Pete Hawkins is a rider hungry for success.
The 28-year-old from Belfast finished fourth overall in last season’s Premier Calendar and is keen to turn podium appearances like his second place at the 2012 Tour of the Reservoir into victories.
Hawkins’ journey has already taken him to Belgium, where he honed his race skills over a three-year period competing in the famously ‘full gas’ kermesse races of west Flanders. “You don’t need to go too far to find a hard race in Belgium,” he smiles.
RoadCyclingUK caught up with Hawkins at Team IG-Sigma Sport’s pre-season training camp on Mallorca. Hawkins is just one of four riders retained by new directeur sportif, Simon Howes, and will be among the senior riders in the 2013 squad.
While Hawkins’ goal for the season is to turn podium finishes into victories, he is aware that riding in a strengthened squad means he will not always enjoy the status of protected rider. It’s a trade he’s happy to make if the reward is increased chances of victory in races where he represents the team’s best prospect. “Sometimes it’s the real tough moments and the decisive points in the race where having a man there to support can make the difference between winning and losing,” he says, “and we should be there in numbers this year.”
He is targeting victory in the Lincoln Grand Prix, “the biggest race in Britain”, and hopes for further success in the Tour of the Reservoir. The An Post Rás, the de facto national tour of Ireland, also interests him. With eight stages and over 1,100 kilometres this year, it will represent a serious challenge.
For Hawkins, the team’s pre-season training camp in Mallorca represents an opportunity for high quality group training; an option not always available at home. His proximity to team-mate, Wouter Sybrandy, in south west London, allows them to train frequently as a pair, but chances to practice as a 12-man unit are scarce. The benefits extend beyond miles on the road, he says; relationships that will prove crucial in race situations are formed in these pre-season days, in the fleeting but glorious sun of a Mallorcan winter.
Hawkins, Sybrandy, and team captain, James Moss, follow sprint drills on a freezing day punctuated by heavy showers with a three-hour ride, returning to the hotel along Mallorca’s beautiful coast, testing their legs on the often challenging climbs. It is a serious effort, but considerably less than the five-and-a-half hour epic completed the previous day, and accords with Hawkins’ philosophy of working harder over a shorter period when unfavourable conditions bring the spectre of sickness.
The lead-out drill represented Hawkins’ hardest effort so far this year and he is grateful that when repeated in a race he will know what awaits him. The effort also offered an opportunity to discover the skill set of his new team-mates, he says. “For the lead out guy, it’s how long they can do, how strong they are. That kind of information is good to have before you start racing.”
The talents of the new squad are, he believes, well balanced and better suited to the British race scene than last year’s line-up. Hawkins’ points to the balance of “big-engined” riders like Sybrandy, Joe Perrett, and Ryan Mullen, with “more punchy guys”. Team-mates Matt Cronshaw and Pete Williams have similar skills to himself, Hawkins says. “We’re explosive, but strong enough to finish a race in good condition.” The addition of such riders will give the team a greater presence at the crucial stage of a race, he reasons, and perhaps make the difference in his pursuit of victory.
Endura Racing dominated last season’s domestic calendar, but their ascendancy to Pro Continental status in a merger with NetApp means they will not be a constant factor in this season’s domestic engagements. While their absence should create a more level playing field, says Hawkins, their dominance has encouraged other teams, including IG-Sigma Sport, to raise standards. “It should be a bit more competitive,” he says of the season ahead, “a bit more interesting.”
While Britain has become a cycling superpower in recent years, its road race calendar is dying. Only the Tour of Britain and Rutland-Melton one-day race have international status. The Premier Calendar, launched in 1993 with 27 races, will hold just six events in 2013. “It’s definitely not a good thing,” says Hawkins, who describes the British scene as one with teams, but not races. The lack of a quality calendar at home forces the British Continental teams to race abroad, where, he says, they face a bottle neck: organisers of international races may have one or two places for British teams, but not five, forcing most of them to continue their search.
IG-Sigma Sport will seek to compete in international races every six weeks in 2013. Hawkins hopes to gain sufficient racing abroad that returning to top-level races in the UK will feel like a step down rather than a step up. He also hopes to bolster his international programme with appearances for the Irish under-23 team as the sole senior rider.
International racing, and Hawkins’ relationship with the Irish national team, form a central part of his 10-year career as a cyclist, one broken in 2009 when glandular fever cost him a year off the bike. Hawkins spent three years in Kuurne, working up to four days a week in an accountancy firm and spending all of his spare time training and racing for the west Flemish team, Decock Sportivo. He had been warned that the experience of kermesse racing would be like “mental weight lifting” as well as a considerable physical challenge. “It’s a tough, tough school and a hard place to ride your bike,” he says.
It was Hawkins’ international connections that led him to IG-Sigma Sport. Neil Martin, father of Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin, and a member of the Irish national coaching set-up, put Hawkins in touch with Matt Stephens, the then-manager of IG-Sigma Sport. “I’ve gone quite a long way about it, but I definitely value that time I had in Belgium,” Hawkins says.
London life is suiting him well. He and Sybrandy train often in the Surrey Hills and make occasional forays north west of the capital to the Chilterns. The rate at which Sybrandy has returned from a potentially career-threatening crash on the final stage of last season’s Tour of Britain has impressed his new near neighbour. The Dutchman was still in hospital when Hawkins moved to London, but within weeks of his return to the bike, Hawkins jokes that his team-mate was “already putting me under pressure”.
2013 will be a big season for Hawkins, a maths graduate who offers an intelligent analysis of the season, his newly strengthened team, and the challenges that lie ahead. “It will mean that I’m not always the protected rider,” he says, “but if we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, I think we’ll be dangerous.”