by Stephen White
If the triumphs of Wiggins, Frome and Pendleton have put the gloss on British cycling over recent years, then a wealth of up and coming talent suggests the sport’s future is also set to sparkle. Welsh cyclist Sam Harrison is among the new school of riders in the slipstream of today’s household names.
A product of the Olympic Development Programme, 18-year-old Harrison burst on to the senior stage by taking gold in the Omnium at the UCI World Cup in Beijing in 2011. Success at under-23 level at the British National Time Trial Championships followed, and the man from south Wales formed part of the British silver medal-winning Team Pursuit at the 2013 Track Cycling World Championships.
A succession of knee injuries forced Sam to drop off the pace, but the cyclist hailed for his big engine and fluid pedalling style has spent 2014 getting his rhythm back. Currently riding for NFTO Pro Cycling team, the 22-year-old represented Wales at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and put in a strong performance at the Tour of Britain last year.
The Essential Cyclist (TEC) recently caught up with Sam in his home town of Risca for cup of tea and a good chat.
TEC: Hi Sam. How was your Commonwealth Games experience?
S: It was amazing to be a part of the team for the Commies. Geraint (Thomas) was phenomenal. The track was a bit disappointing for me; I’d been training hard in the build up but in the points race I found myself under-geared early on and I wasn’t as involved as I’d have liked. Owain (Doull) did well, he was up there at the front so I worked for him and did a few lead outs. He got 4th in the end. In the scratch we were unfortunate and we missed a lap. My legs were alright and with a bit of luck I think I could have been in with a medal shout, but that’s the way it goes; you have tactics and they don’t always pay off. All in all though, fantastic experience and it was great to see Geraint do well.
TEC: What’s a career highlight for you so far?
S: I won the omnium in Beijing in the World Cup in 2011. After getting seconds and thirds in under 18s, Beijing was pretty special as it was my first senior competition. Also I wasn’t really expecting to do well, so to be stood on the top step of the podium was amazing. It was really encouraging and it convinced me to commit myself even more to cycling.
TEC: How did you get into cycling?
S: It all started when I was 13, the Newport Velodrome opened and I went down there for a taster session. I loved it even though I was rubbish at first, and spent my first year getting lapped by girls, much to the amusement of my dad. Not getting lapped was one of my first challenges, and it all took off from there.
TEC: Do you think you would have gotten into cycling had the velodrome not been built?
S: Probably not, no. I owned a track bike before I owned a road bike and no-one in the family really cycled before me.
TEC: Did living in south Wales influence your development as a cyclist?
S: Definitely. The hilly countryside is perfect for training and I always took this for granted - you’re always breathing and pedaling hard. When I was too young to drive, cycling gave me loads of freedom and I loved to get out and over the mountains. Three years ago I moved to Manchester. It’s great for the track and there are fantastic facilities but it can take an hour just to ride out of the city, so that really makes me appreciate my home environment.
TEC: Was there a specific point at which you started to take the sport more seriously?
S: It was more of a gradual thing. I went into the British under-14 races with just the determination to not get lapped. A bit later I got picked up by the Welsh talent team and although I wasn’t winning races, I was still getting on fairly well. I went to the British under-16 track championships at Newport and won two out of three races, which is when I think I realised that I potentially had a future in cycling.
TEC: Did you start off with a preference between road and track cycling?
S: Early on it was all about the track. I loved watching the Tour de France so the awareness of road cycling was always there but my personal goals were track focussed towards the team pursuit.
TEC: What do you love most about life in the saddle?
S: Definitely the freedom - it’s just you and your bike on the open road and I love that. Finding new routes and peddling through the scenery.
TEC: What’s your least favourite thing about cycling?
S: I don’t mind bad weather during races as it’s the same for every competitor, but it’s just nasty when you’re trying to train. You’re there grinding out the miles with another 5 hours to go when you could be in Majorca cycling in the sunshine. That’s never a good feeling!
TEC: How do you deal with bad weather?
S: Kit is really important: Cold and rain can break your morale, so a quality rain jacket makes all the difference. Layers are important too, something people new to cycling often overlook. I always see people out pedalling in short sleeves and shorts and they look absolutely freezing. If you’re going downhill through bad weather for ten minutes, you may as well be sitting on your sofa in the wind and rain.
TEC: What’s your favourite place to train?
S: In good weather you can’t beat Cwmcarn (south Wales), there are so many nice roads and the scenery is great. Going abroad is good for scoring the right weather. If it was 30 degrees in Wales I’d say Cwmcarn was my favourite place!
TEC: How much will you train in a standard training week?
S: If I’m not overloading or resting, I’ll clock up around 20 hours per week over flats and climbs. I’ll get some gym work in too; Bulgarian squats a few times a week are great for building up the glutes. I’d love to play football more but I don’t really have the time.
TEC: Do you have a favourite event?
S: It might be to do with my upbringing but I love hilly races. Pushing yourself is what cycling’s about, I love it!
TEC: So you prefer road to the track?
S: Hmm … I’ll say road at the minute, but my preference changes. I’ve been track-focussed since I started cycling and it’s been a tough journey. I was longlisted for the 2012 Olympics but then I got injured so I couldn’t go, then in 2013 we came second in the World Team Pursuit which was fantastic. But over the last year I feel like my cycling’s plateaued a bit and I think the road will give me a much-needed change of scene and bring some variety. Hopefully I’ll get back to the track stronger in a year’s time.
TEC: Who inspires you in sport?
S: Geraint Thomas really - you turn on the TV and Geraint’s there on tour smashing it up. Also he came up through the same channels as I did, through the Olympic Development Programme and the British Cycling Academy. It really encourages you when you see guys from close to home and they’re doing well on the road and leading the Tour de France.
TEC: Do you see yourself in the Tour one day?
S: Anyone who rides would be lying if they said they didn’t want to do the Tour, it’s the pinnacle. Obviously it’s a long way off at the moment, but you have to have a goal or dream in everything you do!
TEC: How is your year ahead looking?
S: I haven’t had time off in around five years so now the Tour of Britain is behind me it would be nice to have a month off to let my body catch up. I don’t have specific goals for 2015 but I want to do well wherever I race, whether individually or doing a job for the team.
TEC: How do you like to chill out?
S: I’m pretty standard really: TV, maybe FIFA on the X-Box. To be honest after a long ride in the day I generally get home, stretch out then eat and watch a bit of TV before crashing out. There’s not much time to do anything else.
Thanks Sam, all the very best for the future. You make a mean cup of tea!