'My Welsh grandma didn't believe I was a pro until I beat Geraint Thomas' - Simon Carr
Simon Carr is something of an enigma, being a British-registered rider who came up through the French development system rather than Great Britain's. He has a unique perspective on the path to professional cycling, now plying his trade for anglophone EF Education Nippo after a lifetime spent 'racing in French'. We spoke to Carr to find out who he is, and where he believes he can go.
Simon Carr of EF Education Nippo battles to the finish of Strade Bianche
The one thing nearly everybody knows about EF Education Nippo’s bright young stage racing super talent, Simon Carr, is that he grew up in France but races as a Brit. In fact, it’s the first topic that gets mentioned in every interview you’ll find with him online.
He was raised in an English-speaking household – his parents made a point of making sure they had English radio and TV – but still, his education and his route into the professional ranks were both avowedly and unapologetically French. He can speak both languages like a native, only comes rarely to the UK, and could easily have registered to race professionally for France rather than Great Britain.
So why choose the union jack over the tricolore, God Save the Queen over La Marseillaise? Like all the most compelling reasons, it has to do with family.
“The one good reason I’ve got for having a GB licence is that I would consider myself to be British or Welsh," he says. "My whole family is from Wales and my grandparents have always supported Wales whenever the rugby is on. One of the reasons to stick with it is for the Commonwealth Games and be able to race for Wales. I think that would be the closest thing that I would feel to race for a national team where [I feel that] it is the pinnacle.”
The opinions of grandmothers matter. Indeed, it was only when Carr produced a good result against another Welsh cyclist that his own gran began to believe he really had a shot of making a career in bike racing.
“I think that my grandma really believes that I’m an actual cyclist now. I don’t think she had believed it until I had beaten Geraint Thomas in a race, so that was quite funny.”
Carr developed through the French amateur racing scene, before signing to the Marseille-based Delko Marseille Provence (now racing simply as Delko) in 2019. He joined the Professional Continental team as a trainee at first, before securing a place on its full roster for 2020. In 2021, he made the move to EF Education Nippo, a team he says represents the perfect fit for him.
“I’d always thought that I would like to have joined an English-speaking team at some point in my career. Just because I’ve been through the French system, through the amateur ranks and then with my first pro team Nippo-Delko. It was always in the back of my mind, and then when I won the race in Ordiziako last year my agent thought that there were some possibilities in the WorldTour. Once I was able to get out of my contract with Delko, we looked at those options and EF were the perfect fit. They have quite a multi-cultural approach, with lots of different nationalities represented but also an anglophone core so that fits with me perfectly. I’ve got to say that I have really enjoyed it so far it is a perfect fit.”
Will he be emulating his new team-mate Lachlan Morton and taking on some ultra-endurance challenges as part of EF’s ‘Alternative Calendar’?
“Well, I wouldn’t say for myself, but I did watch all of those videos and definitely think it is pretty cool to do. It has never been something that I would consider doing alongside normal road racing, I don’t know how he does it to be honest. It is such a different discipline, and it is the sort of thing I would like to do when I retire but doing it three weeks before the Giro…”
He lets this thought tail off here, presumably stumped as to the best way to describe Morton’s astonishing exploits – winning the 700-kilometre Spanish bikepacking race Badlands by a country mile, riding pretty much non-stop for 43 hours, only to pitch up in a duck jersey a few weeks later in Italy.
While the Alternative Calendar may not be for him, Carr certainly still has goals for his time with the US-based team.
When he was in talks with EF Education Nippo – and after signing for them too – the plan the team laid out for Carr in 2021 was to have him take on some smaller races where he could continue to enjoy the feeling of winning, while also taking a supporting role in some tougher WorldTour races. In reality, thanks largely to coronavirus, every race is now a ‘big race’, with events like Tour de la Provence and Étoile de Bessèges enjoying bumper startlists for this year’s editions.
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The small races began to feel like WorldTour events, and the WorldTour events – well, despite having stacked startlists, they haven’t posed too much of a challenge for Carr yet.
“If you look at my results [at Tour de la Provence] and then my results from Tirreno-Adriatico or Strade Bianche, there isn’t much difference in level I don’t think. I haven’t been able to achieve that goal [of winning smaller races] but I think that the way I have ridden in the actual WorldTour races has been really positive so far.”
And it’s true, his results are incredibly impressive. Eighth in the young rider classification at Provence, and then 11th in Strade Bianche, a seventh in the young rider classification at Tirreno, not to mention that fantastic, Thomas-beating, grandmother-impressing performance in the race’s queen stage, when he placed eighth, four spots higher than his fellow Welshman.
Carr is not short of confidence, nor under any illusions about where his talents lie; he is a natural stage racer, and the hillier the better. Was it a surprise then that he performed so well in Strade Bianche, a race for sturdy gravel-crunching CX converts, not waif-like grimpeurs.
“I did surprise myself a bit. I think it is such a different race to any other and I went there without any real pressure, just to have fun basically. From the moment we got onto the gravel during the recon I felt really comfortable, it felt really good fun. It is a nice course. The only thing I was a little scared about was the fight for position going into each of the gravel sections – because that is where the race can be lost. The team had confidence in me, that I had the physical ability. Mitch Docker was assigned to position me going into each of the gravel sectors, so I just stuck to his wheel. We also had Alberto Bettiol there as the team leader, so I stuck around him. I think he has done it seven or eight times. He is local to the region, so he knew exactly where to be and when to make the efforts. I basically tried to piggy-back off their experience and it worked out pretty well.
“Without being cocky, I certainly had the legs to be in that first group of seven riders. I just got caught slightly out of position going into the sector where the race split and ended up having to chase on. I couldn’t really have asked for much more form my first WorldTour race. I’d have been pleased with 11th the morning of the race. It was really good fun.”
From a race where he surprised everyone, including himself, to Tirreno-Adriatico, where the course suited him almost perfectly. It was just one bad day that cost him a much loftier GC position.
“I felt that I was at the level to be fighting for the top ten on stages and probably in the general classification had I dealt with the finishing circuit on stage five a little better in the rain. The summit finish before that was surprising even for me. I’ve always done well in hilly races but the level of the riders at Tirreno was the one of the best fields so far this year. To get a top ten there was pretty amazing, especially when I saw the guys that finished behind me. It was quite surprising but a really good surprise.”
As well as his big performance in the mountains, Carr caught a lot of the unwanted type of attention at Tirreno after a dramatic-looking crash that raised questions about concussion protocols in the sport.
“I got the feeling that had I won the stage I would’ve got less exposure than from a pretty stupid crash. I just didn’t really have time to react.”
‘Don’t want to see that again!’ – Carr suffers horrendous-looking crash during Tirreno–Adriatico
The TV images seem to show Carr hitting his head on a road sign, but actually this part of his body escaped the impact.
“I didn’t actually hit my head at all, though with the impact I almost got a kind of whiplash. We had the team doctor following in the team car and he was there pretty much straight away. I was fully aware and talking to him, so I was fine to continue. In the evening, we went through some concussion testing that we had done some baseline tests for previously. I don’t think there is much more that could have been done on the concussion side. It is difficult in a race situation; you’ve only got a few minutes to get back going otherwise you’ll end up outside the time cut. It is a difficult thing to decide upon in that situation.”
Carr finished the stage and says he has not suffered any lingering ill-effects – although he does admit to replaying the moment in his mind.
“I can remember it completely. The moment of the crash still sort of plays around in my head a bit, but I think I’ll be fine. I have no lingering aches or pains; I’m fully recovered from it. Having seen the replays, that is quite incredible. I got up and finished the race and thought ‘Oh this is pretty normal’.
“I was just disappointed for the TT that was coming up the next day. I’d lost time and my position in the GC prior to the crash. On that day I’d obviously lost even more time, but I was already quite a way down, so I was trying to save energy. I was just sitting on, trying to save myself for the TT. As a team we decided not to push it after the crash, I had a lot of bruising on my right side.”
Carr is fully recovered now and focused on his next goals, the Ardennes Classics. He is down to race Liège and Flèche Wallone later this month.
“I am also doing Flèche Brabançonne and the Amstel Gold Race before those. So yes, I am doing those four races and I’m really looking forward to them, especially after Strade Bianche. That has given me confidence that I’ve got what it takes to position myself and be where I need to be in these types of races. From what I’ve heard the Ardennes are similar in the tactics to Strade Bianche, it’s just that the selection is made on the climbs rather than on the gravel. I’m pretty confident that I’ve got the numbers to be there on the climbs, so I’m looking forward to those races. I think we should have a really good team for them.”
Highlights: Dominant Van der Poel powers to Strade Bianche victory
Beyond the Ardennes, the next goal for Carr is clear.
“I’m hoping that I’m going to do a Grand Tour this year. I have discussed it with the team, but it hasn’t been decided yet, I’ve said just to keep it open. I’m obviously trying to prove myself so that I am deserving of a place on one of the Grand Tour line-ups.
“Stage 14 of the Tour de France goes right past my house, which hasn’t happened for 60 years according to my neighbour. So that would be amazing to do but doing any Grand Tour would be a big step in the right direction.”
Whether he gets a ride at the Tour this year or next, it seems only a matter of time until Simon Carr delivers a great result at the world’s biggest race. With his peculiar hybrid nationality, it will surely be a result popular on both sides of La Manche.