In the end, it was all about love. I mean, of course it was.
With apologies to Musa Okwonga and his excellent novel, but love really is the reason Mark Stewart ended up in New Zealand. Therefore, it's behind his new-found motivation, his return to loving cycling, in fact possibly his future.
At the start of 2020 Stewart flew out to New Zealand, to visit his girlfriend Emma Cummings, a NZ track sprinter "literally with a rucksack and a bike".
Covid was not yet a full nightmare: "I remember getting asked at the worlds about covid and that was probably the first I'd heard of it," Stewart tells Cycling Weekly.
A week after he arrived, the country went into lockdown. A few days after that, he was dropped by British Cycling. To anyone else, this could have heralded the end of a career in the sport. Not to the man from Dundee.
Two years on from the beginning of the pandemic, Stewart currently stands atop the table for UCI wins so far this season through his victory at the New Zealand Cycle Classic, and is dreaming of making the WorldTour.
On beind dropped, he says: "It ended up being the best thing they could have done for me, because I was struggling in that environment. I probably just wasn't getting the best out of myself.
"I thought I'd stay for a few months in New Zealand, because there was nothing worth going home for, and that ended up being a few months more, and again, and that ended up being basically all of 2020."
Stewart had been on the GB track programme, around the team pursuit team and won gold in the points race at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Being dropped by BC ended up being a positive. On the other side of the world, and Stewart found himself enjoying himself on the bike.
"It was so good for me to stay for 2020, from every aspect. Personally, I was thriving, physically on the bike I was going from strength to strength. The plan was to come back in 2021 and race a full season with Ribble, but I just had no money.
"I had two choices, I could either stay in New Zealand for another year, work full time and save up enough money to then finance myself for 2022. The other option was to come back to Britain, race a reduced calendar for Ribble, use up all my money and get stuck in Britain. I would probably have to get a job then and work through the winter. I went for option one."
He decided to stick in New Zealand, and worked at a local swimming pool as a lifeguard team leader, some change from the World Track Championships he'd found himself at just a few months before.
"I'm that motivated that I was willing to play the long game, I'm happy to train and put my head down and work hard. I spent pretty much all of last year working 40-50 hours a week and just trying to train, which was really hard.
"It was the best thing I've ever done though, because now on the bike nothing is really an issue. Working is really hard, and it's relentless, and it's the same thing every day.... It totally changed my perspective."
Stewart argues: "If it's not 9pm and I'm not scrubbing toilets... no session on the bike will be as hard as that. Since I've been a full time rider again, at 9pm I've been parked up, watching Netflix with Emma, or maybe studying, but it's still more enjoyable."
New team, new start
After staying in New Zealand and not racing for Ribble in 2021, Stewart worked and continued to train and look for opportunities.
Eventually, his hunt paid off, as he got a ride with Bolton Equities Black Spoke Pro Cycling, who had to change their ethos to accommodate him.
"They are 100% Kiwi team, focusing on development," he explains. "So the manager had spoken to Murray Bolton, of Bolton Equities, our title sponsor, about having an international rider. As long as it helped the team and helped the Kiwis it was fine. A few of the lads had vouched for me, but I never expected it.
"I never thought I'd ride for them because I didn't think it would be possible. They gave me a good offer, and if you look at the amount of race days they did in 2021 it was pretty impressive.
"It's such a commitment when they come over to Europe, it's full gas, and that's the same position I found myself in. If and when I go over I need to get everything right, and this team has aligned itself for that."
If everything goes to plan, and the pandemic continues to recede, the team are to come over to Europe to race in April, and are currently organising race invites.
"It's a bit hard as a Conti team," Stewart says. "It's a three or four month revolving window on when you get race starts. It's right now when we're finding out what we're getting into. All Conti teams in the world want to do the first few races 'cos they're super keen and then after a few months a few of them start dropping out.
"The thing with Black Spoke is that we've got a good budget, we're motivated, we will be committed when we come over."
Working out how to win, and wanting to get to the WorldTour
The big thing that the Dundonian has been forced to learn about is how to win on the road; it came easy on the track but not on the road.
Stewart admits it was a hole in his cycling CV: "I would like to think of myself as a good cyclist and I've had some good success on the track, but up until the point I came over here I had never won a road race.
"In 2017 I raced Tour of Britain and I race l'Avenir before that... I was a good road rider but I'd never actually won a race."
Two years on from being dropped from the Team GB track programme, he's now able to look back on his time with that squad with a new angle
"At GB I had been chucked into such a high level without the ability, so it took me about four years to grind my way to making the front group, and then by the time I'd made the front group I was just happy to be there, I wasn't thinking about winning.
"Before GB had dropped me from the track squad, I was beginning to think that my physiology was suiting me more towards road anyway. So when they dropped me, it made the decision for me as I had to go full gas for the road.
"One of the first things I identified was that I needed to win. For some people it comes really easy, like for me on the track, I seemed to win quite a lot, whereas on the road it's something I've really consciously had to work on. I started to do that, and won a couple of local races."
It certainly worked, Stewart winning his first race for Black Spoke, at the New Zealand Cycle Classic. He won the queen stage and the overall at the stage race, which was a new sensation.
"That's what I did with the Cycle Classic, I turned up thinking I want to try and win this race," he explains. "It felt pretty good, it's not often that you think you should try and win and it does happen. I wore a leader's jersey for the first time.
"It feels so personal - attacking me and my lead. Physically I was quite good and confident, but mentally it was a lot of tension. It was a lot of pressure that I hadn't experienced before."
Aiming for the WorldTour, but it isn't everything
So, what next for the 26 year old? First of all, he wants to come to Europe and race with Black Spoke and impress himself and others. After that, the sky is the limit, although Stewart is very aware that he might not make it, which sounds healthy.
He explains: "I want to step up to WorldTour, I want to ride the biggest races against the best guys. I've done my U23 years, and I've tried the step up to WorldTour before, because that's what everyone wants to do, and I didn't quite manage it.
"Physically, I'm there, it's just going to be the right combination of timing, opportunity, and luck. The right person at the right time sees you race. There are so many factors involved, which is why I just want to race. A lot of people don't want to say their ambition because it sets their ambition for failure.
"If you publish this, it will be very clear to see if I've succeeded or failed in my goals, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with. It's ok to not succeed. That's something I've struggled with before. At U23 level it almost feels like life and death."
The one crucial thing his time in New Zealand has taught him is how fortunate he is to be paid for riding his bike, and also how much fun he has on it. While that fun might not last, especially if he enters the strict environs of the WorldTour, it is something he will remember.
"For two years I was just a hobby cyclist, so now I know that it's not the end of the world if I don't go pro," Stewart says. "It is amazing to get to the WorldTour, and most athletes chase performance, but the most fun I've had on the bike is racing the real domestic stuff with guys that I'm training with who all have full time jobs. It is similar with Black Spoke or Conti teams, it is guys that have a nice perspectives."
He concludes: "I'm fully aware that this year might be the most fun I have on a bike, because I'm still not paid big bucks, because there's no pressure, I'm with a good set of guys. You can chase stuff, but it's maybe acknowledging the present while you're chasing stuff.
"You can sometimes lose track of how much fun you're having, or how much you're not having, because you're thinking about the future."
It is quite the story, and it all started because of love.
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