Three countries, two hemispheres, one gold medal, and a sickness bug, is a pretty accurate explanation of the steadily decreasing levels of glamour in the life of Saint Piran’s Will Tidball, since we last caught up with him after the European Championships. Meanwhile, his housemate and teammate Harry Birchill has, mostly, been home alone (though thankfully free of burglary-based shenanigans).

Despite assurances that it would get easier to speak to the two together as we progressed further into the season, if anything it’s more complicated to catch the pair in one place at one time. The following episode takes place over two weeks, through a series of voice notes and Zoom calls, as I piece together three weeks in the life of the Devonshire Duo.

It begins with Will Tidball on 16th February, via WhatsApp voicenote.

‘Voice notes with Will, here we go. The Devonshire Duo has been a bit of a singlet lately! Me and Harry haven't actually seen each other since the last update. I went to Australia after Euros which was great. Nearly got knocked off by kangaroo on a ride; managed to get a gold in the team pursuit which was pretty amazing considering we were against a lot of Olympic teams with our B team effectively so that shows the strength and depth we have going into Paris. Really happy with that and then Omnium, I made some bad decisions tactically, and paid for them in the overall but managed to do a good points race at the end.’

Will apparently has a knack for summarizing an entire competition in a couple of short sentences. He brings us up to date.

‘That's about it really. Long flights to and from Australia was a new one, getting used to jet lag and how that affects the body. Then soon as I got back from Australia, I've come out to Tenerife, which Harry was meant to join me on but he's had to stay at home, which is a bit of a shame. But I’m out here with Will Roberts, who's also rider for Saint Piran, so it’s good to spend some time with a Welsh friend, especially as we beat them in the rugby. So that was good. Thank God. And then just getting some good miles in, saw Primoz Roglic out a couple of days ago. Lots of swimming, lots of cycling. And yeah, just enjoying avoiding the British winter to be honest.’

Later, Will adds some extra colour about Team GB’s gold medal-winning performance in the Team Pursuit. ‘We went 3:48:40 I think which was a PB for me. So pretty happy about that. Beat some names like Ganna, Sam Welsford, Aaron Gate. All top riders. And from P2 which seems to be where I'm slotting in at the moment. Which is good.’

He adds some colour about his training camp trip, too.

‘On a sidenote, I went to the waterpark yesterday, Siam Park which apparently is best water park in the world so the inner child was loving it. My family have come out, so it’s really nice to spend some time with them as I don't really get to do that when I'm away. It's nice to be on a training camp that's not really your standard, sitting in your hotel room after you've done your training. So yeah, not really looking forward to coming back for nationals, but I'm excited to put on my Saint Piran rainbow jersey in the scratch race. So that'll be special.’

‘Hope Harry's well, I haven't really seen him for a while so hopefully he's not missing me too much.’

Home Alone

The same day. I check in with Harry, who seems to be muddling along without Will, though he admits his half of the story hasn’t been quite as exciting of late. ‘I’ve just been training and spending time in Devon with family. I went home last weekend for my dad's birthday. I hadn't been home for quite a while and rode all the local roads at home in the South Hams and along Slapton Sands, where I grew up riding. You realise how hard it is when you go home, like the actual terrain riding in Devon's pretty tough.’

So what exactly does Devon offer to the developing cyclist? Harry explains.

‘After being up here for quite a long time, when I went home it made me realise how nothing is consistent. And you can never really get into a proper rhythm, like you're either going up or you're going down. And most of the climbs are pretty draggy. And the roads are a bit more grippy. You either go on Dartmoor, or you go along the coast, which is nice, because you get the variety; you can be riding in the middle of the moors one minute and next to the sea in the same ride.’

Harry admits financial constraints kept him from joining Will on training camp in Tenerife. It’s a stark reminder of the realities of life as an athlete in the lower echelons of a niche sport. ‘I would have loved to go away. It's just trying to save some money to get me through the season,’ Harry says. ‘One of the biggest stresses for me at the minute is to be able to do it full time and make do with what I've got and make it work. But yeah, it motivates you and makes you hungry for it.’

Before becoming a full-time cyclist, Harry underwent a two-year apprenticeship in environmental conservation. ‘My dad's got a tree surgery business and I've always grown up around farms. It was really interesting but it also meant that I could train around it, and go to races on the weekend. That was when I was a junior, doing mountain bike on the GB programme. He outlines the mechanics of actually getting paid, with money from grants and notes the irony of signing with a team meaning he would actually be getting less. ‘When I moved to Saint Piran I knew it was gonna be a bit of a struggle trying to carry on doing it full time, but I took the risk and tried. I'm trying to make it work, picking up little bits of work here and there as well. It keeps it interesting.’

Harry’s road season opens in Belgium on 2nd March. ‘I think the race is called *tries to pronounce a Belgian race name.* It’s a 1.1 in Belgium.

‘Winter has just seemed like it's taken forever and then suddenly now you’re watching all these races start and it's like, actually here again.’

Do pros actually sit down and watch the racing? I put the question to Harry. ‘I've got myself more into it just because I think it's good for me learning. I've always been told I need to watch more racing to understand it and it actually has helped a lot. Before that I'd watch the big races, but now I try and watch as much as I can really, to try and pick up new things and see what teams are doing, because last year was my first proper year and there's still quite a lot to learn.’

As for riders that Harry admired growing up, it was the off-roaders who had his attention. ‘Growing up. I was more into mountain bike. So Nino Schurter, Julian Absalon. Then got into the road a bit, with Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. There weren't many people doing both back when I was growing up.’

Getting lean

Almost two weeks later (28th February) and I finally manage to round up the boys together, though they’re still not actually both in the house as Will is suffering with illness. ‘I'm trying to avoid Harry,’ he says cheerfully. It’s the culmination of a few hard weeks of travel, training and competition for Will, which resulted in a below par performance at the British Nationals in Manchester.

‘I did the points race. I struggled quite a lot, considering how I rode it,’ Will explains. ‘Thought, oh, maybe I've had a bad day. And then the day after I had an absolute nightmare in the team pursuit and got dropped. I've never been dropped in team pursuit, we went 14 seconds slower than we went in Australia. I basically had no top end and just felt very empty.’

Will is pragmatic as always. ‘There's sort of nowhere to hide,’ he says. ‘You know, if you have a bad exam, no-one really knows, but if you have a bad race, everyone's there watching. I had to pull out of the scratch race because I just felt empty. So I had a few days of rest. We're human after all.’

‘I actually feel like my energy is coming back now. Basically, I’ve just been flat out going from Euros to Australia to Tenerife, and then back. It all adds up, so just a bit susceptible to getting ill. I’ll be OK.’

Will is delaying his return to the road to ride the next Olympic qualification event in Hong Kong, meaning even more travelling awaits.  ‘The Madison in Hong Kong is quite important for me with Olympic selection. Hong Kong is in two weeks so I'm just getting ready for that, while Harry is off starting his road. And then I start the road two weeks after Hong Kong.’

While the guys have only been together for long enough to go on a couple of training rides, there has been time for nutrition, Harry Birchill-style. The boys describe ‘a steak sandwich with some cheesy stuff in it’ [pictured]. ‘It probably wasn't good for you,’ Will says. ‘But it was good for morale.’

Harry adds: ‘Will was like, "Oh, we're gonna get lean now." And then goes out and buys steak and cheese. It is good for you. I always find I go well, after having a good steak.’

Will agrees. ‘I always go well, I don't know why. Because it's meant to sit in your stomach for weeks, but maybe all the vegans have been missing a trick.’

Harry is keen to get back to the road. ‘It's been a long winter just hacking around in this weather. I think once I can start racing I’ll remember what it's all about and be keen for it. I was talking to Fred [Wright] about the race over in Belgium that he's just done this weekend when we were out on a ride and he said it was the fastest ever, like it was just full on from the start. I'm just keen to get stuck into some cross winds and some good racing, go and headbutt some Belgian people.’

‘And get bullied by all the World Tour teams!’ Will chips in.

Everyone loves an underdog, but what’s it like to actually be one, going into a race where you are effectively bottom of the pecking order?

‘I'm not much of a confident person anyway,’ Harry admits, ‘but the first year that I did Tour of Britain, you try and go to the front of a race and there's a Jumbo rider, so you’re just like “oh, I shouldn't be here.” But there's no reason why you can't... it's just there's a respect thing.’

‘I think Tour of Britain's always weird as well because they've always had like a whole year of racing at that level,’ Will adds. ‘I always notice a difference especially when the boys come on the track when they've done a few races. They seem to step up quite a bit physically. That's something you notice at Tour of Britain is they’re at just such a high level.

‘It's so different,’ Harry agrees. ‘Like, even though you're in the same races together there’s such a big gap, it's a completely different life from this level to that level, even though you’re sort of doing the same thing.’

Will finishes his thought with a fitting proverb. ‘They're all bare bums in the shower, aren't they Harry?’ It’s not a saying anyone else has heard before and it causes some amusement. ‘I can't take credit for it,' Will admits. ‘I heard it from Tyson Fury, but I thought it was quite a good one. Basically, it’s just a jersey in the team bus.’

Harry on stage for the Q&A at the Saint Piran film premiere

On the subject of levels, one of the duo was present last week in London, for the premiere of the documentary film Saint Piran vs The World, which looks at the team’s role as small fish in a big pond at the Tour of Britain.

‘It was good evening,’ says Harry. ‘I did a Q&A thing, which I wasn't really that comfortable doing, But it was kind of cool to be on film. It’s Jack [Rootkin-Gray] and Zeb [Kiffin] that it's mainly focused on but it tells the story about the team quite well, how it's a really small team, going up against the biggest teams in the world. And Zeb getting sixth on GC at the Tour of Britain.’

Will sees a television series in the team’s future: ‘I think it'd be good if we pitched the idea to Netflix and they did series on Saint Piran. It'd be a bit like Clarkson's Farm. We’ve got a lot of characters. Yeah, that's how we get a big following, I think. It would be hilarious.’

Managing expectations

We move on to discuss Harry’s upcoming race. ‘The GP Criquielion,’ Harry confirms, his pronunciation on point this time. He outlines the plan. It's a stark contrast to a World Tour team, with a gruelling drive bookending the actual race. ‘I'll probably drive down from up here because I've got a team car and then pick people up from the north down to the tunnel. Everyone meets on the way down.’

Race strategy and team dynamics will all be hammered out when the team arrives in Belgium just the day before the race. ‘We’ll just talk about it when we get there. We'll go down early on Friday morning, race on Saturday and come straight back. It’s a lot of driving.’

‘That's the one downside to being a conti rider,’ says Will. ‘You don't get to fly in and out. You have to drive up and down the country.’

‘Yeah, at ridiculous times as well,’ adds Harry.

‘Sometimes last year we were getting back at like 4am, 5am,’ Will confirms. ‘That's the hard thing when you race every weekend is recovering after you've done that travel as well. You need couple days to get over it.’

'Harry it actually suits you, you should be alright,' advises Will, as they bring their thoughts back to the upcoming race.

'I did the same race last year,' says Harry. 'It's got this kick up when it goes into a finishing circuit. And it's got a pretty steep climb on it. And it's just the positioning coming into it. Like, I literally got to the top of the climb and I was just on the back of the front group. Jack was just in front of me. And he made it, but I was in between the two groups. There was no chance of me like getting back up to the front group.'

Will reflects on his experience of the race. ‘I remember I punctured and then I chased back on, you got on to me, and I blew because I went so hard just to move up.’

We decide it would be good to leave the episode on a cliff-hanger, with Harry heading into the race, his fortunes hanging in the balance.

Will prompts Harry by asking ‘Well, Harry are you going to win it or not?’

‘Probably not, no,’ Harry replies.


POSTSCRIPT: Unfortunately, Harry DNF'ed the GP Criquielion, suffering a mechanical after 180km of racing. More on that next time...


Episode 1 - At Home with the Devonshire Duo

Episode 2 - Snowballs, Horsemuck, and a Murderous Kangaroo

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