Following our introduction to cycling’s ‘Odd Couple’, Harry Birchill and Will Tidball, in Episode 1 of this series, the next two weeks were eventful to say the least for the two Saint Piran riders from Devon. National championships and European championships kept the pair busy and proved that even prior to the beginning of road season, there’s never a dull moment when you are a multi-discipline rider.
When we last checked in, the pair weren’t even together, despite admitting that they saw one another more than their own girlfriends in the previous year. A standard situation in pro cycling, perhaps, but when you throw in additional disciplines things get really complicated. The two were finally reunited within the past fortnight only for Will to head immediately off to Apeldoorn in the Netherlands for the European track championships, while Harry travelled north to Falkirk to boldly go where he had only gone once before this winter – into a competitive cyclocross race. And it was quite a step up in terms of quality, with the best in the country gathered to contest for the white jersey with the blue and red bands.
So how did they get on?
In a voice note which Will titles ‘On the Sofa with Harry and Will,’ the pair give me a potted version of their weekend exploits. Will begins by interviewing Harry about his bad luck at cyclocross nationals.
WILL: How was the weekend?
HARRY: It wasn't great for me to be fair. I got a pretty good start; I was gridded 57th out of about 70 people. So I was pretty near the back, but made it up around 20th after the start loop. I was feeling pretty good. And then I think it was the third lap, I went up one of the steep banks and my shifter, like, moved, and then I just completely lost my front brake. So I had to run down the rest of the section. I jumped on my other bike and then a lap after that, punctured on the rear. So that was the end of my race. It was a great race. There were a lot of spectators there. But it was really annoying. Anyway, I’ll move on.
WILL: For me, I think Euros was really good. It was nice to go and do an elimination. I was a bit disappointed not to win it as you could probably see on the podium. But I think on reflection it was a fairly good race and things out of my control like the crash with six riders to go meant that a lot of the guys that did quite a lot of work early on, got to get their energy back. And that coupled with the fact that the field was a bit smaller meant that the race was a bit less fatiguing. But yeah, pretty happy with second on reflection.
They go on to discuss visiting a local farm where Will’s girlfriend Charlotte lives (Charlotte makes a brief cameo to review the boys’ mucking out skills – ‘fairly average – they could speed up a bit’ – Will’s snappy comeback: ‘we’re good at chatting shit, not shovelling it.’
WILL: Harry’s been training in the in the horse runner because he needs to improve his running, and I've got a stinking cold so yeah, life's top at the moment just before I travel to Australia on Friday. So just trying to recover really. In another news we've got Ed Lowe here he's just been told some exciting news, Ed spill the news.
ED: I'm going to Australia for the Track Nation's Cup in a few weeks’, time so really looking forward to that. I wasn't expecting to go, so great news.
HARRY: I’m gonna be left here on my own.
WILL: Harry's fuming because he's going to be here for two and a half weeks on his own but his missus will be over anyway so we don't feel that bad for him. He normally just tries to hide from us anyway. So he's got his wish, his peace and quiet.
Don’t go off-roading with Harry Birchill
A couple of days later, I check back in with the boys to dig a little deeper.
Harry delves into his bad luck at nationals. Despite going into the day hopeful of achieving a good placement, he was forced to withdraw from the race after suffering mechanical issues with both of his bikes.
‘I think I was pretty unlucky,' he says. 'The fact that I knew my first bike was gone and I couldn't change onto it because I had no front brake, and then after that other bike punctured, I was like, well that’s that then.’ He remains philosophical though. ‘This cyclocross season hasn’t been a big target of mine, it was quite a last-minute decision. Just to try and add some fun and enjoyment back into the winter and try and break it up a bit. I think it's made me realise how much I miss it, after four or five years away, even going out training and just being in the woods and being off road. I've really enjoyed it.’
While the team are keen to take Harry over to Belgium, to try his luck at the back end of the European cyclocross season, it looks unlikely to happen, as he lacks the necessary number of UCI points to qualify.
‘I'm just focused on training at the minute, I need to get back into a good routine of training and focus on the road again now. It's been cold over the last few days and pretty snowy here, so I’ve been out on the cross bike instead of the road bike, it’s a bit sketchy to ride on the road at the minute. Just that one patch of ice is enough to make you fall off. It's been nice going up into the Peaks in the snow, and the freedom, even though it’s been -7. It’s a 10-minute ride through Macclesfield and you’re there, I’ve just been exploring over the last couple of days, finding new bridleways, which has been nice.’
Though he’s normally happy training alone, Harry reports that Will has been out with him off-road on his mountain bike. Will expresses concerns over the effect of the training on his physical condition ahead of his trip Australia. ‘Moral of the story, don't go off roading with Harry Birchill. Last time, I broke a rib!’ Will proclaims cheerfully, before moving on to analyse his experience at the Euros.
Shoulder-barging 40-year-old men
"Since Worlds, coming off such a high it's quite hard to just go back to reality" - Will Tidball
‘I think normally, I'd have been really happy with second at Euros,' Will begins, expanding on the visible disappointment that was clear watching the race on TV. 'But I think winning worlds, in your head you then sort of think "oh I should be winning everything" and it’s just a new pressure you put on yourself.
‘Coming into Euros, I didn't really have the best prep over Christmas. I had quite a few bugs and things; reasons why I couldn't ride my bike as much as we'd have hoped. So that was probably why I was more frustrated because if I didn't have that, then maybe I would have been able to win but you know, it's easy to think that.
‘Obviously it's great to get a medal but it does make you think “Oh, I wonder if things didn't go like that then maybe I could have been better on the day”. That’s why I was a bit disappointed. I'm happy with how I raced, I stuck to the plan that we made and it went really well and obviously a few variables like the crash and stuff might not have helped. You can only control so much in a bunch race, especially an elimination.’
‘It keeps you hungry for it!’ Harry chips in and Will agrees that on reflection, second place might have been a blessing in disguise.
‘It was kind of good that I came second, it gives you a bit of hunger. Since Worlds, coming off such a high it's quite hard to just go back to reality really. Just achieving something so big. Obviously after comes a big… not a low, but you’re sort of like "yeah, back to it." you know. In cycling you never sit on a result. In no sport you do really, but especially cycling.’
At Worlds, Will won the scratch race, so I’m keen to understand the thinking behind the switch of events. ‘It's not easy, but at the same time, you have to be good at all of them to be good at an omnium, so that's what we're trying to do. Start off with a scratch race, then the elimination race is a bit of a new challenge and then obviously there's two more events and then Omnium, and hopefully you can be the best in the world at that. It's not easy though. I think out of all of them the scratch and the elimination suit me and also I did a lot of Champions League, so it wasn't too alien.’
The race saw a crash that caused neutralisation, allowing the remaining riders to regroup. Will managed to avoid elimination until the final lap, going head to head with the eventual winner, Tobias Hansen of Denmark. There was plenty of pushing and shoving, a point which I ask Will to expand on.
‘At a major championship eliminations are always quite physical because everyone's like, well, either I get disqualified or I'm out anyway. So that's why it's like that. At one point with six riders to go I went for a gap that wasn't really there because I thought I was going to be out. It's interesting, because the road’s physical as well, we just don't see it so much because it's not so obvious.’
So where do you develop the kind of physicality required to stand your ground whilst going at high speed around a velodrome? Will has a surprising answer. ‘It comes from me from doing cycle speedway. I've always been quite good physically, because since the age of about six I've been shoulder-barging 40-year-old blokes, so when I had to come to track I had to actually tame it down a bit. So that's been the problem, just trying to make sure it's not too much because I've been disqualified before.
'Also the fact that I can be quite physical and can use the bunch quite well means that I can get away with saving a lot of energy when others can't. So it's just a balance of doing that and also using your legs when you need to, especially in elimination. And that's what I alluded to with the crash is that the other guy was strong, but he rode in quite a physical way, and it would have been interesting to see if there wasn't that neutral part with the crash if he would have recovered and how he would have been at the final sprint. We’ll never know I guess.’
The Home Front
"When you're here, training on your own most of the time in the cold, it's quite hard to see an end to it" - Harry Birchill
With the big early season goals out of the way, it’s time for Harry to focus on the road once again. He explains how the team communicate during the off-season, and talks about his expectations for the year ahead.
‘We've been having monthly hour-long zoom calls with the whole team. I guess because we don't really have a training camp it's quite nice to see everyone and have a catch up. It’s not the same but at least everyone knows what's going on.
‘I think it will be a really good year with the team. Everyone seems really motivated and up for it. We're just in the process of deciding who's going to do what races. I'm not sure what I'm doing first, but I know the first race that some of the boys are doing is Portsdown.’
It’s not set in stone where Harry’s season will begin, or which races he has on his calendar. I ask if there are races he particularly wants to do.
‘I still I don't really know. I guess hilly, mountainous races aren’t great for me. The one days, with punchy courses, maybe some cobbles, that's sort of what I’m into. But I need to do more research, looking at videos from old races and seeing what the course is like how much climbing it’s got in it, what the finish is like.’
For riders building their season schedules, it’s a collaborative process at Saint Piran. ‘Everyone sends in their own view on their targets and goals and what you want to achieve from the season and it all gets taken into consideration,’ Harry explains. ‘There's a few people that oversee what training people do and they speak to coaches and then decide who's going well. At the end of the day, everyone’s still competing against each other to be able to even just get to the races.’
In terms of training camps though, it’s down to the riders as individuals to sort themselves out. Harry explains that Saint Piran don’t organize any team camps, opting to save the budget for more races.
‘Will and Will Roberts from the team are going to Tenerife in February, and I think I'm gonna go with them. When you're here, training on your own most of the time in the cold, it's quite hard to see an end to it, but it's nice to have something to look forward to, to train in the sun.’
When I ask what the lads have been doing with themselves off the bike, I wrongly assume I’ll hear something along the lines of ‘playing Call of Duty’ but Harry confirms they don’t play video games or even watch much TV.
‘What have we been up to? We had a catch up when we got back from Scotland on Saturday night. Will’s girlfriend Charlotte lives on a farm, which is just up the road, so we’ve been up there just playing around on quad bikes and stuff. In the evenings we all have dinner and then just sit down and chill out for an hour before bed and just chat. That’s about it.’
There are still opportunities for hi-jinx though. ‘We had a snow day the other day,’ says Harry. ‘I got woken up by a snowball chucked at me in bed from Will.’
Karma seems to have come back for Will though. A couple of days after arriving in Australia to take on the UCI Track Nations Cup, he leaves another voice note:
WILL: ‘Swear to God, I nearly just got knocked off by a kangaroo. I went down this hill and this kangaroo popped out with its baby behind it. And I nearly hit it. It was absolutely huge. I can't believe it. After eating a kangaroo last night and I nearly got killed by one this morning, Bloody hell.’