'It's a brutal world': Chasing the dream with James Shaw, who steps back up to the WorldTour
In a series of conversations over 18 months, James Shaw's story reveals the highs and lows of being a professional cyclist
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"I went to bed that night, when I knew the deal was signed, I just slept so well," James Shaw tells Cycling Weekly about the day he signed the contract to take him back to the WorldTour after a three-year absence.
"The best nights' sleep I've had for maybe a year. Got into bed and bam...I just went, knowing that everything is going to be a bit brighter."
But before the happy ending to this particular chapter in his life, let's first go back to what in hindsight was a false restart to his cycling career.
February 2020. James Shaw has just bought a house in the Peak District with his partner and will be moving in soon once he’s back home. He owns a motorbike, which he rides with his other half on the back to various lunch spots. The house needs some TLC, so that will now occupy a lot of his time in between racing, having signed for Danish ProTeam Riwal Readynez.
As he arrives and leaves the airport in Saudi Arabia after the week-long stage race in the desert, people are wearing masks as the coronavirus pandemic erupts a few thousand kilometres to the east in China. After Saudi Arabia, he’ll fly to the Ruta Ciclista Del Sol before lining up at a couple of French one-day races.
Then the pandemic catches up to Europe, and the cycling season, as well as normal life, grinds to a halt.
But that comes later. For now, Shaw and the rest of us were blissfully unaware and the 24-year-old was easing himself back into international racing at a professional level.
“I was thinking to myself the other day that at this point last year I didn't even have a contract and now I'm back in a professional peloton again,” Shaw says, settling in on
a sofa in the lobby of a dated Saudi hotel.
“I think it's one of the hardest things to do, to come out of the professional ranks into what is effectively the amateur ranks," he says of his 2019 riding for British Continental outfit SwiftCarbon. "Yeah, I did the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of Britain, professional races, but to sort of go back to being an amateur and then back to professional, I think that step up takes quite a lot and it was difficult, it was hard to prove to other people.
“I think when you leave a team people think you must be a problem child or high maintenance, I think that puts a lot of people off. 'Well if Lotto have dropped him…’ you’ve got to turn your reputation around and with me and Lotto I think it was just the wrong place at the wrong time. BMC and CCC were merging and Aqua Blue were going down the pan, there was almost like a market collapse and it left loads of guys without a job.”
The harsh reality of bike racing and how the WorldTour isn’t “all sunshine and rainbows” was a lesson Shaw had to learn early and is one that has left him in good stead to navigate the murky waters of the professional circuit.
“The sport doesn't care about you personally. I think the thing people don't realise is that at the end of the day the only person that actually cares about you is you.
“I think people spend too much time thinking the sport owes them something, or teams owe them something and I think the sooner you realise that you're not really owed anything, that you've got to actually go out and get what you want...
"You've just got to make sure you don't get left behind because you'll be dropped and left from teams quicker than...people will forget about you and you'll be replaced. In cycling, there's always another young, enthusiastic, talented kid that's desperate to move up.
"I don't know really, it's just a brutal world."
While cycling as a sport may not care about you, Shaw immediately warmed to his new team-mates at Riwal, within an hour of arriving in Denmark it was like he'd known them forever, an environment he remembers from his time with the development team at Lotto, where the international riders would all watch the Inbetweeners, pissing themselves laughing, as every joke flew over the heads of their dour-faced Belgian colleagues.
"The Danes have a very similar sense of humour to what we have," Shaw said. "It didn't take long at all to settle in.”
Shaw is easy company, speaking his mind and delivering jokes without pomp yet sprinkled with delicious irony, dashing your presumptions of what a professional athlete should be like.
This is somewhat of a surprise, as when we speak in early 2020, he is only ever really asked about the rollercoaster circumstance of his career so far, the highs of joining WorldTour outfit Lotto-Soudal as a 20-year-old before being spat out the other end of the top-level.
Would he change the past if he could go back?
Hindsight says he was too young, Shaw admits, that he’d maybe bit off more than he could chew, and if he was advising someone else coming up he’d point them towards the likes of Tom Pidcock and Tao Geoghegan Hart who bid their time before hitting the World Tour.
“But when a team puts that contract under your nose, are you really gonna say no?”
Shaw left school at 16 with few qualifications, having spent most of his time racing bikes, working at an outdoor equipment shop until joining the Lotto development squad.
“At 19 you get that contract and it's a lot more money than you've ever seen before in your life. Alright, in the grand scheme of things it ain't that much money. But when you've come from earning no money to then actually earning something you think ‘crikey’ and put pen to paper.
"I think it is about having the right people a lot of time, it's a bit more luck than judgment as well, some people make the right decision. Some people don't. Some people get lucky as well.”
So is he desperate to get back to the top tier as soon as possible?
“I think the WorldTour can wait,” Shaw says.
“I tried it and I gave my best shot. I honestly don't lose sleep or say anything like I should have done this or that. I genuinely feel like I did my best and it got to a point where the opportunities that I was given...maybe the team I was with at the time didn't quite understand young riders that didn't have a Belgium passport quite the way that I interpreted, but maybe it was more me, I don't know.
“The World Tour can wait for however long, I don't really mind if I don't get back to that level again. For me, it's more about enjoying bike racing. I'd like to think I can win a bike race, I came pretty close in the Tour of Britain last year and the Tour de Yorkshire, I felt like I was knocking on the door.
“So if it means being on a Pro Conti team or even on a Conti team, like Ribble who ride the Tour Britain, or whoever, but winning a race to me means more than going to the WorldTour and not winning a race. That would be my aim, bike racing is about winning races isn't it? That is actually the point, we're not building rockets here.
"Maybe people do put too much pressure on themselves and don't step back and enjoy it as much as they should. Recently, more guys are getting caught in this sort of whirlwind of depression and it’s swallowing them up and spitting them back out again. It’s tough."
After the coronavirus break, Shaw would get back to racing in France in August before the Tour de Luxembourg, closing out his season representing GB at the Worlds in Imola before his final race for Riwal at De Brabantse Pijl, which he feared could be the last of his career.
“This could potentially be the last time I pin my race number on. A sad thought I know,” Shaw said before the start in Belgium. “Tomorrow will be my last race of 2020 at De Brabantse Pijl and with the ongoing hurricane caused by the Covid-19 virus, it could be the last of my career if I can’t find a contract for 2021. But I'm chasing the dream as much as I can.”
Shaw manages to get a contract, with Ribble-Weldtite, a flourishing Continental team from the north of England.
After opening his account in May 2021 at the Tour of Estonia, UCI race days still a premium during the lasting pandemic, the 25-year-old rides to fifth overall at the Tour of Slovenia in June, on his birthday. Two and a half minutes behind winner Tadej Pogačar but ahead of numerous top WorldTour talents.
"I needed to do something at this race," Shaw tells me once he's off his flight and back in the UK, driving home and desperate for something to eat.
"You don't often get opportunities to perform on the world stage, I know it's not the WorldTour, but on the scene, it's a big race and people will be looking at the results to see how Pogačar is riding and UAE are riding ahead of the Tour.
"I didn't want to put a lot of pressure on myself, but I didn't want to let anyone down," Shaw explains of his emotions after that impressive result. "I didn't want to let myself down. I've put in a lot of work and a lot of people have put work into me for me to get to this point so I didn't want to mess it all up because of the pressure or anything, so I put 100 per cent into the final climb [on the queen stage 4]. It's probably the best I've ever climbed.
"Yeah, definitely," he says of whether this is a step back in the right direction for his career. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I want to race at the highest level of the sport."
During that brief phone conversation, Shaw was dialled in. Maybe he was still shaking off being in race mode, left tired and hungry after the exertion, not his usual laid-back demeanour, focused on the goal he'd been harbouring through all those training kilometres and bleak lockdown days. Now it seemed within touching distance, he just had to reach out and grab it.
He speaks of wanting to hit his genetic limit, of wanting to be able to look back on his career and know that he got out of it all that he could, but with the caveat that the thing he now values above everything else bike-related is his own sanity.
Talk then turns to Harry Tanfield, who started the year off with Ribble-Weldtite before finding space within the ranks of Qhubeka-NextHash at the last minute, and how for a lot of guys, himself and Tanfield included, you make it into the WorldTour thinking it'll be all sunshine and rainbows but it's difficult, and no matter how much talent you have or hard work you put in, it's about getting all the pieces of the pie to fit at the right time.
"Who knows what will happen next," Shaw says. "But it's definitely something I'm going to try and force from my end. I want to try and make it happen. It'll never come to you. That's the one thing you can almost guarantee, people don't just send you an email and give you a WorldTour contract, you have to go out and get these things. You have to find a way of making things happen."
It's now September, and in a few days Shaw will start the Tour of Britain, the race his Ribble-Weldtite team have been building up to all year. Through the grapevine, rumours start trickling down that the Brit had found a WorldTour contract for the next year, and as the rumour mill began to pick up speed and veer off course into territory Shaw considers "far-fetched" and "so far out there" that he took to Instagram to confirm he'd be stepping back up to the top-level after three seasons away, but he won't spill the beans on exactly what colour kit he'll be wearing just yet.
"It's been a rollercoaster, the past year, or the past three or four years, it all seems to finally be piecing itself together a little bit," he says.
He'd been out on a training ride in the sweltering temperatures of the heatwave that gripped the UK in mid-July. Stopping for refreshment, he got his phone out to pay and saw the text message from the team manager confirming the terms of the contract - Shaw quickly firing back an acceptance, and that was that.
He called his partner, who was at work and promptly burst into tears at the news: "Finally, something's come together," she said.
Shaw had received interest from a number of teams for the next season but was always going to pick the team he has unless someone came through with an much more money and dumped it on his driveway next to his motorbike.
It was all pretty much sewn up before the Tour of Norway, where Shaw also achieved fifth overall, a result he wanted to achieve regardless of his future being mostly secure, just to back up the result for his own sanity, he says.
Things could have been very different, however, Shaw told himself that if something hadn't come up after this year then it could have been time to call it a day.
"My other half has been pretty much dragged through it with me really, through the ups and downs. And a lot of the time it's not really been our fault. We couldn't do anything about the Coronavirus could we? We didn't know it was gonna bankrupt Riwal. We didn't know it was gonna bring that team to a halt.
"When that all stopped it was like, sh**, what are we going to do now? I had sort of said to her and myself that if something didn't come off of the next year that I was going to start looking at alternative options and start thinking about doing something else.
"I've ummed and erred for the past however many years about doing something else, but I turned 25 this year, and I started to think well actually I'm not a young rider in cycling terms. Pogačar's already won the Tour a couple of times, you think if it's not piecing together for me at 25 you know, maybe something else needs to be done.
"I do genuinely believe that I can achieve a bit more, results-wise, I'm not like a Pidcock or Pogačar or whatever, but I'd still like to think that there's some potential for me in the future."
What is probably the most remarkable about Shaw's rise back up the ranks, is that he's done it self-represented, acting as his own agent. He did have one, but after they failed to get him a contract as his deal with Lotto came to an end they went their separate ways.
"It is a strange one, it's time-consuming and it does take a lot of effort," Shaw admits, unsure of whether he would or wouldn't recommend other riders to do the same. "And I'm not an amazing writer, so for me to put emails together, it takes me a bit longer, I have to devote a good hour and a half to it, whereas someone could just knock it together in 20 minutes. I don't really know how common it is [to be self-represented]. To be honest, I've only ever met one other rider that represented himself and that was Maxime Monfort.
"I've struggled with not having a massive contact book. But I think at the end of the day, you only need that one contact that does work for you."
What did work in Shaw's favour was that he knew the emails were being sent out offering up his services, that text messages were being replied to. That his future was in his hands.
"I think people underestimate how much power agents have and how much influence they have in the sport. Take a big agency, for example, that's got a big rider. A team doesn't want to upset that agency and doesn't want to upset that agent because of other riders they represent so they may not want a certain rider but they'll take them so they get another rider. It's crazy...and they do have a lot of power and a lot of influence on the sport. I think often people don't see that side of things."
But for now, the focus is on the Tour of Britain and returning a result to Ribble-Weldtite, the team who offered him a lifeline and a way back up the cycling pyramid. A good ride and a result could attract new sponsors, a legacy and leaving gift befitting his year there: "I still want to put [something] back into the lads because the lads have bent over backwards for me.
So, of all the stories of those that will line up for the return of the Tour of Britain, this is James Shaw's, and there are still a few chapters to be written yet.
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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