When it comes to young sportsmen, Tom Pidcock is one of this country’s most mercurial. Racing bicycles professionally since 2017 – he began in the amateur ranks aged seven – the Yorkshireman was crowned Olympic mountain bike champion in Japan last summer and, this January, World Champion in the cyclocross discipline.
And as if hitting the heights in those two cycling specialities wasn’t enough, the road racing career Pidcock embarked upon four years ago is finally beginning to pay dividends. Currently signed to the Ineos Grenadiers super team – which evolved from Team Sky, responsible for guiding countrymen Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to Tour de France glory – a successful 2021 is, should all go to plan, leading into an even brighter 2022.
One of the most remarkable things about Pidcock’s ascension is his versatility. The majority of bike racers soon specialise, focusing on one or two of the sport’s many facets. For example, cross country mountain biking – where he won Olympic gold during 2021 – is an off-road sport, each lap featuring steep climbs, rock strewn downhills and narrow, rutted tracks, with an entire race over in less than 90 minutes. Road racing, by complete contrast, is run on tarmac roads with a typical day of duelling lasting a non-stop five or six hours. The difference is like night and day, yet Pidcock excels at both. Throw in world beating cyclocross skills and an impressive ability to time trial (a solo race against the clock in which he became Junior World Champion five years ago) and you have one of the most complete racers around. It’s akin to Usain Bolt excelling at the 100 metres, fell running and the marathon. And Pidcock’s still only 23.
Born into a keen cycling family in Leeds, Pidcock, who was honoured with an MBE for services to cycling earlier this year, currently resides in Andorra. And although he just got home for the first time since the cyclocross season started in November, he explains that the altitude offered by his Pyrenean home is ideal for helping build endurance, as are the steep mountain roads which surround his base.
Of the two huge victories he’s enjoyed so far, which was his favourite?
“The Olympics, for sure,” he replies without missing a beat. “It’s just bigger, it’s only every four years and it’s like no other bike race – it’s just the Olympics! And even though that race was only my focus for such a short period of time compared to other people, once you got there, no world championships could ever feel the same.”
This comes from someone who knows. Six months after that win in Izu, Japan, Pidcock was back on the global stage and utterly dominating the cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. For the uninitiated, cyclocross – often abbreviated to CX, or simply ‘cross – features a mass start and is run on a cross-country, off-road circuit punctuated by man-made obstacles such as hurdles and steps, many requiring the racers to temporarily dismount and run with their bikes shouldered. He was pre-race favourite and exceeded expectation by comprehensively dropping all rivals from half distance.
“In a way it was harder to win that race, as all the pressure was put on me and I had to perform,” he says.“The last couple of laps you know the only things that can stop you from winning are a mechanical or a crash and you’re not focussing on what you need to and end up focusing on what can go wrong and that means it’s more likely to go wrong. You just need to keep your head in the right place.”
Pidcock’s debut in a Grand Tour – one of cycling’s trio of three-week long road races, which take place annually in Italy, France and Spain – was, on the other hand, more of a rude awakening. Cycling road racing is possibly unique in sport as racers compete for individual glory yet also rely on support from their team mates to do so. In Spain’s Vuelta a España last August and September, Pidcock took on the role of domestique – a dedicated team helper – riding in service of his then team leader Egan Bernal. He describes the experience as: “A long three weeks of getting my head kicked in.” Looking back a little more pragmatically, he adds: “But it was my fault I didn’t go into it 100 per cent as I didn’t really look after myself after the Olympics. It was nice to get a viewpoint from the other side really, the viewpoint of a domestique and see how hard that job is. I realised it’s very impressive what those guys do.”
Last year’s Vuelta was Pidcock’s first real chance to race wheel to wheel with those road riders likely to become serious rivals for seasons to come. Part of a wave of youthful talent currently taking the professional peloton by storm – alongside racers such as the Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel and Belgium’s Wout van Aert – the Yorkshireman sees them all as equals.
“You can’t have any favourites when you’re racing against them,” he says bluntly. “Everyone is nice in the peloton and chats with each other, so there’s no one you’re scared to race against. But when I was a junior Wout and Mathieu were winning everything in ‘cross. Then, when they went to race on the road, I was racing against them and that’s when I realised you can’t race against your heroes. They just can’t be heroes when you have to race them. Pogacar is further ahead than me with his Grand Tour racing, that’s for sure, but I see myself as almost in the same category, so he is a rival and a competitor.”
Talking of cycling heroes, Pidcock claims Britain’s first Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins as a particular favourite. Mark Cavendish, the veteran sprint specialist from the Isle of Man who is enjoying something of an Indian summer in the sport, is mentioned too.
“I remember coming back from school to watch them in the Tour de France, so when Cav was winning in the Tour again last year it was so good to watch – it really felt like the good old days.”
When it comes to long-term goals Pidcock refuses to be drawn, although he does admit having an eye on the 2024 Paris Olympics. “And maybe there will be a time to focus solely on Grand Tours, but that certainly won’t be in the near future,” he says, clearly enjoying being an all-rounder.“Mountain biking is probably my favourite at the moment. But depending on how successful my spring is on the road, that may well become my favourite.”
The next major race Pidcock has pencilled in is the Tour of Flanders on 3 April. One of cycling’s Monuments – five one day races, each over a century old – the 272 km route appears, at least on paper, to suit his versatility as it includes tough, cobbled climbs and technical, narrow roads. That said, these ultra-tough Spring Classics do tend to favour bigger (Pidcock weighs around 60kg) and older riders. A race earlier this season, Tuscany’s Strade Bianche, also features a route almost ideal for the Ineos Grenadiers rider but he unfortunately had to withdraw just a couple of days before the start with what his team described as a bad stomach.
Is there a single race he still dreams of winning?
“I do want to win a Grand Tour,” he says. “I’m not looking to be just a Grand Tour rider year after year – I want to be a Grand Tour winner. And the Tour de France is the biggest.”
Pidcock’s signature victory celebration is ‘the Superman’. If his winning margin allows, he lays horizontally on the bike, legs stretched behind, stomach on the saddle, one hand on the bars with the other stretched out in front, fist clenched. It’s distinctive, fun, fantastic for the professional photographers and, on occasion, a little heart-in-mouth for his fans. Don’t bet against him adopting such a crazy position on the Champs-Élysées sometime soon, sealing victory as Britain’s fourth winner of the grandest prize in cycling.
Like Big Issue North on Facebook