Lockdown has been tough for many of us, not least professional cyclists who, for long weeks, were aimlessly treading water, constantly scanning the horizon for a rescue boat in the form of reinstated competition.
Thus, any rider who has lost a bit of form, gained a bit of timber, could be forgiven, especially if like Fred Wright, they have had their maiden year in the top flight cut off at the knees just as it was getting going.
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But pro riders are a different breed. While the rest of us were slowly being dragged into a black hole of multi-pack crisps and fast-emptying biscuit tins, ready to meet with a singularity of sofa-bound hyperglycaemic catatonia, the pros were simply getting the hell on with it. And despite his brand new status as a fully signed up member of the WorldTour, Wright is no different. The Bahrain-McLaren rider is super-motivated, going better than he was before lockdown, and absolutely buzzing to get racing again.
“My training hasn’t really taken too much of a hit – I’m actually feeling fairly confident I think,” says the 21-year-old, who is just in from a big ride into the hills from the Manchester house he shares with fellow riders Ethan Hayter and Matt Walls.
“I’ve maintained the form I had and I can almost see myself starting the season off in better shape than I started the first part of this season. I think I’ll be in better shape, having had three months of quite a solid training block which you often don’t have.”
Sharing digs with two more of the country’s top young riders probably helps, and the three have helped keep each other on the straight and narrow, says Wright, offering motivation and ready-made training buddies should motivation wane.
“We’re all going through exactly the same thing,” he says. “We’re all getting annoyed with each other at certain times, but if there’s ever a morning when you wake up and you can’t be bothered, it’s nice when there’s someone else getting out who can be bothered. It helps.”
A Classics fan, Wright has also kept himself motivated by watching reruns of Paris-Roubaix, the Fabian Cancellara v Tom Boonen epics (“They’re so good to watch. It’s what I love, what got me into cycling, I guess”). In fact, a second before lockdown hit he was having his first taste of the grown-up Northern Classics, riding Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne back to back.
“It was crazy, to say the least,” he says. “Just a real eye-opener to what the Classics races are like and I think going straight into lockdown having seen the level of that kind of race – and that’s the kind of race that I want to do well in in the future – it almost gave me motivation into the start of this strange period, just because I knew if the racing does come back,I know where I need to improve.”
Wright started out bike racing on the track at his local track, Herne Hill, as a single-figures youngster, and joined VC Londres, where he would be in good company with riders like Ethan Hayter and Jacob Vaughan. It quickly became obvious he had a knack for it – in his second year of racing, for example, he took no fewer than 46 wins at under-12 level. Once he was a junior, Wright’s ability earned him a place on the British Cycling Academy and knack had become full-blown mastery. European track gold in the team pursuit and omnium, plus a win overall in the Junior Tour of Wales, backed up with third the following year, all came during his two junior years.
When Wright hit the seniors in 2018 he took up where he left off on smaller gears and began winning immediately, playing a part in victory in the national team pursuit.
In the summer, still aged only 18, he was second in the U23 national road race, and then fifth in the elite event. Quite a showing in a race field liberally seasoned with WorldTour pros.
For the former British Cycling U23 coach Keith Lambert, it was Wright’s performance in the UCI 2.2-ranked French Ronde de l’Oise stage race that year, that sticks in the mind.
“It was a day before his 19th birthday – he was still 18 and it was wasn’t an under-23 race, it was a full-on international race, you know – 18 years old,” says Lambert with an audible shake of the head.
Lambert describes Wright as a solid rider in all areas. “I used to call him Mr Reliable, because you could just rely on him for anything,” he says. “He’ll do what you ask and when it’s his turn to get the plaudits, he grabs it with both hands.”
Lambert adds: “He’s a solid lad. I think in two or three years’ time he’ll be a top rider.”
Wright built on his promising first senior year, with an even better one in 2019. Golden rides on track in the Madison at national and then European level were complemented on the road by stage wins in the Baby Giro and Tour de l’Avenir, all of which helped focus WorldTour attention. Mid-season Wright enjoyed an introduction to top-level pro cycling when he became a stagiaire on the CCC team.
“It was nice to get a taste for what it’s like to be in the top-level teams,” Wright said of the experience. “You know, turn up to the races on a bus and all that stuff.
“You just start loving what you’re doing even more which is always good,” he adds with typical enthusiasm.
But after a meeting with Bahrain team director Rod Ellingworth it was Bahrain-McLaren who Wright ultimately signed for. It’s a team with a significant Brit-factor – not least in the form of McLaren; a perfect fit for a young Brit making his first foray into the pro ranks.
“[The British element] really did play a part,” says Wright. “I spoke to Rod in person before signing and kind of signed pretty much straight after that talk. I was like, right this looks like the ideal place to go. My coach is Tim Kennaugh… there’s also Roger Hammond on the team, [DS] Tim Harris as well and then you’ve got Stevie and Scott – Stevie Williams and Scott Davies…”
One name conspicuous by its absence on that little list is that of Mark Cavendish, who Wright actually got to know particularly well at the start of the season, having spent time in Majorca with the Manx Missile following the team’s Altea training camp.
“You know, I try not to talk about it too much, like, ‘Look at me, I’m living with Cav,’” he laughs.
“But it’s definitely good… kind of mad to be just chilling, hanging out with someone who I watched growing up as a kid.”
And Wright has raced with Cavendish already this year, when he played a major team role in February’s Saudi Tour helping team-mate Phil Bauhaus take an emphatic overall win. Then came Omloop weekend, and then came lockdown.
But as well as a little boost to form, lockdown could end up working in Wright’s favour, with such a concentration of top level races at the end of the season.
“Just because it’s so busy, what’s quite good about this proposed calendar, obviously if things go as planned, is I’ll probably end up doing much bigger races than I would have done,” he says. And of all those big races, there’s one he has a singular focus on: “I’d like to be in the team that does Paris-Roubaix. Yeah. You know, contribute,” he says. “That’s the kind of race that in the future I see myself trying to do well in.”
The ‘Hell of the North’ will be the final one-day race on the European calendar — but it’s not the only thing happening that day: “The 25th of October is going to be the best day for a cycling fan,” Wright enthuses.
“It’s like the last day of the Giro, the something stage of the Vuelta [stage six, which finishes on the Tourmalet no less], and Paris-Roubaix all on the same day.”
Get it in the diary.
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.