Time flies in the world of cycling, and it’s been a long time since we’ve caught up with Saint Piran’s Harry Birchill and Will Tidball. I checked in with the pair in early April to see how their seasons were progressing, and discovered that they were in very different places to when we last spoke.  

Harry was upbeat about his progress. “I’ve been on it, just getting my head down and cracking on properly. I'm really happy with where I'm at in my training at the minute, I’ve been consistent. And on paper, the numbers show I'm in the best place I've ever been. So it's exciting. I'm looking forward to starting the season and going away on Sunday to Tour de Loir-et-Cher.”

We left off in Episode 3 with Harry riding the GP Criquielion one-day race in Belgium. He was unable to finish the race, though, so my first question is – what happened?

“It was a bit of a one-off, a long way ahead of any other races. I wasn't in the best shape and it was all quite last minute, a bit of a test event, almost. All the logistics, everything was a bit different. It was good to meet a few of the new guys on the team. And I was actually feeling good in the race. We had the team meeting, and me and Bradley had done it the year before and we were able to tell everyone where we need to be at certain points and where the pinch points were.

“I felt a lot more comfortable in the race. Last year was just a big learning year and I was in a pretty good place. It was a grim race, really cold and wet and those cobbles…. On the first lap, I had to have a shoe change, which I've never done in a race before. Luckily, I had a spare set in my wet bag so that was all fine. Got back in and there were a few crashes, managed to avoid all of them.

“I was pretty comfortable coming into the last lap, and onto the finishing circuit. I got to the top of the climb, went to change back into the big ring. And it just wouldn't go back into the big ring. So I got stuck in the small ring on the front. And I was just spinning out. That was basically the end. And I didn't I didn't have a spare bike coming in, because I didn't have it ready in time. Nothing else really fitted me.

“I was drifting back as we were on really fast roads and I couldn't stay with the bunch, I was even trying to stay on the cars but just couldn’t do it. So yeah, that was that. But I was feeling good. And I took some positives away from it, it got me back into the mindset, because you sort of switch off from it all, and it was nice to just go through it all again, getting ready for a race and going away.”

Harry was back in the zone, and there was further encouragement from a familiar face the following weekend. “I went down and stayed with Jack RG [Rootkin-Gray, EF Education-EasyPost]. He came home for a bit. So we did a few days' training together. It was nice to catch up with him, and hear about how he's getting on at EF. I was taking some good advice, he was telling me things that he'd been learning about nutrition and that sort of thing. It was interesting to hear all about it.

“Having someone of a fairly similar ability to you who has moved on actually makes it realistic in your head, it really motivates you. I learned a lot last year, and actually put in a few good results. So fingers crossed, hopefully I can get some more this year.”

As far as next week’s race goes, Harry is cautiously optimistic. “It'll be good going into it feeling like I can get a result rather than just going there to race. I’m gonna have a meeting with my coach on Friday. Last year, I don't think I planned stuff as much as I could have. Any racing that's been on the TV, I’ve just been watching it and trying to learn. So I think that's probably something that I can improve on, to do more homework around individual stages and have a plan going into it."

Harry has calculated the risk versus reward and consequently, has avoided racing domestically thus far this season. “I’ve stayed away from doing nat B's, I know they're good to do, but it's been nice to be in one place for a good couple of weeks and get a good routine going and some really consistent training. The weather’s been pretty bad most of the time, the Peaks 2 Day was grim, and there’s the risk of getting ill and that just disrupts your routine. And the risk of crashing and all that. I want to go into the start of the season, as well as I can. It's not going to help me get what I want out of this year.”

Harry on a much warmer day out on the bike, at the Tour de Loir-et-Cher (update below)

We talk about the upcoming race, which Harry pronounces carefully in a passable French accent, before Will arrives and declares “I haven’t really got much to bring to the meeting to be honest.”

“It’s not so great for Will, to be fair,” Harry concurs. This doesn’t bode well. He reveals his news, and he’s right, it’s not great.

“I've been diagnosed with glandular fever. Epstein-Barr. It's what Cav had.

“I basically haven't been right all year really, since Christmas. I've been getting ill. I think I've been ill five times this year. So I've never really had a good load of training, and then finally got into some training, and I just wasn't recovering. And riding with Harry's hard enough! I thought ‘oh Harry’s just giving me a kicking’ but I wouldn't recover the day after. I just didn't feel myself at all really. Eventually, I got a blood test, and then it came back with Epstein-Barr. So I've become a civilian for the last week.”

It leaves things very much uncertain in terms of Will’s build towards the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, where his promising results were suggesting he may be in line for selection. He explains that treatment it very much dealt with on a case-by-case basis. “It’s a bit individual. But basically, you’re meant to stay off the bike until your symptoms go. And then, like a gradual six-week, Introduction to training. So it's not ideal. But it is what it is, I guess.

In terms of his return to the bike, it’s uncertain. “It just all depends really how quickly I bounce back. But the main thing is not to rush it. And that's hard, because you want to rush back. But if you rush back, you can either get it again, or you can end up with MS. So, yeah, a bit of a nightmare.

“It’s annoying when races like the Tour of Flanders are on. it's very contagious so I’m just trying to stay away from Ed and Harry because obviously Ed’s also building up to the Olympics. I'm just trying to enjoy a bit of time not thinking about cycling so much, I guess.”

It seems that ever since we started this blog series, originally planned around the ‘At Home’ element of the Devonshire Duo’s lives together, they have barely ever been in the house at the same time, for one reason or another; an indication perhaps, of the transitory nature of the life of an elite athlete as they train, race and attend to the other elements of their busy existence in various different locations.

Harry and Will alongside teammate Charlie Tanfield at a recent track day in Manchester

So what has Will been doing to pass the time, off the bike?

“I've taken up pool,” he says. “Trying to get better, to beat Harry. We're starting a podcast. So, I've ordered some equipment for that. We'll get that rolling hopefully. It's gonna be interesting. I've been trying to research other podcasts and I've been designing a cycling kit as well. So hopefully that will come out at some point.

“Weirdly, I booked an Airbnb, which had no signal or anything. It turned out to be the time that I found out I had Epstein-Barr so we went there and I think people thought I was really depressed because I wasn't on my phone at all and not replying to anyone. Then I went to Devon to spend some time with the family, it was the first Easter I’ve actually been able to see them since I moved away really, because I’m normally racing.”

They go on to discuss between them the Tour de Loir-et-Cher, where Will placed fifth on GC in 2023, and they try to work out whether Harry has ridden it before or not, which goes some way to encapsulating the piecemeal nature of the race programme of pro conti rider.

Harry enquires as to whether it’s flat. Will tells Harry about the race features and they move on to discuss the team composition.

“I've only just found out who's riding,” says Harry before reeling off some names. “I’ve not met a couple of them. I haven't seen Sam Culverwell properly in ages. I used to be on Junior Academy with him. Like mountain bike or even before that, the first step on the ladder of BC but because he’s from Guernsey, he's the south region. So he used to come over and do mountain bike RSRs [Regional School of Racing] with us. I used to be good friends with him, but then he went and did road with Trinity and stuff. So it'll be nice to see him and catch up.”

While Will’s health concerns obviously prevent him from riding, he’s keen to recover in time for his birthday, on 22nd April. “We're going paintballing, a good group of us, so hopefully I'll have some energy by then and I can actually run away from the paintballs,” he jokes. “Otherwise, I'll just be sat there sniping people.”

“You'll be running away from me,” says Harry.

“Harry’s a pretty tall target. There’s a lot of him to hide. Might get Ricci [Pascoe, team manager] along and just pepper him."

“It’s weird,” Will reflects, suddenly thoughtful. “You go from being like a full time athlete to… yeah, just walking the dog’s an achievement. I got to eat my Easter eggs guilt free, though, so it was fine.”

Breakdowns and Bread

Harry recounts a story that seems to sum up the luck that the pair have been having so far this year. “I've been using a team car because there's quite a lot of people up here and enroute going down to races I can pick them up. I got asked if I could go and help out with the women's CiCLE [Classic]. So I was supposed to be going down to that, to do like a mechanic role in the car with John who was DS’ing, just go and help out, using the car to get around. And on the way, the car broke down. It was a bit of a nightmare, I got stuck next to the motorway for six hours just waiting there for someone to come and pick me up. It was a bit of a shitshow to be honest, I didn't even make it down in the end. I was just trying to do a good thing.”

“That’s why you're better off just not trying to do a good thing, Harry, then you’ll be fine,” quips Will, more Machiavellian in his approach to life, it seems. “It was quite funny because me and Ed [Lowe, the third housemate] were here watching the rugby. And Harry kept calling us and we thought he's just bored so we both ignored his calls. And then I go to bed. I completely forgot he's called. He's messaged me saying I've broken down and then he messaged Ed and he said ‘look out the window’ and he arrives in this recovery truck with the car on the back! Made us feel bad for ignoring him. We were too busy watching England!”

“I’ll know not to call them again,” grumbles Harry.

Before we go our separate ways, Will remembers a piece of news that he feels warrants sharing.

“Oh, yeah, Harry, you've got into baking!”

Harry nods. “I've just been making my bread. I just whack it on before I go to bed.”

“Like, I took the mick out of him. But it's actually really good bread.”

Even though the two have passed like ships in the night, there’s still been opportunity for Will to sample some, as Harry points out. “The other day I went to try some and I hadn't even seen you and the only thing I see is a mashed-up bit of bread because you can't cut it properly. I literally got back from my ride. I was like, what's happened to my bread?”

Will had happened.

“I couldn’t cut it! I was trying so hard.”

“You’ve got to go gently,” Harry advises.

“I don't know what happened,” says Will regretfully. “But it basically ended up looking like this. [he mimes a mangled loaf of bread]. And I was thinking oh, great. Harry’s gonna be so mad.”

“So you know how they come out of a breadmaker?” Harry attempts to explain the carnage. “They're like, they're quite tall, aren't they?” He just shakes his head.

"I did say to Ed, shall I just pick the white bit out of the middle and just leave him with the crust.”

“You had your fingers all in my bread! Your diseases!”

Will is able to make light of his current misfortune. “Epstein bread it’s called!” He jokes, before continuing to endorse Harry's baking skills, despite his apparent u-turn on bread consumption. “No honestly, it’s proper good bread though. The funny thing about Harry though - so, the other week I think I had, I don't know, some scrambled eggs with bagels. He said 'I’m not eating bread,' and he didn’t eat bread for like, two weeks because ‘oh it gives you bread legs.’ Only rice. So I'd have like, beans on toast. He'd have beans with rice. I was like, 'you OK, mate?'

"Anyway it’s gone from that, to him baking his own bread every day. He has a loaf a day now. He just lives on it.’

“Ed eats most of it," Harry insists. And I'm just learning to make sourdough. I don't really like eating too much gluten, sourdough’s what I'm trying to get into now. You need to get the starter, don't you, and keep it alive, keep it going.”

"Harry you know what you need to do? You need to just go to Aldi and buy some sourdough."

“No because it’s got loads of shit in it that you don't need, it’s got all the preservatives.”

That leads us on to other homemade produce, including wine, and Harry brightens up at the idea of setting up his own smallholding sometime in the future. “That’s the dream!” He enthuses.

“That’s the only reason he wants to make it in cycling!” says Will.

It's safe to say the Devonshire Duo have very much proven the need for their own podcast.

A week later, Harry left a voice note to bring us up to speed.

"So I've been away racing in France. It was a bit of a mixed one with one of my teammates Sam having a really bad accident on the first day, so that affected us quite a lot. There were a few illnesses in the race, with the team, but I was feeling strong; it was a lot different to training here with the temperature difference. As you can see, in that photo [above]. I was struggling with a bit of cramp that day, it was a 210km stage and I managed to get in the break. But yeah, the last few days were really, really good for me. Nothing amazing on paper with results, but my legs felt really good and it was good to be back properly racing. Looking forward to what's coming up now. Hopefully, CiCLE, that's the next big target. So yeah, all good.

Catch up with the previous episodes of the Devonshire Duo blog series here:

Episode 1 - At Home with the Devonshire Duo

Episode 2 - Snowballs, Horsemuck, and a Murderous Kangaroo

Episode 3 - Big Fish, Small Pond

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