Paris-Roubaix Juniors: Chaos, from start to finish!

Paris-Roubaix Juniors: Chaos, from start to finish!

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British riders have been racing Paris-Roubaix Juniors for as long as it’s been running, with passionate volunteers and staff making sure that talented youth riders have had the opportunity to experience the chaos.

Having spent many eventful race days in the team car, Stuart Blunt has a unique view on this important round of the UCI Junior Nations’ Cup and infamous step up for developing riders. Stuart is the Olympic development coach for the men’s endurance squad and has been at British Cycling for 21 years, with experience across mountain bike and cyclo-cross before supporting the junior boys on the road since 2016.

Stuart Blunt driving a team car at the 2022 UCI World Road Championships in Australia

Image: Stuart drives a team car at the 2022 UCI World Road Championships in Australia

This year’s race takes place on Sunday 7 April, ahead of the pro men’s race. We heard from Stuart on why the race is a great learning opportunity, what he’ll be doing on the day and – with four British victories – which editions have particularly stood out.

How long have British teams been racing Paris-Roubaix Juniors for?

We've been going to this race since it started in 2003! It wasn't as British Cycling initially, but a chap called John Barclay used to take riders. John was a volunteer in the south east and was awarded a British Empire Medal for his support of the sport, but unfortunately is no longer with us. He took me to my first race in Belgium as a 16-year-old and was there when Geraint won the race as a junior in 2004. Then as our junior programmes evolved the race was part of the schedule we took the team along to.

After Geraint's victory we've had wins from Andrew Fenn in 2008, then Tom Pidcock in 2017 and Lewis Askey in 2018, plus podiums from the likes of Jon Dibben and Tao Geoghegan Hart.

And the team this year: what age and stage are the riders at?

The riders are predominantly in their second year of our Olympic Development Squad and racing other Nations’ Cup events. So they are one year away from going into under-23 or even professional cycling, plus I've got one first year rider who was last year's national under-16 champion. He’s had a pretty exceptional winter and is mainly going for experience, towards next year. We are also taking a guest rider: Seb Grindley. He rode the worlds for us last year and got top ten as a second year junior; he’s someone that might be in the mix.

Suddenly junior racing is one step towards being a pro. They go from riding circuit races around the UK and the under-16 national series and within two years they could be riding World Tour races. It's quite scary how quickly that's happening now. So Nations’ Cup races like Paris-Roubaix Juniors are pretty important in giving them exposure to that next level of racing.

The race is a great opportunity for the riders to learn to operate in demanding situations and under pressure. It'll be learning about positioning in the bunch, plus learning to travel, learning to be part of a national team, signing on. Actually, the cobbles are more just about experience. And whilst it's just a step along the path for us and we want to win, we know where it fits in the bigger picture for the lads. It could be the biggest thing they've ever been to; the biggest crowd they've ever raced in front of.

For three or four of them, it'll be the first time they've raced on the road in the GB jersey. And through the successes we've had over the years, everyone watches them; they're expected to perform at a certain level. So the lads have to learn to step up to that. We don't go with a team leader at this age because I don't believe in that; I think they should all have an opportunity to race, but we'll have roles within the team. There will be different scenarios we'll have discussed.

What makes it quite special for the boys is that it's on the same day as the pro men's race, and you've got the elite women on the Saturday. This year the under-23 men are on the Sunday as well. That’s going to be interesting because there will be a lot of bodies spread all over the place and a lot of vehicles. So that's going to make for a busy day.

Outside of the worlds it’s probably seen as the biggest one-day race a junior boy could win on the road; it's got a lot of status! It's not particularly long at 110km, but apart from the start loop (about 15km) they follow the pro men’s route. They join just after the Arenberg Forest and then it's the same route all the way into the velodrome. The crowds tend to be there early for the pro race, so they've got the same crowd on the cobbled sectors that the pros have - and that's huge! They're a little less drunk when the junior boys go through, though. I remember seeing someone in a Mr Blobby outfit in the middle of the road at one stage, driving through it in the car, and it's unique for the boys in that respect.

What about the whole trip; what does that look like for the team?

Traditionally we've done Gent-Wevelgelm, where there is normally a junior race on the same day as the men's race that’s part of the Nations’ Cup. Then we’ve stayed and done the recce for Roubaix the day after. So we can do the full route and the boys’ bikes can fall apart and they can get the blisters on their hands and experience it. Then we've got two weeks to go away and sort it out.

This year the junior Gent-Wevelgelm race has been moved to late April, which is a bit of a curveball. So we’ll travel out on Thursday 4 April and do a recce on the Friday. We won't do the full route because it's too damaging, but we'll do enough of it to see the important parts. The most important is probably not even the cobbles: it’s the 10-15km before you get to them. The cobbles take care of themselves.

On the Saturday the boys can have an easy pedal and we’ll do the race briefing. I'll do all the manager meetings and the sign on, then have a coffee and watch the end of the women's race. After the race on the Sunday as soon as the boys are done, we'd usually jump in the car to get out before the pro men come in. This time we're going to stay on the Sunday and watch the end of the pro race, coming back on the Monday. One of the lads has a brother racing in the pro race, so that'll be pretty cool for him to be there.

And actually, for all the years I've been going, I've never seen it! So I'm quite looking forward to it as well. There will be a few guys I’ve taken as juniors, so it’ll be nice to see them and see how they do, plus soak up the atmosphere.

What will you be up to on the day?

My main role on the day is going to be getting them to the start and then driving the team car behind the race. From there it’s really just making sure that we try to get the car to riders so we can be there for them. Communication from the car to the riders is pretty much non-existent in this race. We don't have race radios at junior level, so they’ve got to figure it out themselves. They can still come back to the car to talk to us, but you don't encourage that in this race because you don't want them to come back from the front at all.

In reality the team car could be minutes behind. The year Tom won, I never got the car behind him until about 15-20km to go. It took us almost the whole race to get to the group that were chasing him and then I couldn't get past. So really the cars are there to help the riders that have had problems. But in reality, it's hard to come back from a mechanical in this race.

Pidock crossing over the finish line.

You mentioned Tom’s victory (and Geraint’s before that): are there any years that particularly jump out?

We had wins two years on the bounce which was nice. Tom won it in 2017, which was good to see because he was under a lot of pressure, particularly as he was world cyclo-cross champion by then. For him to be able to deliver at that stage was brilliant. The following year Lewis Askey won, who is also now World Tour for FDJ. And that was good because he won it as a first year junior. There was absolutely no expectation to win.

I remember there were two of them together as they went into the velodrome. We took a wrong turn in the team car due to a deviation and I nearly ended up driving the car into the velodrome! We had to get the crowd to move the barriers to let us out. I jumped out of the car to see how Lewis had done and he’d taken the win!

The two stand out for different reasons, Tom because it was the pressure that the kid was under. And then Lewis because it was just unexpected.

Do you have any stories or memories that jump out from the race?

It’s just chaos, from start to finish. It goes flat out from the start because it's not long until the first sector, then you get to the cobbles and the first thing that always hits is the amount of bottles. If you're a bottle collector, just stand at the first 100 metres of the first sector of cobbles of the junior race because you could pick up two years’ worth! They're popping out everywhere!

That's all part of the experience for the boys, because that's what the pro race is like. On TV the front of the race looks, by and large, controlled and disciplined. But you go 20-30 riders down the line or to the back and it's just carnage. Mechanicals and people dropping bottles and people having punctures and cars getting stuck and motorbikes slipping out… all that sort of stuff.

I remember riding the amateur race years ago. I'd crashed and my team car had run out of spare bikes, so they took my broken bike and left me at the side of the road to get picked up by the broom wagon. The broom wagon missed me, so I had to get a lift home from some spectators.

With just over a week to go, what is the team doing to prepare?

We’ll talk to the boys about kit at a training camp, but don't encourage them to buy anything for the race. Some of the boys will put on fatter tyres, but they tend to be riding fat tyres now anyway, so that's becoming less of a factor. Then there’s getting the right tyre pressures, which they work through with a mechanic.

The main thing is just making sure that the bikes are in good condition, they’ve got to be well looked after. And then the other big thing is bottle cages, making sure your bottles are going to stay put because feeding is really difficult with only one feed zone in the race. You can't come back to the car to feed. Some parents give bottles at the side of the road, but it's pot luck whether you see them.

They don’t train specifically for the event because it just fits into the year, but a lot of them race in Europe with their teams and will have raced on cobbles in Belgium. They might do some power and strength training efforts to replicate the length of the cobbles.

Some will have had the opportunity to ride in the CiCLE Classic in mid-March and whilst it's different because it's farm tracks rather than cobbles, still it’s that opportunity to race on slippery and narrow roads and learn to handle your bike.

Racing Paris-Roubaix Juniors 2024 is:

Fin Tarling
Sam Fisher
Eliott Rowe
Will Salter
Seb Grindley
Henry Hobbs