British one-day talent Jake Stewart on speaking his mind, that Nacer Bouhanni incident and his future career plans.
Hailing from the Midlands but plying his trade for a French WorldTour squad after coming through its Continental development squad, Jake Stewart is anything but a conventional product of the GB cycling talent factory. He speaks here about being at the centre of a Twitter furore, as well as his ambitions for the next few years of his pro cycling career.
Jake Stewart in the white best young rider's jersey at Etoile de Besseges 2021
It’s been a wild first year in the WorldTour for Jake Stewart.
The British 21-year-old burst into the collective consciousness at the beginning of the year, when he bagged a second place in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the youngest person to podium Omloop since Eddy Merckx in 1968.
And that was followed by an incident that garnered yet more social media hype and attention – his sprinting incident with Nacer Bouhanni.
Highlights as 'totally out of order' Bouhanni disqualified for scary near-miss
During the final sprint at Cholet Pays de La Loire, Bouhanni appeared to push Stewart into the barriers. The Englishman was just about able to keep the bike upright – to the surprise (and relief) of those watching on TV.
A few hours after, Stewart posted a tweet.
The response put Stewart at the centre of the cycling world for a few days.
“I put out a tweet and by no means did I expect it to explode the way it did. I mean, it was like 13,000 likes or something in a few days. It was certainly strange, I’ve never really experienced that just because I haven’t really had the results or been involved in controversies like that and whatnot.”
That kind of furore was something he had seen from one step removed, particularly when racing and training with Tom Pidcock, Stewart says.
“I’ve seen it from the outside with the likes of Pidcock when he was a junior rider and he was having tens of thousands of followers on social media and being at the centre of cycling media so I’ve kind of seen how it affected him and stuff like that, and lessons from it.”
Does Stewart regret the post he made about Bouhanni? Would he think twice in the future about launching himself into the middle of a Twitter storm?
“Every tweet that I put out on Twitter is kind of, I write something and then sit on it for 10,15 minutes. I think even with that tweet with Bouhani I’d written it out and I’d just left it in my drafts for a couple of hours just to mull it over and just make sure that I was using the right words.
I realised with social media that as soon as something’s out there, it’s out there forever.
"Once it’s out in the public domain you’re not really going to be able to retract whatever you’ve said.”
While he had initially avoided the very worst outcome, tests later showed that Stewart had incurred a broken metacarpal, an injury that slowed his season’s momentum. Despite having a legitimate reason to be angry with Bouhanni, Stewart was quick to come out and condemn the racist abuse the French rider later experienced on social media in the aftermath of their incident.
Stewart’s outspokenness has made him popular on Twitter, and even the subject of a Brooklyn Nine-Nine-themed meme. He doesn’t limit himself to comments on racing, either, something that is at-once refreshing and courageous.
“Some bike riders, all their life is just cycling and that’s all they’ll tweet about, that’s all they’ll put on social media, their only photos on Instagram are going to be of cycling. But I’ve got a life away from cycling.
Cycling isn’t the only thing that I do, and if there’s issues within the world [I will] make my thoughts clear.
It would make for an easier life to just stay silent, but Stewart has made his thoughts known on plenty of issues that do not directly impact upon his cycling career. From the presence of Marc Bracke of Doltcini - Van Eyck Sport in a race convoy despite being found guilty by the UCI Ethics Commission of harassment, to drawing attention to the outpouring of women’s stories about street harassment in response to the murder of Sarah Everard, Stewart is not afraid to enter the conversation.
“As a professional athlete, not only does it show your personality a bit but yeah, you’ve got so many thousands of followers, and you’re kind of tweeting about things that they might not really agree with, or stuff and it kind of just helps open people’s eyes and it’s just a different perspective for some people.”
Stewart came through the British Cycling junior academy, before taking an unusual choice at a fork in the road.
“When I made the decision to leave British Cycling, there was a lot of people that basically said that it’s not going to be good for you, ‘British riders die in French teams’ all this sh*t.”
But Stewart didn’t listen. And since making the choice to sign with Groupama FDJ’s Continental-level development squad, he hasn’t looked back.
“I think it probably made me a better rider and kind of made me a more rounded person and able to take on actual life challenges rather than just being kept in this little bubble of British Cycling and constantly cared for rather than discovering it yourself.”
The Dave Rayner Fund supported Stewart during his time on the Continental squad. This charity supports young British riders competing abroad, and has provided assistance to the likes of Tao Geoghegan-Hart, Hannah Barnes and Adam Yates on their journeys to the WorldTour.
“It was just kind of a bit of a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on when you were in need, that kind of thing, just because the amount of experience they’ve got with riders being abroad. More than anything it was just their experience that, you know, gave you a helping hand.”
While Stewart may have taken a path that took him out of the British Cycling system, he is quick to pay tribute to one of his coaches at ‘BC’, Stuart Blunt, who presided over a prodigiously talented crop of riders who are all coming through the ranks right now.
“I think Stuart’s never really had the recognition that he actually deserves. He’s happy enough just being like that anyway, the kind of bloke that he is. For so many of us junior bike riders in the junior academy with him, he was so influential on our career and you look back at that year that I was on the junior academy and it was me, Matt Walls, Fred Wright, Tom Pidcock, a number of other boys but at least four or five of us now are on WorldTour teams.”
Another contemporary, one who has ended up at the same team as Stewart is Lewis Askey, a rider with whom he is frequently confused by the media. When asked if he thinks journalists will ever be able to tell he and Askey apart, Stewart laughs before adding that it’s not just his compatriot he gets confused with.
“It’s not even just Lewis Askey! There have been plenty of articles where it’s like me confused with Kevin Geniets, I mean he’s like 2 metres and I’m 1.75 so yeah it’s just a ridiculous confusion. But yeah, I think me and Lewis being two British lads in a French team, we’re fairly similar kind of riders in the terrain we excel on. I’m not sure we’ll ever stop getting confused for one another.”
Highlights: Davide Ballerini powers away to take men's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Leaving aside the past, Stewart’s future looks bright. He asserts “Flanders, 100%” when asked what would be his dream race to win, and clearly has a focus on the one-day classics for the next few years.
“My heart is in the classics,” he says. “That’s something that I’m going to focus on over the next couple of years, just see where it takes me.”
He is learning plenty, he says, from Groupama’s classics leader.
“We’ve got Stefan [Küng] haven’t we? And it’s not even as if he’s got years and years of experience, what is he, 27, I think? Obviously, he’s always been prominent in those classics and there’s plenty of advice that you can take from Stefan he’s got a lot of experience.”
And of course, in the classics, experience counts for a lot.
“It was funny because this year we were doing some recons and Stefan would be able to tell you off the top of his head without even looking at the road book, where the next right turn was, where the wind was probably going to hit and that’s just something that you can only have racing these races after years of experience.
Classics racing is so special in the sense that it does take years of experience to master it.
Given the good head he seems to have on his shoulders, it looks likely that Lewis Askey, sorry, Jake Stewart, will be able to master the classics in what is sure to be a great career.
Jake Stewart heads to the Tour de Suisse next, kicking off on 6 June.