Sixty thrilling stages of three Grand Tours were packed into just 71 days this autumn, with a record seven Britons making their debuts in racing’s most prestigious and longest undertakings.
Since the turn of the new millennium, 37 Brits have made their Grand Tour debuts. Until 2020 the highest in one year was in 2009, when the Giro d’Italia startlist featured Ben Swift, Ian Stannard and Dan Lloyd. At that year’s Vuelta a España, veteran Roger Hammond made his bow.
More than a decade later a new peak was reached with seven British riders riding their first Grand Tour. Arkéa Samsic’s Connor Swift made his Tour de France debut and chronicled his journey in CW, and he was followed by Lotto-Soudal duo Matt Holmes and Jon Dibben at the Giro d’Italia. At the Vuelta, Bahrain-McLaren pairing Fred Wright and Stevie Williams joined Sunweb’s Mark Donovan and Harry Tanfield of AG2R La Mondiale.
Reflecting on their experiences, the debutants tell us about long, tiring but enjoyable days – and what exactly they think of the continent’s evident obsession with techno music.
It’s the pinnacle of the sport, but winning a stage of a Grand Tour isn’t the monumental task it may seem, according to Holmes, who finished third on stage eight of the Giro behind winner Alex Dowsett, the best result of any of this year’s debutants.
“It’s easier because when a break is allowed to go, there’s only really five who want to win,” he explains. “Opportunities to win are more common – and that’s where it’s different from the British scene.
“But the day I was third I didn’t have enough confidence at that stage because I assumed everyone I was racing against were superhuman people. But they’re not – everyone is suffering equally and I didn’t need to be scared.”
Holmes, 26, featured in five breakaways – the joint-highest – including stage 18 when the peloton ascended the Stelvio. It was “an extreme day” but the previous day in the gruppetto “was one of the easiest days I’ve had. We went so slow up the hills, flat out on the downs, through and off in between. It was like a club ride but with crazy descending.”
Wright, 21, shares a similar sentiment. “I was a little daunted before, but it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting. I coped better than I thought, and after five days the conditions of my legs were the same. It’s mad how the body adapts.”
Sometimes, though, the weather makes racing grim, especially in 2020 when the Grand Tours were held outside their normal slots. Stage six of the Vuelta was the nadir for both Tanfield and Williams. “It rained the last hour on a summit finish and it was three degrees,” Tanfield says. “I was so cold I couldn’t feel my arms. I was so thankful when it was over.” Williams, 24, adds: “I was pouring hot tea over my fingers to warm them up – that’s how tragic it was.”
Donovan, 21, impressed in Spain with two top-fives, but admits to experiencing “two types of fun”. “Type one happened a lot and that’s where you enjoy it at the time, but there was also type two where it’s miserable and hard, and only later with the memories can it be classed as fun.”
Dibben, meanwhile, earned the maglia nera for finishing last in the Giro’s general classification. “I didn’t aim to be last!” he laughs. “But I crashed a few times in the first week and it just happened that I was. On the final mountain stage, I eased up in the final few kilometres to make sure Guy Sagiv, who was second last, couldn’t undertake me in the TT! I’m waiting for Castelli to send me a black jersey to ‘celebrate’ it.”
Between the racing there are still some moments for riders to embrace their inner Michael Palin. Jon Dibben gave us his interpretation of Great Bike Journeys: “My parents said the start in Sicily looked so nice on TV, and it is a beautiful place, but you didn’t feel like you were in Italy,” the 26-year-old narrates. “You feel much further afield because it’s much poorer than other parts of the country and there’s rubbish everywhere.
“The southern part of the mainland was like Spain: not a desert, but not much greenery and you can tell it’s warm most of the year. Parts were run down and there wasn’t much going on.
“And then further north in the Venice and Emilia area, it’s beautiful and the Italy I know. After that, the Dolomites came and it was full-on mountains. The scenery is totally different and it was stunning. We really got to see how the country and life changes at the side of the road.”
Williams jokes that “when you’re chewing your stem it’s a little bit difficult to realise how lovely an area is,” but Spain’s hilly, green and spectacular north-west found an admirer in Donovan. “The Basque Country is my favourite part of Spain – possibly my favourite part of the world to ride a bike,” he says. “In summer, that is, not in 10 degrees of autumn rain!
“But I’d not spent much time in Asturias and it’s an incredible, amazing area. Some days I was able to sit back and enjoy it. On the Angliru – a horrible climb, by the way – when I got to the top the sun was getting lower and there was this amazing sunset, so picturesque. It almost made the Angliru worth it. I have to go back to Asturias.”
The only constant on any riders Grand Tour is the bus, the sanctuary. Packed into Bahrain-McLaren’s bus was Williams, Wright and Scott Davies, led by British coach Rod Ellingworth. So the Brits ruled, then? “Actually, we definitely didn’t!” Williams reveals. “Wout [Poels, team leader] was playing his bloody Dutch music and it was awful!
“Sure, it gets you going, gets you pumped, but I’m not a fan of Dutch techno. Every single day Wout had it on. Sometimes it was better than others with running videos of Tomorrowland, but I’d have preferred something of my genre – Drake, Jay-Z.”
“Yep, Wout was in charge of the speaker,” Wright laughs. “I thought you could get into it, but it was much better the day Stevie put his music on for a bit.”
The Sunweb bus was a mobile rave hub, too. “Jasha Sütterlin was on the mixtapes most days – I was never the DJ,” Donovan says. “So there was a lot of German techno blurring. Occasionally we were cultural and put on some Spanish reggaeton.”
The post-stage bus ride was a quieter affair, and the only significant amount of downtime riders would have. Wright says: “I always tried to watch a Netflix series on the way back, but after a few minutes you realise that a complicated series is too hard to watch because you haven’t got the brain power to concentrate so hard. So I’d end up watch comedies like Community because they’re easier to follow and it doesn’t matter if you miss anything.”
There’s no medals for riding a Grand Tour, but riders do collect mementos – race jerseys, race books and race numbers that all usually end up piling on top of each other in a box that typically remains hidden away.
Tanfield, however, has a very special and unique keepsake from his Spanish adventure: a 60t chainring from Rotor imprinted with the 25-year-old’s face on it. “I asked them to sort me out a 57 to a 62 tooth chain ring for the TT, whatever they had lying about in stock,” he says.
“The next thing I know this thing arrives with my bloody face on it. I got it out of the packet and was like, ‘what is this!’ It was mega, incredible, and I had absolutely no idea about it. It was a nice gift and I’m going to be framing it alongside a photo from the TT.”
Donovan claimed an additional souvenir, too, the Vuelta team classification trophy awarded to Sunweb on stage 17, courtesy of his breakaway endeavours. “But I should have got the boys to sign it. I missed out on that idea, didn’t I?”
Wright, meanwhile, will hand over his Vuelta race numbers to the Herne Hill velodrome and his father. “My dad has most of my numbers and he puts them in his shed in London – there’s a cool collection in there.”
Changing hotel rooms every night is so common and part of the ritual that Williams judges it as being “the most simple thing we do, even if it sounds complicated and annoying. We are in a robotic state from day one.”
Dibben and Holmes had different Italian walls to stare at as they closed their eyes, but fell asleep on the same customised mattresses with their names embroidered on them, transported by two Belgian volunteers.
“The team put an advert on Facebook, asking if anyone in Belgium wanted to come to Italy for three weeks and all they had to do was move mattresses every day,” Holmes reveals. “It wasn’t a paid gig, but they got free accommodation and food. So we just had two guys lurking around us for three weeks.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.