those mythical days were everything seemed to come easy. “I just felt like a proper bike rider again,” he says. “When I attacked Yates in the finale I felt like I was on the pedals perfectly. I was never in difficulty. It gave me so much confidence to go and do something.”
It’s refreshing to hear Williams sound so overjoyed - but he’s insistent that this isn’t the comeback story completed. There will be more chapters to be written.
He’s heading into another year with Bahrain-Victorious and demands more of the same. “This is the thing now,” he assesses, “now that I’ve won a race, there comes pressure to do it again in the future. There’s expectation.
“My main goal moving forward is to kick on from this and try and improving, keep going to bigger and better races, and fight for good results for wins and the team.”
As we finish our conversation, he remembers a key detail. “You know, we have our first training camp starting now in Spain, and it’ll be my first full December training camp since 2017.
“Winter 2017. So long ago. For the first time I can get a good winter base, a solid foundation and hopefully it will add another layer of form onto me. This is the start of building to be in an even better place.”
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