Former Rapha employee Rhys Howells has just turned professional with Team WIGGINS. In this first dispatch, ‘The Welsh Express’ tells us the story so far, from riding his dad’s old bike to training with Olympic gold medallists.
From Wales to Wiggins
Cycling wasn’t my first sport. Being from Wales I played a lot of rugby, until I injured my back. My dad had a bike, he was a fireman and he used it to ride from Whitland to the station in Haverfordwest, so I started riding that. I got the bug fast. It wasn’t unusual for me to ride out to the coast and back before college.
The competitive cycling scene in South West Wales is mainly time trialing, and that was my first experience of racing. When I moved to London for university I started doing local crits. After graduating I thought you know what, I’d like to give this a bit of a nudge, see where I can take it.
Within a season or two with Cycling Club Hackney, I started riding with Tao Geoghegan Hart and Alex Peters, I rode a few crits and started road racing. Before I knew it I was riding for a team called Twenty3c-Orbea, now Richardsons-Trek. They did the Tour Series and all the British Cycling Premier Calendar races. All that time I was balancing racing and training with work. You can just about fit in the same amount of training in as a pro, but it’s difficult to recover.
Late last year I was handed the opportunity to turn pro with WIGGINS in 2017, which had always been the dream. The volume I’ve put in this winter has only been possible because I’ve been able to recover in between. If I’d been working I would have gotten ill, or broken up with my girlfriend – the mood suffers when you try to do too much.
Cutting it in Calpe
Team WIGGINS held a pre-season camp in February, but before that I spent a month training in Calpe in Spain. Every WorldTour team goes there. Wherever you go you’re guaranteed to clock a pro. And it wasn’t just anyone, it was Greg van Avermaet and Romain Bardet, really cool riders. I wasn’t too ashamed to ask for a photo with Phil Gilbert – there are fans at every level of the sport.
I don’t think I could have been better prepared coming into the WIGGINS camp. I wanted to be fresh enough to look good, but I knew I was going to have keep up with Olympic gold medallists. I didn’t want to be going like a sack of shit. You try to forget how you might fit into this new social group, it’s like going back to school.
With WIGGINS there were lots of small things that made it easier to get more out of the riding. Food cooked for you, regular leg rubs. Left to your own devices, you’re probably going to go into town and buy a beer, but with a schedule that says you’re riding ten til four, leg rub at five, team brief at six, dinner at seven… there’s much less room to deviate. I’d call my girlfriend who’d been working and she’d say, ‘oh, you’ve just been riding your bike all day’ – she didn’t know the half of it.
One thing I learned at camp is that descending isn’t my strong suit. I arrived worried about keeping up on the climbs, but it ended up being the opposite problem. Some of the boys like Chris Latham and Dylan Kerfoot-Robson drop like stones. You quickly realise that these guys were born on a bike and they have a different capacity.
Lillers Legs And Wally Grinners
There is a burden of responsibility in putting on that white jersey. You want to do it justice. I’ve only worn it four times so far. Grand Prix Lillers was the first time, a one-day race in northern France. I had a really terrible day. I was riding back to the start after the race, hanging my head in shame, ready to burst out crying. There were kids running up asking for a bidon and I couldn’t look them in the eye. I had to do some soul searching afterwards.
I’d gone in thinking I’d had the biggest winter ever, I was fitter than I’d ever been. But I hadn’t done any real leg openers, nothing to really put me out of my comfort zone. I just turned up, expecting to be able to keep up. Before the race I’d had a really deep leg rub. Normally I’d only ever have a leg rub three days out and it would not be deep at all. But instead I had this huge Belgian totally destroy my legs the night before just because it was offered to me.
One thing I’ve learned – to get good at bike racing you have to take a lot of knocks. So I went back to basics for the next races, and it worked. At Paris-Troyes I was tasked with making the break to take pressure off the other guys. I was apprehensive, but pleased to have a job to focus on. When I made the break I thought great, I can do this. It was getting those little things right – eating right, being first at the start line, sticking to the bumper of the neutralised car. Being in the WIGGINS jersey does mean you don’t get pushed out as you do on smaller teams. I don’t want to say it was easier though – when we got caught I was shelled immediately.
Coming back to the UK for the Wally Gimber, a domestic race near home, was like going to a reunion. I saw lots of friends. That was good and bad – it was a distraction from the job at hand, but it was also really nice to see everyone.
Last year I went in as Richardson-Trek’s lead rider and raced from the front. I had teammates but I knew I had to race my own race. I made the race-winning move that day, and it came down to a sprint where I took third.
This year, it was tactical. In the end, the classic thing happened: the smaller teams knew the three UCI Continental teams would be watching each other, and two riders slipped away with two laps to go. The other two conti teams didn’t chase – I watched them cancel each other out. I had to attack. I soloed for third, making the best of what happened.
It’s a big target for WIGGINS to qualify for the Tour of Britain, so I’ll be trying to serve a team role over all of my coming races to make sure that happens, as well as trying to achieve a big long term goal of mine which has been to get a podium at a UK Premier Calendar race. I’m excited to know whether me with this new pair of legs and new jersey is going to be what it takes to do what I want to do.
Until next time,