Jake Stewart, 21, picked up on of the best results of his career in February with second place in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Groupama-FDJ rider came through the British track system but quickly decided that his future lay on the road and after taking the brave decision to join Marc Madiot’s U23 the young rider has flourished. With podium places in the U23 versions of Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, Stewart’s future looks bright and Cyclingnews caught up with him to talk about his love for the Classics and why moving to France was the best decision he’s made.
Cyclingnews: You started the season with a bang and a number of impressive results, how are you feeling after a short break and your return to racing?
Jake Stewart: I’ve got good form at the moment and I proved that in Bessèges and then again in Opening Weekend but there’s a fine line between building on it and peaking and then doing too much and suffering in your next race. I’m just trying to carry that form into Nokere Koerse and then hopefully I’ll just maintain that curve.
CN: Did you see the form coming at the start of the season or was it a surprise to start so well?
JS: Usually I’d have a training camp in Spain but I didn’t end up going to that because of the situation with COVID, so I spent the winter at home in the UK and hadn’t done much testing like you normally would do at a training camp. That meant I didn’t really know where I was but I’d built up some good numbers in training so we knew that I was carrying some decent form. To be fair, normally around the early season I struggle with my legs a bit and the race distance and it takes a few races before I’m dialled in so it kind of came as a surprise that I was going so well at the end of races but we know that going into Bessèges that I had good form.
CN: Was there any chance of you doing Kuurne? I know that Arnaud Démare was on the start list for the race and he’s the leader but given your strong ride in Omloop was there any chance of you turning around and racing on Sunday?
JS: I would have liked to have done that given that it’s always nice to race when you’ve got good form but Démare was there, and [Ramon] Sinkledam was there alongside Miles Scotson. They put all their eggs with Démare and were hoping to get a good result. In the end, it didn’t happen but it’s bitter-sweet because it keeps you hungry. I’m still young and I’ve got a long season ahead of me. I’m keeping my matches for later in the year and this might be a good thing later down the line.
CN: What are your objectives? Obviously, you have the spring but are you looking at Nokere Koerse and then races like Gent-Wevelgem as real possibilities where you can shine.
JS: I think my heart has always been with the Classics and Belgium and that’s where I’ve wanted to see myself have a good career. These races are my focus and I want to help the lads and do a good job for the team. We need me to be in good condition to do that but after that result in Omloop it gives you confidence going forward and I hope that the team will now realise my potential going forward and give me a full Classics campaign because originally that wasn’t on my calendar. I was focusing more on the smaller semi-Classics and not the big WorldTour ones. For some Classics, I’ll be helping [Stefan] Küng and if it comes down to a sprint then they have options with me.
CN: What is it about the Classics that strike such a chord with you because I watched your interview after Omloop and you spoke so passionately about them? Of course, you’ve also been third in the U23 version of Flanders and second in Gent-Wevelgem but what is it about those races that stand out for you?
JS: You always enjoy the things that you’re good at and I’ve always proved that I perform well after a hard day and that I can sprint well after a hard day in the saddle. That’s so characteristic of the Classics and it’s where I’ve excelled. The love comes from that but also it’s just the history of bike racing there and the rich heritage within Belgian cycling. It’s inspirational to perform in those races and I think that if you asked most riders what race they’d like to win outside of the Tour de France they’d probably say a Monument.
CN: When you were a kid was it the Classics that stood out for you above the Tour?
JS: To be fair when I was a kid I’d get bored of watching the Tour because it was three weeks and sometimes it’s just the same shit every day but the Classics races were always different. The results were always different, it was hard racing and always entertaining to watch. That always stood out to me and it’s pretty inspirational. I wasn’t really interested in cycling until the 2012 London Olympics and even then I was inspired by the track and that’s where it took off for me. I spent a few years on the track at first but then I realised that I wanted to stick with the road. I didn’t really grow up being inspired by the riders, it was more about the sport.
CN: You were part of the programme at British Cycling, right?
JS: I stepped up from junior to U23 for the first year and then I got a good result in Gent and that’s when FDJ approached me for their Continental team. I had made the decision that I wasn’t going to make it on the track with the number of good pursuit riders that were ahead of me so I just wanted to focus on the road and try and make a career.
CN: Why FDJ, because that’s a big cultural shift for a British rider and not one that many riders have made? I think Max Sciandri was there in the first two years in 1997 and 1998…
JS: Bradley Wiggins too but that’s it. I had a lot of people questioning me when I did it. A lot of people said to me that British riders who go to French teams die in French teams and there’s always been that mentality when British riders go to French teams but where I was in my career and my life, it suited me and my characteristics to move abroad and discover a new lifestyle on the road rather than stick in that British bubble. FDJ approached me and it was their first year as a Conti team and it felt like a good stepping stone instead of maybe staying in the British system and getting bogged down with British racing.
I’ve proven that it’s been a good stepping stone for me and I’ve settled in well with two years on the Continental team and then one year on the WorldTour team. I think that I’ve proven to the British media and people in the UK who have questioned British riders going to French teams.
CN: During the 1980s and 1990s and of course before, that’s what British riders had to do anyway. They had to go to France and try and make the grade rather than have the UK support bubble.
JS: Yeah and even in more recent years, it’s happened with the Yates brothers. I think when it comes to making yourself a more well-rounded rider, both on and off the bike, it’s beneficial. You get opportunities abroad that you don’t necessarily get in the UK. You’ve lived away from home and you’re learning a different language. Bike racing in Europe has a different dynamic to it and I think it helps you get recognised when you’re racing on the continent.
CN: Is a team like Groupama-FDJ one where you can see your long-term future?
JS: I’ve had three years with the team and I’ve settled in nicely. I know the score and that it’s still a French team, but whether they’re French, Italian, or Spanish, teams all have their quirks. But I’ve settled in well and they understand me as a bike rider and I understand them as a team. Certainly, I can see myself having a really good future with the team. If it’s the team that I stay in for the long-term then it’s a team that I’d be happy to ride for. I can really see myself growing here for the future.