For years, Max Stedman has been one of the top names in British domestic racing. It's been the Bristolian's dream to rise above that level and secure a professional contract and, given his record, it's difficult to lay a finger upon why that dream has never been realised.
Stedman’s determination has never waned, though, and this year his pursuit of a pro contract has taken him to the depths of disappointment, the highs of victory and all around the world.
Leaving British shores in search of opportunity
2018 was the year that Stedman claims was his best shot. It was the year he finished top-10 on the queen stage of the Tour of Britain as a 22-year-old, surrounded by names which have since adorned the trophies of Grand Tours, Monuments and World Championships.
Since then, his reported 52-kilogram body has danced up climbs to win the Tours of Antalya and Quanzhou Bay, and he’s notched up a number of other top results at home as part of Tim Elverson's Canyon-sponsored teams, but none of this propelled him to that elusive contract.
British races don’t generally suit pure climbers like Stedman. That’s why the now 27-year-old’s quest took him to Italy last season, where in theory, his slight frame would allow him to show off his skills up hills. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
“It was a good calendar, but it was pretty stressful environment,” Stedman tells me over a Zoom call from a Moroccan hotel lobby prior to the 10-stage Tour du Maroc – which was cancelled the day after due to the earthquake south of Marrakech.
“For me, it was a confusing environment. Basically, I just couldn't really get on board with some of the thinking …last year, the bike was like 8.5 kilos. What Paul Double did last year on that bike is actually pretty incredible to be honest.”
While team-mate Double’s 7th on GC at the Tour of Slovenia on a bike 1.5 kilos over the UCI minimum weight limit won him a pro contract with Human Powered Health, Stedman made his way back home to Elverson. He had told friends that 2023 was going to be his last year at Continental level. If he couldn’t step up to the pros in 2024, he vowed to quit cycling forever.
Elverson’s team, then called AT85 [formerly WiV Sungod], was charging into 2023 with high ambitions and what seemed to be significant financial backing. Over the years, rumours had often swirled around of a move up to professional level, but this time, it looked like it could actually happen.
“There was a lot of optimism in the start of the year because it was like, wow, Tim's actually found someone [a sponsor] who has passion for the sport and had that sort of money to push it. So I think there was a lot of hope and for me, I was looking at it as it would either be a last year at Conti or they’d step up and that would be it. And I had a sort of renewed fire for everything at the start of this year.”
“Tim's always said he wants to go pro and there's always been sort of things that worked around in the background, but there was never a big enough backer. Whereas this time, the backing looked like it was there and then it just all fell apart incredibly quickly.”
Fall apart it did. The team went from competing with World Tour opposition at races like Le Samyn, to riders and staff being jobless a couple of weeks later as the main sponsor withdrew their investment in March.
Stedman and the whole team were left devastated. He himself scrabbled around, looking for other investment through some business contacts to try to keep the team afloat in some capacity, but nothing came of it.
Stedman took a short time off the bike, he needed to get his head straight, to re-assess and consider his options.
Racing in Albania and Mauritius
For years, Stedman had regularly ridden with the Cross brothers, Eugene and Archie. They are also from Bristol and the three had spoken for a long time about racing together. Now that Stedman was without a job, the brothers invited him to join them at their amateur team, Velo Schils Interbike RT.
“We train a lot together and I said if it's going to be my last year, then I'll just go do some bike races. I trained so hard over the winter and I knew that I was going well. I just didn't want to waste that six months of hard work that I'd done and I wanted to see where it could go.”
Velo Schils Interbike RT run a very interesting calendar of races. Stedman planned to race the Tours of Albania, Mauritius and Martinique.
“I hadn't planned anything past Martinique. In my head, if nothing came about then I think I would have finished in Martinique this year and then that would have been me done cycling-wise.”
It was a move back to basics for Stedman. “It's all off your own back,” he explained. “They give you some kit, they get the race entries, but you need to sort out your flights, your food. Like in Tour of Albania - I was leading the race while I was washing my bike every night, to the shock of the other teams. They couldn't believe it when they saw me out back in the evening cleaning my bike.”
It is an amusing image, the yellow jersey with a rag in his hand, scrubbing off the dirt of the day, sorting his own bottles and preparing his food to defend the lead on the next stage. It was all part of the fun for Stedman; the pressure was off, he was racing just because he wanted to. But in the back of his mind was his pro contract dream, even though it may have seemed further away than ever.
As often happens when pressure is lifted, results came. Stedman won his first race with the team, the UCI 2.2 Tour of Albania, after coming out on top in his group of five on the tough first stage. His three Velo Schils team-mates then had to control the rest of what was a “chaotic” race.
The team then moved onto what sounded to Stedman like more of a holiday, the Tour of Mauritius. Unfortunately, there was no cocktail and hammock waiting for him.
“I think we were expecting hotel accommodation, but we were put in an eight-man youth hostel dorm. I think when we thought of the Tour of Mauritius we thought hotel-by-the-sea type vibe, so that was a bit of a shock to the system.”
Despite the disappointment, more success was on the cards after victory in the team time-trial.
“It was incredible. That was one of my highlights of my career, just because of the people that I did it with essentially.”
Stedman went into the lead and the team had to ride the front again. This time, though, the terrain didn’t make things easy, and the team needed to change tactics.
The racing was uncontrollable. With attacks flying in from every angle, the team sent Archie Cross into a move of ten. Cross was sitting in 8th, the highest-placed of the breakaway, so they let the move go away and Cross went on to win the race overall.
“We actually played a blinder there. If I'm going to lose the jersey, just make sure it's to a team-mate,” Stedman said.
Remarkably, this isn’t the only time tactics have led to Stedman passing a GC win over to a team-mate this year. The same thing happened in July at the 100th Anniversary Tour of the Republic, this time in the colours of his new Turkish team Beykoz Belediyesi Spor Kulübü and to young Eritrean team-mate Petros Mengse.
Cycling is a team sport, these things happen. However, emotionally there must be a pang of disappointment, especially when you are chasing a contract. Stedman could have had two more stage race wins this year; they were denied not because of his legs, but because of tactics.
“The second time was a bit harder to stomach, but if I was a DS, that’s probably how I’d play it, you know. It wasn't wrapped up for me by any means, so tactically it was kind of the right thing to do: start firing guys up the road…It was just like déjà vu. I was like, I can't believe it, again.”
“It's not like I was gassed and had no legs. I was just sat there waiting, hands tied, can't do anything. Then that becomes incredibly infuriating. In the Republic, I knew the GC was basically done. We're in this flat valley road and I just kept on attacking every time the pace went off because I didn't want to roll around at 150 watts and I kind of knew the podium would still be doable as well.”
“Psychologically it's not great and obviously in a race when you're riding along not very hard for like two hours, you have a lot of time to think about the stuff that's going on.”
Chasing the Pro Dream in Turkey
Stedman joined Beykoz in July after catching their eye in Albania and Mauritius. He won his first race with them, the GP Erciyes, before his frustrating time at the 100th Anniversary Tour of the Republic. He’s fitting in well in his new environment.
“It's a new team this year, so they're still learning as well. I’m sort of trying to add a bit of experience into that - how Conti teams work and what we should be doing and little things here and there, tweaks you can make that you don't need a massive budget for.”
“There’s the language, but a lot of the lads speak English. I'm trying to learn a bit of Turkish as well, just to help things along. But everyone's pretty good on the team and it is a really strong team. I think they're up to eleven wins already this year we've got a really good mix of riders, sprinters and climbers, and everyone commits to each other. It’s a good environment, it's just super relaxed which is where I work best.”
Stedman went on to pick up a second stage race win in late August at the Tour of Yigido, also in Turkey. He attacked on the final stage and won solo by 3 minutes and 34 seconds. He said it was the most aggressively that he’s ever ridden and it really is a sign of where his form has been this season.
After a successful few months, that contract once again seems possible. Stedman told me that he has emailed almost every ProTeam. Some are full or not interested, others are keeping an eye on what he does in Turkey.
Now he’s approaching his biggest race of the season, the Presidential Cycling Tour of Türkiye. It’s his best shot of securing that contract as he goes into battle with World Tour teams on a mountainous route.
“That's the big, big target at the end of the year. It looks like a really, really good route. There’s probably only three, maybe four sprint stages and the other four or five could be small bunch sprints and there’s two summit finishes in there. I’ve heard really good things about it and it always attracts a quality field. So I’m quite excited for it.”
“The team obviously want a good result; they’re based in Istanbul where it finishes. The whole year is geared towards that for them basically, it’s like a UK Conti team and the Tour of Britain.”
“I think there’s a really good chance that I can do well on GC. If anything comes of that, then… I’m trying to not think of that.”
Stedman will go up against the likes of Alexey Lutsenko, Jay Vine and Patrick Konrad on the mountains of Turkey. He was unmoved when I suggested that a solid result against those riders would put him in a good place for next year.
“That’s what it always seems like with me and I don’t know when that ends. It was the same after [winning the 2020 Tour of] Antalya - if I can prove myself, then maybe someone will snap me up. I’m at a point where I’ve realised the world owes me nothing. How many more things do I need to do until someone just takes a chance?”
Over the season, Stedman’s mind has changed somewhat. He told friends at the start of the year that this was the last one. He’d quit if he didn’t go pro. Now, as he’s riding well and enjoying his racing in Turkey, continuing at Continental level is still an option.
“Why would you stop if everything's going well and you basically have the best legs of your life? Even though I have told people that if I don’t go Pro I’d stop. But people lie to themselves all the time.”
Every cyclist wants to reach the top of the sport, to ride the biggest races in the world. But, perhaps, the most important thing is to be the best you can be and to enjoy the ride.
For Max Stedman, the pro dream remains, but so does his enjoyment for bike racing, contract or no contract.