Should Stephen Williams race all 18 of this year’s Vuelta a España stages, the Bahrain-McLaren rider will not just have completed his maiden Grand Tour, but will have raced more than double the number of professional race days in his career.
The Welshman’s inclusion on the startlist is not just of a surprise to himself and those who have followed his cycling journey, but a reward for fighting back from a torturous near-two years of injury, frustration and pain.
In 2018, he was one of the most sought after young climbers in the world, having won two stages and the GC at the Ronde l’Isard and winning a stage and finishing fifth at the Baby Giro.
But after signing a WorldTour contract with the then Bahrain-Merida team, Williams started suffering pain in his left knee. He was able to race eight days in 2019, but was forced to have surgery and only returned to proper training this February. He has since raced nine times post-lockdown, taking his career tally to 17 professional races.
He painfully recounted the story to Cycling Weekly a year ago, saying that “in the space of 14-15 months, I have gone from the very top of the world to rock bottom. It’s just been a s**t year.”
Now, though, Williams is smiling. Speaking ahead of the Vuelta’s start in the Basque Country, he laughs when asked if he thought he would be pinning a Grand Tour number on in 2020.
“You’re surprised? So am I!” he chuckles. “I never expected it from where I have come from to be starting a Grand Tour. I am happy and anxious, but really happy to be back racing and to be in Spain.
“It’s happened so quickly, it’s come at me pretty quickly and it hasn’t sunk in what I am doing yet. It just feels like it will be a normal race tomorrow, but I know it will feel a lot different.
“I’m proud of myself for getting here: it’s been a bumpy road but the team had faith in me and I am so thankful to them for giving me this opportunity. With it being my first Grand Tour it makes it even more special.”
The 24-year-old returned to racing at the Czech Tour in August and then raced three Italian one-dayers, as well La Flèche Wallonne and De Brabantse Pijl. “That was tough,” he says of the latter, “because I’ve not done a one-day race like that in a long time. But I surprised myself a bit at Giro dell’Appennino where I finished in the front group. That came from nowhere.”
His knee “is good, it’s finally figured itself out which is what I needed,” but understandably he remains conscious of it and doesn’t want to apply too much stress in the opening stages of the Vuelta.
“It gets better each day, it comes with time in the saddle, and each day I am more confident with it. But I also have to put it to the back of my mind,” he says.
“I need confidence on my bike and the race will help that. But that’s why I am anxious – I am heading into the unknown where anything is a bonus.”
Bahrain-McLaren will be led by Wout Poels, but Williams is hoping for his own chances. “I’m a bike racer, aren’t I?” he responded when asked if he will try his own fortune. “At a Grand Tour, especially the Vuelta, a lot can happen on the road, every opportunity that arises to get in the right move you have to take it, and with a bit of luck you never know what’s going to happen.
“Given a free role, a bit of leeway, I will look to slip into the right move. If I can create a little chance, I can give myself an opportunity.
“This year especially, you literally never know what the body will do until the body is on the bike racing. I will be helping the team where I can, and if there’s a few days where I can make something happen, then I will.”