Interview: level-headed James Shaw ready for WorldTour bow after joining Lotto-Soudal
New Lotto-Soudal signing on joining the top tier and learning his trade the Belgian way
James Shaw is only 20, and still a few months from rolling out for his first WorldTour race, but already he has grasped one critical aspect of pro life: November is for living.
Back in the UK to visit family, see friends, and squeeze in interviews to a home media intrigued to learn more about the latest young Brit to accede to the professional ranks, Shaw is already in synch with many of the elite riders he will call colleagues from January.
“I’m trying to cram 12 months of social life into a few weeks,” he admits.
Everything is relative. Shaw’s ‘social life’ is not that of the average 20-year-old, one suspects. He has plans for Christmas, but they involve bringing forward festivities to accommodate a sojourn in Spain, where he plans to ‘knuckle down’ to more riding. When I ask when he will start to think again about the bike, he answers in an almost guilty tone.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about the bike.”
At the end of a season that began among the hopefuls of Lotto-Soudal’s U23 team, and which ended with a pro contract and a place alongside André Greipel, Jurgen Roelandts and Tony Gallopin for next year, Shaw might be forgiven for seeking something approaching normality in the one month of the year a professional rider has to himself. Not a bit of it.
His “break” from cycling means returning a bike to the service course, arranging flights, updating his blog, and speaking to journalists. The bike remains at least at the back of his mind. He acknowledges that riding for its own sake can be self-defeating and places an emphasis on the quality of miles racked up, as well as the quantity.
When in Belgium…
Despite the qualitative approach, Shaw is, to an extent, from the old school. He is a rider overlooked by British Cycling’s Olympic Academy (though he has ridden in Team GB colours, most recently for the U23 squad at the world championships in Doha), and took himself to Belgium with little support other than that granted by the Dave Rayner Fund.
In this last regard, he found himself in good company: that of David Millar and Charly Wegelius, and, more recently, of Adam Yates and Dan McLay. Established in 1996, following the death of the hugely talented Dave Rayner, the Fund that honours his memory has supported some of the brightest and best who venture overseas in a bid to turn pro.
“It’s a great honour to be part of the Dave Rayner Fund,” Shaw says. “It’s great to add my name to a pretty elite list of riders who have been part of it.
“I’m very proud that I was part of that and very grateful for the support they’ve given me. It’s a great fund and can’t be praised enough. If you look at the riders who have come through with their help, and a lot of guys, myself included, wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
He offers a veritable cast list of examples, up to and including his housemate, Alex Braybrooke. Shaw is also keen to point out that the support of the DRF is not limited to matters pecuniary.
“When in Belgium…” might be an easy phrase to bandy at the young Brit in the Low Countries, but when you don’t know the language or even the law, the advice of those who have gone before is invaluable.
Perhaps only in cycling is Belgium considered a sporting mecca. The challenge to name a famous Belgian is a party game only for those ignorant of cycle sport. For those who follow pro cycling closely, the challenge is knowing where to stop (perhaps with Tiesj Benoot, the wildly talented 22-year-old, whom Shaw can refer to next year as team-mate).
Shaw’s affinity with Belgium and its brutally hard one-day races seems as close as Benoot’s; some achievement given that one is from Ghent and the other from Nottingham. Shaw first came to prominence in Flanders, winning the junior versions of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a key engagement of the traditional opening weekend of the Belgian season.
“If you want to learn how to play ice hockey, you go to USA or Canada,” Shaw says, in a matter of fact tone. “If you want to learn how to race a bike, you got to Belgium.”
This year, he laid down another significant marker in his adopted home, finishing fifth in the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It is the Ardennes where Shaw’s heart belongs, and he is the first to admit that local knowledge is a powerful thing.
“I know every corner, every pot hole of LBL. I can really get it nailed. That’s been a big factor. If I want to see how the peloton copes on the Côte de La Redoute, I can drive out and see how they fare on it. That’s been a big part of it. I love those Ardennes races.”
Shaw says his family is more relieved than delighted by his ascension to the pro ranks, despite it coming so quickly. He is too.
Explaining that you have become a professional is simpler than having to explain the phrase stagiaire to a bewildered mother, and he no longer needs to borrow money from his parents for a ferry crossing home.
Shaw admits that he had given himself until the end of his time as an espoir to assess whether he was close to “making it”, or whether he would return home and get a proper job (“whatever that means”). Close observation of those who had failed to make the leap to the pro ranks by the age of 23 had given him a realistic view point.
“You have to be very good at 24 for teams to notice and pick you up.”
Having already been overlooked for a place on the British Cycling Academy, Shaw knows of what he speaks. He is living proof, however, that the road to the top doesn’t always pass through Manchester.
He offers Adam Yates (another Rayner Fund-ed rider) as the ultimate example: a rider who has matched and arguably surpassed the achievements of his twin brother Simon, despite following a lonely path to the pro ranks in France, while Simon enjoyed the support of a programme that had moulded the likes of Cavendish and Thomas, Stannard, Swift and Kennaugh; Rowe and Fenn.
“I hope I can show the younger generation that if you don’t get on a British Cycling programme, it’s not the end of the world,” Shaw says.
He is inspired by the success of Lotto Soudal espoirs old boy Dan McLay. Yet another rider who enjoyed the support of the DRF, McLay delivered some impressive results this season for Fortuneo-Vital Concept, winning the GP Denain in a seemingly laser-guided sprint to the finish line, and finishing four times in the top-10 on stages of the Tour de France, when those also in contention included Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Greipel.
“It’s great to see Dan and Adam [Yates] get those results. A few years ago, I was racing those guys here and there, and it’s great to see. I think, ‘Ok!’ It’s massively motivational and boosts my confidence.”
Confidence is something Shaw does not seem to lack. He has survived the dog-eat-dog world of U23 racing and must now adjust to the more controlled, if significantly faster world of the top tier, a mode of competing he experienced first hand at this year’s Tour of Britain.
At an espoir race, he explains, everyone believes they can win; the result, frequently, is carnage. In the professional races, with a full complement of WorldTour teams, and a selection of ‘wildcards’ handpicked from the Pro-Conti ranks, each team is racing for just one man. The result is that little more than a score of riders have a realistic chance of victory.
Shaw will start the 2017 season with no target other than that he has imposed upon himself: to be the best that he can be. For a less dedicated individual, this might already be setting the bar too high.
For Shaw – level-headed, and no longer a stranger in a strange land – it may already be enough. Belgium calling? Shaw has paid heed and is ready to reap the rewards.
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