Riders to watch in 2021 – Jake Stewart

By David Hunter

“If you told me at the start of 2020 that I would be second in Tour de Limousin, step up to the world tour and ride a classics campaign I would have laughed you out the room.”

This is Jake Stewart, the young Englishman who rides for Groupama – FDJ. Despite all the challenges 2020 threw at us, Jake was one of the good news stories of the year. It all started down in the Algarve.

“Obviously this year was the first year where devo teams can ride up in the world tour team and I think I was probably the first rider to do it as well down in Algarve. It was a nice experience, a really good opportunity the team gave me to kind of prove myself to the world tour team. Going into the race, it’s one of the first races of the season, it’s not as if everyone’s dead fresh or at peak form, like at the start of the classic season or just before the Tour. I was pleasantly surprised at how hard the race wasn’t. You know, I was expecting to go there as an under 23 rider and get my head kicked in, but the race was a bit more chilled, obviously first race of the season boys are trying to get race kms in the legs. I took it a bit easy on a few days and yeah it didn’t end up being as hard as I expected it to be but certainly an eye opener for me was the sprints. First race of the season you’re always going to be a bit nervous in that first bunch kick, if the race had been an under 23 race I’d probably have been more comfortable. It was a bit like ‘impostor syndrome’, I didn’t really think that I should have been there, rubbing shoulders with Jacobson and some of those other boys, those big sprinters. Just the pure speed of how fast the sprints were and how technical some of the finishes were. It wasn’t something that I’d really experienced before being an under 23 rider. Obviously we have fast bunch sprints, but there’s a different kind of level from the under 23 races to senior racing, up to world tour level. For me, the sprint finishes were a big eye opener.

There were plenty of doubts creeping in there: am I fast enough? Am I good enough for a bunch kick here? The first stage, I punctured just before the finish and didn’t sprint. The third stage, it was pretty technical towards the end with a couple roundabouts and a right-hand corner and I finished way down, after the boys had put in a decent turn for me. Certainly there were some doubts then, was I as fast as I thought? In the end it was just a really good learning experience and a brilliant opportunity I was given by the team.”

Next up was Le Samyn, one for all cycling hipsters out there.

“It was a completely different race to Algarve, again, I didn’t really know what to expect. They put the conti team there instead of the world tour team and went there open minded. As a conti team riding with a couple of world tour teams, just try and get stuck in and show ourselves. Have a good day out, if we get a result we get a result. If we don’t, you know we’re riding with the big boys. I was pleasantly surprised how well I was going, obviously it’s a hard race but not as hard as it has been in previous years. The weather was pretty kind to us, and I finished in the second group, forty seconds down on the lead group, so in the end for me it was just the distance in the legs, that’s something I’ve always struggled with early season, that’s where I come unstuck, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was going. I don’t know if I was going well, which made the race be easier for me, or if it was an easier edition of Le Samyn. I took a lot of confidence from that race and set me up nicely for what I thought would be the rest of the season, but yes, after that it was Covid, so we didn’t really get to see how well I was going in those early spring classics with the under 23s.”

Jake has always had one eye on the classics, but his sprinting speed seems to be improving fairly rapidly. Just what type of rider does he see himself developing into?

“I would characterise myself as someone that can sprint well after a tough day. I’ve said it plenty of times, I’m by no means a pure sprinter as I don’t have that pure sprinter speed or power, but I have good kick after a hard day on the bike. I was pleasantly surprised at Limousin about how fast I was going, as it’s not something that I specifically train for.

Given my physiology and the kind of rider I am, I think I’m more of a classics guy. I’ve got a decent kick at the end of a tough day and that characterises classics racing, having that speed after a long tough day on the bike. It’ll be interesting to see where the team want to lead me as regards to progressing, but you know I’m still young, I can still try my hand at a number of different things before I really try to focus on one style of racing. I think certainly for me I’d always prefer to be a classics rider rather than a sprinter. You know that’s where my heart’s at, I really enjoy classics racing and I can climb reasonably well for the kind of power that I can produce in the sprint. In my opinion, it would be daft to specialise in a pure sprint when actually I’m strong enough to get over very tough climbs and then sprint at the end of the day.”

Tour de Limousin is where most people saw Jake for the first time. Despite his age, he was up there competing for stage wins and the overall victory. Two second places put him in a great position come the final day, but he feel agonisingly short of a landmark win.

“Before Limousin I put in a decent block over lockdown, but obviously we didn’t really know how I was gonna be coming out of lockdown and I really didn’t know where others boys were going to be. I was pleasantly surprised how fast I was going and especially given the fact that in previous years the climbs would have been too hard for me at the finish on the first day. In the end I was I was able to hold the front of the race and win a bunch kick from the front. I got my hands up in that first stage and in the end it was for second but when I kicked on that first day and looked behind me and saw the gap, I was pleasantly surprised to see how fast I was going.

I was flying, it was the best I’ve been so far in my career, I wasn’t expecting to be in that kind of form. I kind of came away from it a bit bittersweet, it’s kind of what could have been in the end, just two seconds down on GC. I took a lot of confidence out of the race; over those four days I grew up as a bike rider and found my feet. It was a realisation to myself, I’m good enough to compete at this level. I’ve been strong at under 23 and been able to compete, but there’s always that doubt that when you step up from under 23 into the world tour, can I still maintain this? I think I certainly proved that I’m capable of performing at that level, with the best riders in the world, so that was a lot of confidence I took. Looking back, that final stage I went into the day five seconds from the lead, took 3 seconds in the first intermediate sprint, after the boys put in a massive shift and then kind of didn’t play the game on the last lap. I panicked a bit and rode to maintain second place, instead of putting everything into winning and if I didn’t finish on the podium then I didn’t finish on the podium. But in the end I just rode to maintain that second place and looking back at it I wish I’d risked it. Part of it was being so far in a box on those finishing laps, they were pretty tough, with a few climbs, and Rui Costa went up the road and that’s when I saw that the podium might be riding away from me. In the end I messed up the bunch kick, instead of being patient when I was dropped off with 500 metres to go, after the boys did a massive turn, I just kind of kicked and tried to close the gap to Rui to make sure he didn’t get the win and move into 2nd place and knock me down. I wish I’d played the game there and waited for the sprint. If I’d won the sprint for third, I would have won the GC. It’s one of those things, I’ve made that mistake now and learned from it. At least I made the mistake there and hopefully I won’t make the mistake in a bigger race further on in my career. Yes, it’s a race that I can take a lot of confidence from, it was a big turning point in my career, it’s a breakthrough result for me this year.”

Next on the calendar was the Baby Giro. After going so close to victory in Limousin, I was sure Jake would be winning a stage over in Italy.

“The Baby Giro was just close but no cigar. It seems like I’ve just done so much of that over the last three years at under 23 level. I’m still waiting for that UCI professional win, certainly after Limousin I was hoping to come away from the Giro with a win. I knew I was fast enough; I knew I was capable of doing it and in the end just some stupid mistakes and bad luck in a few days and it wasn’t meant to be. It’s not as if I went into the race cocky and overconfident or anything like that. Looking back at it, after Limousin I should have probably come away from the Giro with a win. Despite taking a lot of confidence from Limousin I didn’t take the gamble and ride outside of my comfort zone, I waited for bunch sprints and in the end there were just guys faster than me, so it wasn’t meant to be.”

October saw Jake join up with the classics squad and ride Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, De Panne and the Tour of Flanders, not bad for a third year under 23.

“Flanders for me was a bit of an anti-climax. I was ill in the 4 days running up to the race, with a really high temperature, stomach problems and just massive fatigue on the body. Two days before I did about 30 minutes on the home trainer and then the day before about an hour and a half, I was just so battered from whatever it was that made me ill. In fairness it had gone through pretty much all the boys on the team, just before Flanders, so it wasn’t even as if we were going into Flanders with Küng being 100%. For me, I couldn’t eat or drink for the first 2 hours because my stomach was so bad, and I only lasted 160km, I couldn’t even do a job to help the boys. I was just incapable of really pressing the pedals, so Flanders was a bit of an anti-climax, but looking back on it, it was a big learning experience and a real nice opportunity and is something I’ll take into the next two years with Groupama – FDJ.”

Now that the dust has settled, what did Jake make of his year?

“Looking back at 2020, it’s certainly been a breakthrough season. You know with the result in Limousin, a world tour contract, riding a classics campaign in October, I learned a lot about myself and I think I proved myself to the team after they put their trust and confidence in me, and I came away with a world tour contract. That was always what I’d hoped and planned to do, was get a world tour contract this year, but obviously Covid came along and I began to doubt if it would be possible. In the end 2020 has been pretty naff for a lot of people but I’m kind of one of the fortunate ones as I’ve actually benefited from 2020 and it’ll be a year I remember, not just because of Covid, but because of everything that I achieved.”

2021 will see Jake move up to the world tour team, so what will his winter look like?

“Covid hasn’t gone away, we’ve just got to take each day at a time and see what winter brings us. I was supposed be going out to Spain at the beginning January for a training camp, that looks like it’s maybe not cancelled but probably delayed due to travel restrictions. If I have to spend the winter in the UK then I spend the winter in the UK, at the end of the day it’s decent training for the classics campaign. As long as I’m doing everything that I can do to be in the best place possible throughout the winter then I’ll be happy going into the start of season with decent form.”

This season in particular saw Jake taking significant steps forward in his career. To go from the under 23 team, to second place in Limousin took a lot by surprise.

“My progression with FDJ over the last two years has been pretty quick. It’s been a learning experience both on and off the bike. I’ve improved a lot on the bike, off the bike I’m usually pretty decent anyway, I’ve been fortunate to have been brought up pretty well as I spent my first year at under 23 in the British Academy. My two years with Groupama – FDJ I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot and improved a lot on the bike. I’ve found somewhere that I’m comfortable and have a good relationship with my coaches and staff. A happy bike rider is a good bike rider and I’ve been really happy the last two years with Groupama – FDJ, it’s allowed me to perform well and prove myself. I’m really excited to continue my career and my journey with Groupama – FDJ as I go into my third year with the team.”

Moving abroad is always a challenge for a young cyclist, the language barrier is a significant hurdle to climb, but one that Jake does seem to be dealing with.

“I’m good enough to communicate with the team, but there’s always room for improvement with the language. I’m a lot more confident speaking the language, I can communicate better, and it’s made my experience on the team a lot nicer because I can understand more than I could do at the start of my time on the team. It’s getting there, it’s not perfect but I can get by, but I’ve still got two more years to nail down the French.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Jake will start the season with some expectation on his shoulders, thanks to his brilliant ride in Tour de Limousin, but what does he hope to achieve?

“A successful year would be if I get my first professional victory. I’ve been so close the last three years chasing that UCI professional win, I haven’t been able to do in the under 23s but I’ve been close to doing it and I’ve certainly been close to doing it in the pro ranks. I think I’ve proven that I’m strong enough to be able to do it, with a bit of luck and a bit of riding smarter, hopefully I can get that first UCI professional win.

I’m still young, fourth year under 23 in a world tour team. I’m just expecting to come away with a lot of learning experiences and opportunities and just learn from the boys in the team. I’m not expecting to win a classics race, but if I can go to the classics and pull my role for the team then I’ll be happy with the year.”

Those that reach the top of our sport are incredible athletes, but they also use every opportunity to learn, Jake is no exception.

“I’ve proven that I’m strong enough and fast enough to be able to podium in elite races and under 23 races. I kind of a lacked that confidence before, I doubted if I really was fast enough. For me it’s been a breakthrough year and I’ve learned that if I’ve got that confidence, take a gamble every now and again, you never know what’s going to come of it. I’d like to think that I now have the confidence to gamble and make moves in races in the future. I’ve learnt that I don’t need to doubt my abilities and probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned this year is not to be afraid to gamble.”

Groupama – FDJ clearly have a lot of faith in our young friend, giving him team leadership in Limousin was a sign of what is to come. As the new season is fast approaching, will Jake have more chances to shine in 2021?

“I’ve got a really nice calendar, it’s one that suits me. The team have sat down and thought about how they are going to utilise me this year, part of which I’ll be helping the team and then I’ve been given some free reign in a number of different races which the team are looking to target with me. I’m really excited to get stuck in, it’s a calendar that excites me to get up each day and go training and really push. It’s going to be an exciting season and watch this space as at the moment I can’t reveal too much about what my season will look like, but it’s an exciting calendar.”

I’m confident that Jake will get his first professional win in 2021, being able to sprint fast after a tough day in the saddle is a valuable commodity. I look forward to seeing him develop and if he continues to learn, he’ll be challenging in the classics before too long.

David Hunter

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