Episode 1: It’s grim up north

The north-west of England, is where we lay our scene.

A typical suburban street on the outskirts of Macclesfield to be more precise, with very little indication (unless you flew a drone over the house and saw the array of bikes and turbo trainers set up in the conservatory) that behind closed doors, a pair of elite athletes are busy pursuing their dreams.

They are dreams that include national, European and Olympic gold in multiple disciplines, as they travel along varied yet somehow symmetrical paths towards the biggest dream of all: a World Tour contract.

Though they’re currently living in the north, both Harry Birchill and Will Tidball hail from the south-west, just like the team they ride for – though the boys rather controversially claim Devonian heritage, while they wear the Cornish colours of Saint Piran. So how have two southern boys adapted to life in the north-west?

‘It’s horrendous! Wet and miserable,’ says Will, before confirming he’s joking (though technically, he’s not wrong).

The series begins, ironically, with the two at opposite ends of the country, and neither of them are ‘at home’. Will is in Manchester, driving back from the velodrome – he drops in and out of the conversation and eventually pulls over to share his thoughts once he hits a decent patch of 4G. Harry, on the other hand, is back home in Devon. He will return to the house the following week. The two share with a third cyclist, track sprinter Ed Lowe, who is also pursuing his own Olympic dreams.

When asked what it is that works between them, and why their friendship is so important to them, Will jokes: ‘We just avoid each other, that’s the secret.’ In reality, with off-season, Christmas and incompatible training schedules, winter has seen the pair spending uncharacteristically long periods apart. ‘We’re never in the house at the same time. Whenever I’m in Harry’s not and whenever Harry’s in, I'm not.’

That won’t be the story once road season kicks in however. Last season, Will claims he ‘spent more time sharing with Harry last year than I did my own girlfriend.’

So who does the important jobs around the house? 'Luckily, we've got a dishwasher now!' enthuses Will, highlighting the glamour of the pro cyclist lifestyle. Will states that Harry is the clean one, but also the chef. Harry’s specialities include rice, potato wedges and steak sandwiches. But there’s more to their friendship than the ins and outs of daily life. Despite coming through very different routes to arrive at the crossroads where their paths have joined, the two are now united by a team, and support one another above and beyond simply cooking and keeping their shared space tidy. Yet Will is keen to highlight the importance of the day-to-day realities of being a pro rider.

‘I think in cycling, people only hear about you when you get your hands in the air, or you do something controversial, or you hurt yourself. They don't hear about the people that help you. Harry’s helped me massively this past year. And I like to think I've tried to help him.’

Will jokes: ‘He gets me out on the bike when it’s grim. Half-wheels me!’ Before reflecting in more depth on the ways in which the pair have cemented their friendship on the road and at home. ‘Like at the Tour of Britain, he was leading me out and I tried to do the same for him, and at Ryedale I didn't help him too much [Harry won Ryedale]. Maybe I helped him by showing him how much I was suffering while he was flying! So yeah, I think we complement each other in certain ways.’

The enduring allure of mud

Harry Birchill turned 23 on 1st January and is no stranger to off-roading. A multiple former MTB champion at junior level, he’s more accustomed to the tracks than the tarmac, and joined Saint Piran as a stagiare part-way through 2022, transferring his skills to the road and immediately notching up 6th place in the Rutland CiCLE Classic. He continued to hone his race craft throughout the 2023 season with some success, including a victory at the Ryedale Grand Prix and a precious second place on the continent, at the Muur Classic Geraardsbergen.

This season though, he makes a return to the cyclocross field, after five years away. 

Harry makes his cyclocross comeback after five years at the National Trophy Series in Bradford (image credit: British Cycling/Monument)

‘I started off doing cross at seven or eight in the Southwest, and then racing mountain bikes as soon as I could, doing nationals and stuff,’ says Harry of his route into cycling. ‘I got picked up by GB and when I went on to U23 through the BC pathway I got asked to give the track a go and the road with GB. I realised that track wasn't really my thing. But I really enjoyed the road.’

While Harry crossed paths with the ‘traditional’ British Cycling through-route to the pro levels, he presents a prime example of an alternative to the route which many perceive as the only option for British riders. However, with increasing numbers of Brits finding their own unique path to success, Harry proves there is more than one way to elite competition.

Despite his extensive mountain biking palmares, the cross field isn’t a place Harry has spent much time in recent years.

‘I wouldn’t have stopped if I had the support,’ he says, reflecting on his move away from cross. It was my parents really, they used to fully support me, but they couldn’t do it anymore. It takes a lot of a lot of support. And I never had that since.’

Saint Piran will support Harry’s return to the cross field – a late return, which began just this past weekend, at the final round of the National Trophy series in Tong, Bradford. He finished 13th – a decent result having started dead last on the grid, owing to his lack of points, starting off so late in the season.

‘I really enjoyed it. It was nice to be back in the mud. I didn't really know what to expect because I haven't done it for such a long time. I got a really good start and I think I made it up to around seventh but I went a bit hard, and just went too far into the red. My training recently has been a lot of endurance and strength stuff and I haven't done that much VO2 or like, high intensity efforts. So yeah, I reached my limit, with the cold and my breathing, and that was where I couldn't really push much harder and dropped back a little bit because I was having to recover. Then the last three laps I started to feel really good again.’

Harry had a support crew in the shape of his housemates, Will and Ed, along with the gear provided by the team. ‘The bikes and the tires that I had were great. The boys came and helped me out, which was quite fun, but it worked really well. It was actually pretty muddy, I was changing bikes every lap and a half.’

Good friends use power washers on their housemate's cyclocross bikes

‘I realised it's just a completely different sport, to what I've been doing this last year on the road,' Harry reflects, on the differences, but also advantages, of riding a dual programme. 'I always used to struggle with starts and just finding gaps and moving up when I was racing before, but because I've been racing crits and road races, I think it really helps with looking for gaps and just going for them. And I found myself near the front pretty quick, from just doing that and maybe doing a bit of track probably helps.

'Again, cornering and just knowing where the limit is with the traction and that sort of thing. It took me a little bit to figure out but there was a section where it was fairly technical, and one bit where you had to get off around this bottom corner. And then I was getting back on and riding pretty much the whole of the rest of the section. And most people were running it, that I saw. I was pretty happy with my technical ability still considering I haven’t done much.’

Harry agrees that he’s catching the 'cross bug, albeit a little late in the day. ‘I've already been looking on the calendar to see what else there is on in the rest of January,’ he admits. And he may not be alone….  ‘Will has been hassling me, saying “one of those bikes would fit me, I want to come and do a cross race!”, I think it was a good experience for those boys because they've never been to one before.’

It might not just be Harry who is taking to the mud in future seasons…

The Boy with the Falcon Tattoo

Will Tidball is also 23 years old, and while he too rides on the road for Saint Piran, where he’s been contracted for just over a year, his main focus is currently indoors on the boards of the velodrome. Crowned scratch race World Champion in Glasgow in 2023, Will has his sights set on the Paris Olympics this summer, and his early season goals all lead to the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines velodrome, with the European and national championships high on the agenda.

Will Tidball is an accomplished endurance track rider (image credit: Sam Nancarrow)

His goals though, are not just short-term. Will is a man with a plan, and that includes making provision for both medium and long-term, with his 1066 brand central to his thinking. But what’s the significance of the number – a famous one in terms of British history?

‘Basically, 1066 was my first ever number, when I did a sportive, my first 100km,’ Will explains. ‘And it was quite interesting as my name is Will and it's quite good to have a bit of an identity, that's not just your name. And I find in cycling, especially when you ride for big teams, it's quite easy to get absorbed within it and no-one has any individuality.

‘I guess you could call it a brand; we're gonna do some products and stuff like that. It's more of a thing for the future for me, when I retire, it would be nice to have a bit of a legacy, even if it's like, you know, a cycling club or something, or a café in Devon, where we do rides from.’

The logo for 1066 is a peregrine falcon, and there’s a story behind that, too.

‘Before I won my first elite national title my Dad bought me this little badge. It was a bit corny, really, but he said "it reminds me of you, it's quite aerodynamic," and he said it was a good luck charm. I laughed at it a bit but then when I wore it, I won a national title.

‘Then my badge kept falling off so I thought maybe it is a bit of a good luck charm because things started going well after having quite a few years of bad luck with COVID and things like that. So I got a tattoo in the end.

‘One day, I’ll get Harry to get one as well. On a bet maybe. If he's a real friend he'll do it.’ Will laughs before adding: ‘his Mum might have a go at me!’

World Tour dreams

Will has his future all mapped out, it seems. In an Olympic year, other riders might have a hard time looking beyond such an all-consuming goal, but he is keen to point out that track isn’t the be-all and end-all. ‘I don't just want to be a track rider,’ he states. ‘Getting a World Tour contract is obviously the goal.’

Will also harbours big ambitions on the road, where he currently rides for Saint Piran (image credit: SW Pics)

So how do the two pathways complement one another, if at all?

Will tries an athletics analogy. ‘It's like going from doing a 400-metre relay to doing a marathon every day for 10 days. When I did Worlds [on the track] I did that and then I think maybe two weeks later, it was the Tour of Britain.

‘I think the road gives you the depth and the volume and the amount of hours to perform in longer races, like points races and bunch races, particularly. The track complements the end of a race or a lead-out, you know, when it's real high speed and bunch positioning. So they do complement each other but at the same time, it's not easy.’

While Harry’s cyclocross goals begin and end with nationals, he’ll head back onto the road to continue his development. He’s excited about the season ahead.

‘From what I've seen the calendar for next year looks really good,’ he says. He is understated about his goals for the year. ‘Just getting recognised a bit more. I've already started to learn. I started to get it last year, towards the end of the year about the whole racing instinct, the race craft. Just trying to get some results like this year, to move on a bit higher up.'

On to the next one

What do the Devonshire Duo have in store going forward? ‘We've got a lot of good stories that could fill a lot of books that probably can't get published,’ laughs Will. 'We'd be amazing vloggers, they'd love to have YouTube series on us.'

They will soon be back together and then the story will begin again, with plenty of camaraderie along the way – keeping the mood light is of course key to a strong working – and living – relationship. Will agrees. ‘It's good to have fun, especially in the season when I'm not away doing all these World Cups we're actually living together. Right after February pretty much, we’ll be inseparable again.’

This coming weekend is a big one for both Harry and Will. While Harry heads to Falkirk to take on the British National Cyclocross championships, in just his second ‘cross race in five years, Will travels to the Apeldoorn in the Netherlands for the European track championships, a vital step on the path to the Olympics. He will ride the elimination race.

Check in again for episode 2, which will cover their experiences at these vital events and look ahead to the early season on the road with Saint Piran.

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