From silver at the track Euros to winning in Rwanda: Ethan Vernon's contract year is off to a flier
Three wins in four races is not a bad start to 2023 for the British sprinter, but he's only just getting started
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Professional bike riders are used to travelling across the world for bike races, with programmes changing often on the whim of a sports director, or because of the vagaries of the track calendar.
However, there can't be many bigger gear shifts than the one Soudal Quick-Step's Ethan Vernon has experienced in the past week, moving from the confines of the Tissot Velodrome in Grenchen, where he was part of the GB squad at the European Track Championships, to racing the Tour du Rwanda in the heat and manic atmosphere of the east African country.
It does not seem to have affected the 22-year-old from Bedford too negatively, however; less than a fortnight on from claiming silver along with the GB team pursuit squad in Switzerland, he won in Rwamagana on Sunday, claiming the lead in the Tour du Rwanda in the process, and then doubled up on Monday in Gisagara.
Vernon described the switch from the track to the roads of east Africa to Cycling Weekly on Monday morning, in Kigali, as "difficult", possibly an understatement.
"I had a track couple of weeks, a few days at home doing some endurance, and then I came here, so we will see how I am later in the week," he said. "Yesterday I felt OK, but this is why a race like this is good, to get the legs back heading towards the bigger races and the Classics."
It is not actually the full fat Soudal Quick-Step team that Vernon is in Rwanda with. Instead, he is with the new Soudal Quick-Step Development squad, which capped off its opening race on Sunday with a win thanks to their elite rider on loan.
"The advantage of having a development team is that you can choose your programme," Vernon explained. "With my track ambitions, the UAE Tour and the Volta ao Algarve didn't work, so here was a nice race to come to. Eight-day stage race in the altitude and the heat is good early season preparation.
"This was the first race for the team, and for three of the guys it was their first professional race at all. They worked really hard for me yesterday, worked on their own from the start, with no help from the bigger teams, young guys doing it on their own, it's good."
The opening stage of the Tour du Rwanda also marked Vernon's second win of the year, after he won the Trofeo Palma at the Challenge Mallorca last month. It might not be the deepest field, but for a sprinter in his second year, any victory is valuable.
"A win's a win, isn't it. For these guys, it's most of their first professional races, so for them to start with a win, and being guided through the final is a really invaluable experience really.
"It's also my contract year, so it's nice to start off like this. I said I wanted to win more races than last year, and we're halfway there already."
In 2022, Vernon won two stages at the Tour of Slovakia, and a stage of the Volta a Catalunya. If he wants to remain at the highest level, keep benefiting from the Quick-Step super train, he needs to deliver on his undoubted promise more regularly. With Tim Merlier and Fabio Jakobsen the senior sprinters at the Belgian team, he is learning to take his opportunities when they come.
One only needs to look at the way sprinters are regularly farmed off to other squads from Quick-Step - Mark Cavendish the latest - to see how there is no room for complacency at the super squad.
The Tour du Rwanda also produces a fresh setting, a race where he is undoubtedly the strongest sprinter in the field. He might have an inexperienced team, but all eyes are on him.
"It's a chance to win in a different scenario," Vernon said. "There's not often times where you're the real favourite, you have to control the race and all the pressures on you. The other races I've done there have been other top sprinters there, and people are looking at them rather than me.
"It's a different learning experience. It's the training aspect as well, to come here and be in better shape."
Also present in Rwanda with the new development team is its boss, Patrick Lefevere. As well as being here for the squad, he is here scouting for new talent, and seeking an African perspective.
"I have been asked by friends here for several years to come over," the Belgian told Cycling Weekly. "I heard Rwanda is a very clean and safe country, and also the World Championships are here in 2025, so I wanted to come here with my young team, to see if we could win something."
"We were following [Biniam] Girmay [the Eritrean cyclist] for several years," Lefevere continued, when asked about talent scouting. "But he was binded to a French team, and then he didn't want to come to us, because he was afraid of not having his chance in the Classics, and he was right."
Rwanda is a new experience for many of the riders involved in the race, with crowds for a race of this size unheard of anywhere else.
"It's incredible, yesterday the finish straight was so good," Vernon said. "I've heard next weekend's going to be amazing.
"Even yesterday, I gave the flowers to the hotel staff and they were so thankful, it meant the world to them. They were almost crying, and it has been a great experience so far."
He will be hoping to keep collecting flowers this week.
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Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.
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