'It's just not feasible': The uphill battle for Tao stagiaire Red Walters to even get to the Worlds start line

The 22-year-old had a place in the U23 road race but for riders attending solo it means carrying their own bottles and going along to pre-race manager's meetings

Red Walters
(Image credit: Getty)

"I won't lie, it does hurt a bit watching," Red Walters texts, despite the number of crashes currently spilling out of the men's U23 road race at the Flanders World Championships.

He was supposed to be representing Grenada (being the proud owner of two passports) but a number of frankly unbelievable mitigating circumstances means he's sitting at home in the south of the UK watching on television while his peers race from Antwerp to Leuven in the hunt for the rainbow jersey.

The Worlds had only been on Walters' radar as a race he could compete in a month ago. He'd just finished the Caribbean Championships, where he came third but was the fastest U23 finisher, and still didn't really know how the qualification system for the Worlds worked. That third-place should have given him enough to qualify, he thought, but it turned out Grenada had the points already for a spot on the start line.

Having just come back from his first two big races in Belgium with Hagens Berman Axeon, Druivenkoers - Overijse and the Brussels Cycling Classic, he then had the Flanders Tomorrow Tour planned as he built up for his Worlds debut, but then he got sick.

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It was one of those weird illnesses (not Covid) that isn't really that bad but just takes ages to get over, forced to wait a fortnight before he could train hard again. WHILE he rested up he began sorting all the paperwork and logistics for his World Championships debut.

The Grenada Cycling Federation were "super helpful" corresponding with the UCI and getting his place sorted, but with Walters located much closer to Belgium than his compatriots, the organisation of the trip was his to sort.

"I'm fairly used to it and not bad at doing the logistics," Walters tells Cycling Weekly. "I sorted out my whole trip to the Caribbean and with Covid, it's 10 times more complicated. 

"I made all the plans, all my spreadsheets of what forms I needed and when I needed to do PCR tests, it was just adding up the cost and it just kept getting higher and higher.

"[In total] it ended up the cost was basically £1000, including fuel for driving," Walters estimated. And coming off the back of illness and lacking race fitness, it was too great a cost to bear.

"If I was in perfect form I'd go and make it happen," he says, not having the luxury of just being able to turn up and see what happens on the day. "I just couldn't justify...and then the fact that even when I go there I have to go to a manager's meeting myself, I've not got any bottle support or wheel support, so I have to bring two litre bottles of water."

It seems remarkable that there isn't any neutral bottle or wheel service in what is the biggest race of the year for all juniors and U23s.

"If I did get dropped or whatever then it's like I've got to bring my phone to call my dad who will be parked up somewhere to come pick me up and drive home."

At the Caribbean Championships riders were supported with hotels and Walters wrongly assumed the Worlds would be the same.

"I think for the smaller nations where you probably wouldn't have the national team able to come and support," he says of how it's harder for riders who aren't representing cycling's big powerhouses. 'it's convenient for me that I live in the UK and I'm close by but obviously to fly someone out from Grenada, plane tickets alone cost a grand, it's just not feasible. I'm sure it's the exact same situation for a lot of guys who are in the smaller nations around the world where it'd be a great opportunity but it's just not feasible for them."

Representing Grenada is something Walters has been thinking about since he first started cycling at the start of 2016 but as he only really ever raced in the UK he didn't see much reason to. In retrospect, he could have raced the junior Worlds "and done all sorts of stuff", something he tries not to dwell on. At the start of 2021, he finally made the switch, which you can only do twice in a career. He sent off his passport to the UCI and that was that.

He admits his sporting background isn't illustrious, although he had been sailing since he was four years old before eventually falling out of love with it.

In the intervening years, he was a typical teenager in so much that he dedicated his life to gaming, specifically Call of Duty, playing competitively with a friend.

But then after so many hours indoors he decided he needed a new sport, and plumped for cycling. A deal was struck with his dad to buy him a bike if he got a certain number of 'A' grades in his GCSEs. His first Instagram pictures with the bike were hashtagged "pro cyclist" and "training begins", "which I find quite funny looking back," Walters admits. "At how presumptuous I was."

A week after getting the bike he was racing it. Currently, he rides a 54cm frame and is a couple of centimetres taller than he when he got his first machine, which was a 58cm. He was instantly hooked. In the transition between gaming and cycling he would tell his friends he'd be back in 20 minutes after he did some training, "and it would literally be these 20-minute rides every now and then it just slowly increased from there".

Eventually, it got to the point where he was emailing "every Conti team in Europe - I swear I'd emailed everyone and their grandma" looking for a ride. Then he saw Tao Geoghegan Hart's message on Instagram that he wanted to support diversity in cycling and was offering to sponsor a space with Hagens Berman Axeon. Walters messaged, then emailed his CV over, copying in team manager Axel Merckx.

That was in February 2021, which meant a lot of waiting around, every so often it would crop up in the back of his mind as he ploughed on with pursuing his cycling career, training and going out to get race experience in France.

Then, another Instagram post from Tao, they were still looking for applications for the spot in the team. "I was like oh no I've already applied, why are they still looking I have no chance!" Walters recalls but then a couple of weeks later a message pinged up from the Ineos Grenadiers rider saying the place was his.

"I'd just woken up and was about to go drive three hours to a track race, which I dont know if it was related but I ended up doing really badly, I don't know if I was just distracted," Walters laughs. "And I remember sitting in the living room in the house in France where I was at the time going on the Pinarello website just to look at one being like 'this is pretty cool, im going to be riding one of these soon.'"

Stagiaire deals give you a chance in the later months of the season to prove yourself and hopefully win a contract for the following year. The problem for Walters is that he's not an U23 next year and Hagens Berman Axeon are an U23 team.

"It's definitely helped," Walters says of the experience so far. "There have been a few teams that I emailed that have been like 'congratulations on the stagiaire, we know who you are' and that's surprising, some of these bigger teams already know me, so it's definitely put me on the map. I think if I can just back up the fact that people already know me with some good results I think I'll be in a really good spot."

Figuring out which move to make next is the million dollar question, the goal being to get UCI results under his belt to make other teams higher up the food chain take notice.

"I almost think the work getting on teams and networking and all that is probably harder than the training sometimes," he says. "Because at least with the training I know I have to do it and I'll do it, the other stuff you just have to figure out, it's hard skill to teach, you have to figure it out and get better."

He's grateful that Science in Sport sponsor him, which allows him to dedicate all of his time to training and turning his passion into a profession.

As he sits on the sofa watching the U23 road race that he could have been in, the pain of not being there is comforted by the fact the timing wasn't right, and so often cycling and life is all about timing. Instead, he's focused on what he's going to do next year. He reaches for his laptop, opens Gmail, and attaches another copy of his CV.

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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.