‘It’s a job for a lot of these guys, for us it’s a passion’: Britain’s David vs Goliath story in Saudi Arabia

British Continental outfit Ribble-Weldtite got the call only three weeks before the start offering them a place in the Saudi Tour, this is what happened next

There’s a hotel on the outskirts of the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh that so resembles something out of a James Bond film you wouldn’t be surprised to see Jaws in the lobby holding a receptionist in a death grip as he tries to explain Islamic law is the reason there isn’t any bacon or sausage available at the breakfast buffet.

There are no fictional villains present, however, but other people you’re used to watching on TV can be spotted shuffling through the corridors or bumped into in elevators.

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Former world champions Mark Cavendish and Rui Costa, as well as Nacer Bouhanni and Niki Terpstra have all congregated for the inaugural Saudi Tour. But four big names don’t make a bike race.

Three weeks before the start, British Continental outfit Ribble-Weldtite got the call inviting them to race alongside the likes of Bahrain-McLaren, Astana, UAE Team Emirates, and Total Direct Energie. As none of the team ride full-time, calls were quickly made to respective employers to take time off work and flights were hastily booked. Before they knew it they were 5,000km from home about to compete in the biggest bike race of their lives thus far.

Ribble-Weldtite’s story of the 2020 Saudi Tour isn’t a ‘woe is me’ tale of British riders flogging themselves each day against superior, international opposition. Instead, it’s an inspirational David vs Goliath account that serves as a timely reminder of what the sport of cycling is really about.

Steve Lampier sits in the team bus (James Huntly)

Seven years ago, Jack Rees had finished university and set the team up as a vehicle to promote the personal coaching work he was doing. Originally founded in the North East as a small club team, their quiet, confident ambitions have seen them develop their infrastructure every year, grow their sponsorship, and bring better and better riders into the fold.

Despite the fun atmosphere surrounding the team, Rees insists they “are super serious and want to deliver and execute performances as best we can.”

But before a kilometre has been ridden the odds are already stacked against them. 

Of the 18 team cars in the convoy, Ribble’s is the only one without replacement bikes on the roof. What their riders sit on is what they have for the five-stage race. All teams were allocated an extra support vehicle to drive behind the convoy during races but Ribble’s sits alone in the hotel car park every day as the travelling circus rolls out in the morning. The WorldTour teams here apparently have 100 fresh bottles to use each day, 19-year-old soigneur Michael McNicholl washes Ribble’s bidons each night in the bathtub of his hotel room which he shares with his dad Sean, who is the team’s sports director.

Sean and Michael are the Irish Ant and Dec of the cycling world. They are affable and two of the friendlier faces within the fairly dour sport. But ultimately, they’re here with a job to do. On stage three, Sean invites me to travel with him in their team car to follow the race. As soon as the door shuts and we set off as the last car in the convoy the jokes stop and a silence falls over those inside the vehicle. We’re in a bike race now. 

Race organisers ASO have turned out in full force for the first edition of the Saudi Tour, a lucrative prospect alongside bringing the Dakar Rally to the Gulf nation. The voice of Tour de France race radio Seb Piquet has been drafted in to dust a bit of magic over proceedings and every time the Frenchman’s voice crackles into life you can feel the tension rise as he reads out the three-digit rider codes, with Sean waiting to hear if someone whose number starts with 1-6- is involved in the latest move.

The team car convoy (James Huntly)

Today, the peloton are antsy, with multiple moves failing to peel off the front. Ribble’s Jacob Tipper gets himself into one move but it’s one that doesn’t stick. Sean spots that finally a move has been allowed to go before race radio tells us as he points out the riders slowing to stop for a nature break on the hard shoulder of the highway, perhaps taking the opportunity to get a closer look at the camels adorning the nearby dunes.

With the sharp end of racing not involving his team, for now, the mechanic in the back seat settles down for a quick nap. “A good mechanic sleeps in the car,” Sean explains.

As we settle in for 119km of rolling desert, Sean has time to talk about his life and how he’s found himself driving a 4×4 through the desert chasing a hundred lycra-clad men.

Sean worked as a welder but began fixing bikes 10 years ago in his spare time. As the number of bikes that needed fixing began stacking up and his welding work began having an effect on his health, Sean jumped into the industry in the late noughties.

Working out of his home in Bellaghy, Derry, the resting place of the poet Seamus Heaney, as well as travelling to races with professional teams, by 2019 he was working on a freelance basis with Israel Cycling Academy. Getting in before the cycling boom properly gripped the British Isles means Sean has spent enough time in the sport to gain the experience necessary to step up to a sports director role for Ribble-Weldtite, handling races in Ireland, the Tour de Yorkshire, as well as such far-flung locations as Tunisia.

It was these sunny days, doctors believe, with an arm slung out of the left-hand driver’s side in exotic locations that caused Sean’s skin cancer last year. Surgeons successfully removed the skin from the affected area just below his eye, taking some from just above to replace it. Sean points out the small overlap in his skin that serves as a physical reminder, although one you wouldn’t notice had he not pointed it out.

Sports director Sean McNicholl (James Huntly)

Sean McNicholl with Mark Cavendish out the window (James Huntly)

As we drive through a huge man-made ravine to make way for the four-lane highway connecting the vast Arab state, a stunning panorama of bare plateau set before rocky outcrops is revealed and Sean asks those in the car if there is possibly any better place to be right now in the world than following this bike race. What binds the small squad together is their lust for adventure.

Ribble’s number 162, Richard Jones, has already had his fill of adventure. While in the front group on stage one and racing towards the finish line, he fell nastily after another rider swung in front of him and took his wheel out. He eventually rolled across the finish line two and a half minutes down as Rui Costa took the leader’s jersey. Jones is the first to come back to the car to pick up bottles full of fragrant energy drink for his team-mates, among whom he is a favourite because he rarely moans and rides hard without complaint whenever he’s asked to.

Jones is from Middlesborough and has been with the team since it started. Back home he works at a bike shop, where he has recently gone part-time so that he can train and race more.

“I realised quite a long time ago that I’m probably never going to be in the WorldTour tearing up the Tour de France but my career has been a gradual progression,” the 27-year-old tells Cycling Weekly back at the hotel one evening.

“I came to racing quite late compared to a lot of guys, but it’s just kind of every year you find yourself stepping up and it’s only when you look back at where you were 10 years ago that doing races like this just feels insane. Sort of without realising you’ve ended up at a point where you’re in the mix with guys you watch on TV.”

Richard Jones after a stage (James Huntly)

Team veteran and former JLT Condor rider Steve Lampier punctures just before the start of the climb but is wily enough to draft back up to the main field having expended less energy than those who remained in the peloton. As the road heads uphill riders begin to get shelled out the back, including a number of the Ribble boys, with Sean spotting the black shorts and silver-blue jerseys slowly falling back towards us.

Words of encouragement, as well as gels, are handed out as we reach each one. Sean says one of the biggest things is to get some of the riders to truly believe in themselves and not get disheartened by the final time deficit written down next to their name after crossing the line. Within a team this small, the role of sports director encompasses police pursuit-level driving skills, racing tactician and sports psychologist.

Sean’s son Michael is already at the finish line. Currently 19 years old and studying and working towards becoming a plumber, he’s followed his dad into the weird and wonderful world of cycling and already has the sorts of stories that are the point of life on the road. At the Yorkshire Worlds, he helped out Primož Roglič’s Slovenian team, although he’s hazy on the details of the night out partying that followed the end of the men’s road race.

After the riders are clipped in and off fighting for position in the pack, with Sean following closely behind, Michael drives the supplies to the finish line in a battered Toyota Hiace. This boxy van has 365,000km on it and it’s safe to say race organisers haven’t given a similarly conditioned vehicle to Rod Ellingworth’s Bahrain-McLaren.

Michael isn’t being paid to be here, but what cycling-mad teenager wouldn’t choose a week out of college for this? He’s not really sure what his future holds, he tells me one day as I hitch a slightly sketchy ride to the finish line with him, but he does say he may head off to Australia after he completes his studies. A couple of days later, however, he bounds over to me in the car park before we leave for the start of a stage, beaming with news that a Pro-Continental team have told him they might have a soigneur position open for him later in the season. This may seem like a lucky break, but over the week it becomes clear Michael’s been spending his time waiting at the finish line wisely, making friends with everyone he can and soaking up information and contacts like a sponge.

Soigneur Michael McNicholl hands a bottle to a rider (James Huntly)

Back outside the city limits, the day’s breakaway has been reeled back in but the quiet Zeb Kyffin has got himself into a move for Ribble late-on. This eventually amounts to nothing but when his number is called out over race radio it electrifies the atmosphere inside the car immediately. More excitingly, Charles Page finishes 11th on the stage, two places ahead of Mark Cavendish. Page takes 14th and 16th on two other stages, which wouldn’t initially appear much to write home about, but finishing ahead of other teams on multiple occasions considering the gulf in resources is an achievement worn proudly by Sean and the boys, who are relishing punching above their weight.

Page is the youngest rider in the squad at 21 years old and last year rode for Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes. He says he’s treating his time in the Continental ranks as a replacement for a university degree, giving himself a shot at making a career out of cycling.

“This week he’s proved how good he actually is, I think he was unlucky last year because in my opinion he was one of the most consistent riders in the team he was at. But for whatever reason it didn’t work out, so their loss is our gain really,” Rees says of Page. “I think it’s going to be exciting to get a proper train around him and some proper support. When we get back home and see if we can get some more results for him.”

Charles Page exhausted after a stage (James Huntly)

Alongside Page’s results, Ribble-Weldtite satisfy their racing objective on the final two stages of getting into the break both days. Jacob Tipper goes up the road on stage four and then Richard Jones puts two-fingers up to the leg injuries he’s been suffering from all week as he goes on the attack during stage five.

“If you were on the front row you made it so the last couple of days we’ve got ourselves in the front row, gone, but then it hasn’t gone straightaway. If you’re jumping away and you see a WorldTour rider is with you, you might as well just sit up and wait for the next one and just keep throwing enough darts at the dartboard so eventually it will stick,” Tipper says.

Unlike in their normal races, having WorldTour domestiques on hand to reel in attackers makes being in the break a fun, yet completely futile exercise.

Jacob Tipper after a stage (James Huntly)

“It’s decided on whether the group behind want to bring you back or not, rather than how hard you ride, there’s plenty of times that we could easily put the hammer down and get a bigger gap. But if we did, all that would mean is the team on the front would work harder behind you and just keep you on that gap anyway. Having the WorldTour guys is another level where they can just decide at will what to do.”

In the hotel lobby after stage five, I ask Jones about his day in the break, pointing out he shared it with Vuelta a España stage winner Ángel Madrazo.

“I was just googling him now,” Richard replies. “I’ve had loads of texts off mates and my family.” The benefit of television time isn’t just restricted to exposure for your sponsors.

Ribble-Weldtite finish last in the team classification, 35 minutes behind Riwal Readynez and 16 minutes behind the next closest team in 17th. The beautiful thing about cycling is that this barely matters and the team of 12 who flew out with three week’s notice to the biggest race of their lives so far will have taken more out of these five stages than most other teams for whom this is just another day at the office.

“I don’t remember ever being crushed by the fact that these guys are so much better than me,” Jones says when asked about the David vs Goliath nature of this week’s sporting contest. 

“It’s a different sport almost, but you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy it. We’re not making a wage out of it, it’s a lot of time and commitment and it puts a lot of stress on the other parts of your life. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t fundamentally just enjoy racing your bike.”

Richard Jones involved in the breakaway (James Huntly)

While Nacer Bouhanni stands on the second step of the final podium looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, it’s the team who finished without a rider in the top 50 on GC who leave for home with smiles on their faces after 760km of desert racing.

The idea of enjoyment in bike racing is often forgotten in the seemingly endless pursuit of results, but if we had more people like Richard Jones, Jack Rees, and the McNicholl family, who are all here regardless of financial incentive, the sport would almost certainly be better for it.

“Here we are competing at the highest level we’re able to while all still having jobs, with none of us receiving a salary,” Rees says. “It’s too hard a sport to do without having fun. I think our situation is maybe unique, especially at this race where you see the guys here where it’s a job for a lot of them. For us, it’s still a passion and you’ve got to try and preserve that because it’s too hard  a sport otherwise.”

Sean McNicholl hugs Richard Jones after a stage (James Huntly)

As we get on the gigantic air-conditioned coach for our airport transfer that wouldn’t have looked out of place carrying the England football team, the boys remain in high spirits despite the 2am take-off time for their flight back to London Heathrow.

It’s reminiscent of what would be one of the most expensive school trips of all-time as the team pile on to the back seats of the coach, with B&B Hotels – Vital Concept’s riders up front in separate rows to each other, headphones on, pretty much sitting in complete silence.

All the lights in the coach suddenly go off.

“Oooooooo,” comes the chorus from the grown-up British schoolchildren/basically-professional bike riders.

Shouting ensues: “Get off me Jacob!”

At this point Rees turns around to jokingly accost his team-mates: “Guys, stop it, they [B&B Hotels] already think we’re f**king weird.”

They probably do, to be fair. It takes a certain type of person to be living the lives of those who represented Ribble-Weldtite at the Saudi Tour 2020. But if they’re what’s considered ‘weird’, then being weird is by no means a bad thing.

Photography by @jameshuntlyphotography