Confessions of an Accidental Breakaway Artist

Rhys Radio II: In The Break

Former Rapha employee Rhys Howells has turned professional with Team WIGGINS. In his second correspondence, ‘The Welsh Express’ recounts kilometres off the front, racing at night, and mixing it with continental professionals at the Nationals.

Dispatch #4

How did I get here?

I’ve become the WIGGINS breakaway man, but not on purpose.

I’ve attacked early in a lot of major races this year. I was in the break at Lincoln Grand Prix, Aberystwyth, Stockton Grand Prix, Tour of the Reservoir, and at the Nationals.

I’ve always had a good inkling of how to make the break. I’ve learned from riding with smaller teams that you have to be more aware to be in with a chance of a result. As soon as the race starts, you have to have your head switched on. Strong finishers can wait to the end, saving their energy for the sprint or late moves. They’ll ride hard to be at the front to be safe, but they won’t be looking to attack or burn any matches following early moves.

It could have been any one of a handful of nominated teammates in the break at the Stockton Grand Prix (a prestigious UK domestic race where the Nationals were hosted in 2016), but I was in the right place that day. Later, when it all came apart at the front, I hadn’t intended to attack – not that far out. I can go long, maybe three laps from the finish, but not that long. The gap had been brought down from three minutes to a minute and a half and that was putting pressure on everyone, and we were starting to split apart in the wind. Then I looked over my shoulder and there was nobody there. In spite of the plan, I thought, I have to press on alone and force the chase behind, putting pressure on the other teams for the sprint.

When I got to the final circuits I had managed to gain a bit of time, but the way the course doubled back on itself meant the bunch could see me, which I knew would make it easier to chase me down.

I could see JLT–Condor working on the front. I was out in front on my own but everybody was cheering me on as I passed in the opposite direction, even my old teammates at Richardsons-Trek, other riders and team cars. I even got a time check from James Lyon, who’s a commissaire and Rapha Cycling Club member – he helped me a lot when I was organising the inaugural RCC road race. It’s great seeing friendly faces, all the support is awesome. It was good to know I was making JLT–Condor work for it too.

You try to ride as smooth as you can to keep the pace up in the final moments of a break. I had to be efficient in the corners, carry speed, but in reality I knew I couldn’t go that long. I did everything I could but they caught me. My teammate Coco (Corentin Ermenault) went over the top of my move with two laps to go, again disrupting the sprint trains. It came down to a sprint and Brenton Jones of Condor JLT won, narrowly beating another teammate, Chris Latham.

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Dispatch #5

Race all night

The Rapha Nocturne was different. It’s an inner city criterium on a tight course, at night. Normally there’s a neutralised lap and a rolling start but we didn’t have that, and the race had been cut short so the pace was really high from the off. It was thirty-five minutes flat out.

There are some very established crit teams in the UK. They’ll do the Tour Series, the National Circuit series, and they’re so good off the mark. The kind of pace that Brenton Jones, Chris Lawless or Graham Briggs can hold for that long is outrageously fast. That’s one reason riders will go to the after party – they’ll be wired from the effort. I couldn’t sleep after the Nocturne, I’d had a lot of gels in that race.

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Dispatch #6

Field of dreams

I’ve been chasing a top-20 finish in the British National Road Championships for five years, riding part-time on a smaller team, and achieving that was fantastic. Racing with riders like Steve Cummings and Mark Cavendish is next level. The simple difference is they can go faster for longer. I remember the nationals last year, I got black flagged just before the final circuits in Stockton, and I wondered how they were all keeping up. I was there this time, getting a feel for the race at the end.

I made the split and Scott Davies came across. The plan going in was to protect James Knox and Scott. James didn’t make the split, so my job there was to look after Scott.

Ian Stannard, Jonathan Dibben and Mark Cavendish had bridged to us. The last time up the mountain we were spread across the road. It was only me, Chris Lawless, Alex Dowsett and Scott Davies rolling through to take turns in the wind. I knew that was the sensible thing to do, at the back of an echelon you can get caught out, even on a climb like Snaefell.

Out of nowhere, Stannard attacks. It didn’t make sense to react, but all I saw was a gap that I had to close for Scott, so I went. When I looked over my shoulder and we’d dropped the break. I thought, what on earth am I doing here? There’s no way we’re going to make this. We still had all the finishing circuits to do. There was no way. I held his wheel for a couple minutes before I exploded spectacularly, almost coming to a standstill. Fortunately, I managed to regroup with the riders behind.

On the first finishing circuit I was seeing all these attacks. Tao Geoghegan Hart told me I’d had a good race, to stop trying to close all the gaps and just sit in. Then the team car came up and told me to sit in the group. Mark Cavendish was with us so I knew we weren’t going to be black flagged. He was on home turf.

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Dispatch #7

On the road

I’ve also been leading some rides out of the Rapha Clubhouses lately, fitting them in around my racing and training. I was in Düsseldorf recently, which was good fun. The main thing people joining these rides want to talk about is the bike, or how I’m training, what I’m eating. They want to know how to improve their own riding or racing. Last time, I wrote about the difference in my riding that came from having the time for proper recovery, and being able to concentrate on nothing but the training. Fitting training around work is tough.

The other big factor is experience. When I first started racing there was zero thought. All I did was react. The more you race, the better you get at separating your head from your legs, and you use your legs based on what you’re thinking.

Experience also helps you read the race – usually this is on my bike, but in fact, I had a go commentating at the Nocturne, which you can see below.

My superb commentary is at 2 mins 17 secs

I’m due a bit of a rest now, but the season isn’t done just yet. I’m looking forward to racing the second round of the Rapha Nocturne in Copenhagen – maybe I’ll see you there!