Fred Wright had spent 220 days racing as a professional before Sunday's British National Championships road race on Sunday. The Londoner had finished second six times in elite races, third another three times, and in the top five 7 times. And yet, the win had not yet come for the 24-year-old, always escaping him at the last.
In 2022 he seemingly nailed the art of getting in the right move but found himself unable to finish it off, with his breakthrough Tour de France and Vuelta a España endearing himself to fans, but that debut professional win was just out of reach; it was Mads Pedersen's day in Saint-Etienne, Jesús Herrada's in Cistierna.
It took the wet roads of North Yorkshire for it to pay off, with Wright attacking befoe the final climb to victory, managing to put space between him and James Knox (Soudal Quick-Step) and Stevie Williams (Israel-Premier Tech). A clearly delighted, emotional Wright paid tribute to his late teammate Gino Mäder as he crossed the line, nine days on from the Swiss rider's untimely death.
The victory in Saltburn-by-the-Sea did not seem real in the immediate aftermath, with Wright struggling to deal with the enormity of what he had achieved.
“I still can't believe it, to be honest," he explained. "I knew I had some of the best legs I've ever had today and it was so special to cross the line. I still imagined in my head, you know, with 200 metres to go, ‘Knoxy, Stevie is going to come flying past me’, because I know them really well."
However, they did not, with Wright's final attack before Saltburn Bank, with about 4km to go, proving decisive. The man with the best legs could not be caught by Knox or Williams, despite their best efforts.
The three lead riders got away from a breakaway of six on the eighth of 10 laps, with Connor Swift (Ineos Grenadiers), Samuel Watson (Groupama-FDJ) and Owain Doull (EF Education-EasyPost), the three that could not handle the pace of the decisive attack. Watson won the under-23 title for a second year in a row, coming fourth in the end.
It was a far cry from the trailed tactics of Ineos Grenadiers swamping the race with its overwhelming numbers; just four of the eight on the start list began the race, and it was much more anarchic than it might have been. Ben Tullet (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mark Donovan (Q36.5 Pro Cycling) made impressive attacks but were denied by the strong field.
The 189km race saw ten laps of the course, which meant a leg-burning 4,037m of elevation across the day. However, it was one for puncheurs as much as pure climbers, hence Wright mixing it with Knox and Williams at the end.
"A race like today is really nice because we're all mates," Wright said post-victory. "It was good fun, I really enjoyed today, [I'm] so happy to get that win. It [the course] was separated into three segments, and it was so attritional. Even when guys went up the road and have 30 seconds they came back fairly quickly.
"It was all about legs this course. My problem is that sometimes I do too much work, but the work you do on a course like this is rewarded."
Wright's first victory is a special one. It might not be a stage of the Tour or the Vuelta, which would lead him to international acclaim, but it is one which means he is in a select group of riders who have gained the privilege of wearing the British bands. For the next year, he will be even more identifiable in the peloton, which might not help his plan of sneaking into breaks at the biggest races.
"It's not just the bike race, it's being able to wear the stripy jersey and then also for the rest of my career, I'll have a little GB band on my jersey as well," he said. "It means a lot to win this and I can't wait for the next year. I think this will open the floodgates. We will see what the Tour is saying and beyond. To be national champ, it's pretty special.”
Now the 24-year-old has a taste of winning, he will not want to stop; expect a flying Wright in Bilbao on Saturday, when the Tour de France begins. Victory number one might have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.
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