It’s not often you can watch the profile of an athlete from a minority sport like cyclo-cross transcend not only different riding disciplines, but also explode into the mainstream. That’s what Tom Pidcock has seemingly done in the last year though, so what’s the background story?
First things first, I’m not pretending to ‘know’ Tom personally at all, but thanks to the whispers on the local group ride grapevine I’ve ‘known of him’ for a long time. He was the little kid who snuck off the front of the pack with a renowned local hitter at the town center race ahead of the Tour De France coming to Harrogate in 2014.
“He’s a ‘plucky bugger’” (or words to that effect) we all thought, but we weren’t surprised when after a few laps the ‘hitter’ was riding alone and then got pulled into the pack. What we hadn’t realized at the time — and neither had the chase pack from what I remember — was that Tom had dropped his breakaway partner, hidden himself lapping the tail-enders and done a number on everybody else.
Even before then organizers were having to pull him out of 2, 3, and 4-Cat senior road races that he’d manage to sneak into at just 14 years old. He was the tiny, but savagely confident weapon who scythed under the pros in the final turn, expertly drifted the exit and nearly took the win at the prestigious Otley Criterium race.
He soon started getting results globally too. In 2016 he put big gaps into rivals at Belgian road races and the European CX champs and then wheelied to victory in the Junior World Cup CX race at Namur. That meant ‘those who knew’ weren’t surprised when he dropped his chasers on lap 2 of 5 to become the 2017 Junior CX World Champion and he won the Junior Paris–Roubaix classic road race shortly after.
He’s gone on to win Rainbow stripes in Under 23 CX and XCO MTB and he even jumped into the slip-and-slide comedy of the first World E-MTB championships to win so convincingly it looked like everyone else had turned their motors off.
That’s skipping over a whole load of other marginally lesser National Championships wins and podiums at classic road races, CX and MTB. And if you really haven’t been paying attention, we should probably mention that he dominated the Olympic MTB race last summer and the image of him pulling his signature ‘Superman’ finish line pose after crushing the rest of the field at the Fayetteville CX World Championships last weekend has rightly gone viral. Not least because it’s the first step in his intended aim of getting all three CX, MTB and Road rainbow jerseys this year.
Still not enough? Well, he made the DH and Enduro crowds sit up when he said he'd really like to win gravity races too and he posted a 5km time on Strava last summer that caused outrage and accusations of cheating in the athletics world. Remember at this point, that he’s still only 22.
The closest I’ve come to racing him myself was when we both turned up at a charity two up sprint even in a multi-storey car park. And before you ask I didn’t win, but neither did Tom, he let his younger brother take the honors that night.
The story so far tells you not only that he’s an exceptional physiological specimen (his dad Giles was a nationally successful racer too) but truly exceptional psychologically too. Tom Barras, former pro, founder of Spatzwear, and the coach behind Training Pro, coached him up to and through his junior successes and gave me a great insight into what makes Tom so special:
“I’m glad you asked about the psychological side, as that’s a massively important part of him. Physiologically he’s very, very good, but there are other athletes with his attributes — maybe two athletes coming through a year — that doesn’t get anywhere close to his results in training or competition. If you had to pick one thing, it’s his robustness in terms of how much training and injury he can take, that makes him outstanding. For example, he smashed his face up in the Tour D’Avenir on a wet corner while descending towards a probable win, and that would have put some riders off the sport for good, or at least made them really nervous about riding in those conditions again. As soon as Tom was able to ride again, he was straight back on it, aggressive as ever, whatever the weather. It was the same when he was injured just weeks before the Olympics, he took a picture outside of the hospital wrapped in bubble wrap as a joke and then just jumped straight on the stationary trainer.
“How much graft he can handle at every level is in a different league. How he can attack and recover during a race or just day to day in training. I structure training for most athletes around a three-day block with a rest day after, but I soon learned with Tom that he can handle four-, five-, and six-day blocks and still be getting gains. He comes out of each rest elevated too, so on a graph that sawtooth is very sharp, and things like CTL (Chronic Training Load) and performance are very, very closely matched. But equally important is that he has no issue with saying he’s knackered, or that he’s irritable and that he needs a rest, even if that’s not what’s in the plan. He knows that’s when the gains are made, so he rests up until he’s back on it. That might be overnight, or it might take a week, but he won’t get stressed or rush back because he knows he’s building an engine long-term. That adversity-proof mental attitude, self-awareness and physical capacity are remarkable.
"He’s also very accurate and calculated in his self-assessment. I’ve talked to him after races that he appears to have won easily and he’s told me ‘I didn’t quite have it today, I didn’t have the fluidity or handling or I had to work a gear too hard to get through the muddy section’. The fact he’d won didn’t interfere with his assessment so we’d tweak his work for the next race and in that case, it was the Junior World CX Championships, which he won. I could pick several examples of similar situations, but you run out of superlatives. He’s just the full package.
“That includes how he rides as well. I’ve never seen a rider where you can track his improvements through his results as much as you can on a power map. He’s very measured, ruthless and he wants to win, and he has a killer instinct in terms of an ability to engineer a win. He’s technically excellent and makes excellent racing decisions when he’s totally in the red too, so he’s still functional mentally at the highest output. He’s a racer, who loves racing and relishes the chance to go head-to-head with the best in the world, but you can see with his performances in the classics this year and the Olympic MTB race that he’s not phased by anyone or any situation. What’s great is that he still absolutely loves riding. He’ll go and do dirt jumps in Adel woods in the middle of the season just like he did when he was a kid. Straight after the Olympics, we went up to Whinlatter with a bunch of his mates and they were all trying to smash him - even the guys who had to use e-bikes and it was just a laugh, mucking about on mountain bikes, jumping them and goofing around.”
It’s not just Tom
While Tom is clearly exceptional, his success shadows other cross-discipline stars like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (the only rider to have won the World Championships in CX, Road and MTB in one year, and who also won the Megavalanche Reunion Island epic enduro last December), Mathieu Van Der Poel, and Wout Van Aert, who is dominating racing right now. Other MTB XCO stars like Jolanda Neff are regulars on DH and CX bikes, and young UK rider Hattie Harnden has won an Elite EWS race and world level podiums on CX and Road.
Again Tom Barras has some insider perspective on how this relates to Tom Pidcock and others:
“Some coaches and teams would forbid a rider from doing that because of the worry about injury, but the minute you take that confidence and attitude away from him, he’s no longer the same rider and he can’t win those types of races anymore. In fact he’s more likely to get injured because he’s lost the skills. You only have to look at the Swiss XC racer Jolanda Neff for that risk and return equation at its clearest. She’s had two really hard seasons coming back from serious internal injuries that she sustained while riding downhill with her partner who’s a pro-DH racer. But then she goes to the Olympics and a racing incident forces her off the side of the drop that Mathieu Van Der Poel crashed on and she lands it totally on the nose and somehow rolls out OK and goes on to take the gold medal. That versatility is mega and it’s just part of the current generation.”
‘Cross is boss
It’s fair to say that ‘cross is finally getting the recognition it deserves as a crucible for creating world-class racers in any discipline. Given that a flat-out hour in a wintery park with deliberately awkward sections designed to make riding impossible is consistently the most miserable and grueling discipline in all of cycling, it demands a certain toughness to even show up to a ‘cross race. There’s no long and boring 100km+ wait before the action kicks off like a road race either, it’s flat-out intensity from the start.
Trying to negotiate treacherously slippery flat grass turns when you’re deep into excruciating oxygen debt makes sprinting for the line on the road or finessing a piece of singletrack that’s actually fun a whole lot easier later in life too. Referring back to Tom Barras talking about Tom Pidcock’s awareness, there’s literally no hiding in ‘cross races either. If they’re fast like Fayetteville, then one slip up — or a wobble on a knife-edge turn if you’re a Belgian — could put you out of contention, but if it's wet and muddy, you have to fight for every meter of progress. That not only makes you tough physically, but mentally, and it also lets you exploit your strengths and improve your weaknesses.
Perhaps most importantly, there are loads of local races and they’re very efficient in terms of time too. You can fit a ‘cross race around other family activities on a weekend and there’s no entry-level barrier of skill, fitness or even bike tech either. While having lungs like bin bags, Ninja poise on the bike, and a couple of race bikes so one can be cleaned by your pit crew as you ride the other is certainly a help — and the latter vital at a higher level — you can just turn up to your local park and have a go. After all, even the best riders will be walking or running at some point and after a couple of laps nobody will know where you are anyway.
Racing is racing
But the bottom line is that whether you’ve never raced before or you’re a young gun like Xan der Poel who rose to viral fame sprinting alongside the Jumbo Visma squad on the pavement at the Tour of Britain, racing bikes has never looked more fun than it does at the moment. It’s never looked more open in terms of being able to switch disciplines, fight staleness and build a much broader fitness and skill base either. So whether Tom does pull off the triple crown of World Championships this year or not, I reckon we’re all winning at the moment.