Biniam Girmay’s stunning, historic win in the 2022 Gent-Wevelgem classic justly grabbed most of the attention around the race – but there was another great ride that weekend.
In the u23 version of the race, which is a UCI Nations Cup 1.Ncup rated event, Britain’s Sam Watson beat the cream of Europe’s u23 talent to win a race which boasts the likes of Fons de Wolf, Eddy Planckaert, Niko Eeckhout, Greg Van Avermaet and Mads Pedersen among previous winners.
Watson was a member of the winning GB team in the European Junior Team Pursuit before moving up to the GB u23 Endurance Programme, he’s now with highly rated French continental team, Équipe Continentale Groupama-FDJ.
VeloVeritas caught up with The Rayner Foundation rider shortly after his excellent ride.
Congratulations on a great win, Sam – tell us about it please.
“It was a bit of a strange race with a head wind most of the way, a move went early so it was relatively easy in the peloton for a while.
“When that came back I went in a move on one of the gravel sectors, but when that came back I could see that the race was going to end in a sprint, I decided to wait for that – which proved to be a good decision…”
Then a second place in a stage of the prestigious u23 Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux stage race in Belgium?
“That came a week later, Stage Two – that was a good day for the team, we lit it up with 60 or 70 K to go and had five of us in a move of 13 riders.
“Our Aussie rider, Jensen Plowright was our fastest finisher so we were working for him at the end, he took the stage and I still managed to hang on for second after leading him out.
“We won the final GC too, with Enzo Paleni so it was a good race for us.”
Going back to last season, you had a stage win in the Kreiz Breizh stage race, in Brittany, that’s a tough race.
“Yes, that was a really hard race, I hadn’t had much racing at all as a u23 due to the lock down and knew I had to win a race to prove myself – so I was happy to get that one.”
Is that where FDJ first noticed you?
“I think so, after that we started to speak.”
How do the GB and FDJ regimes compare?
“They’re very different, with GB we did road and track but here with FDJ it’s all about the road – but that’s what I want to be, a road rider.”
From Manchester to…?
“Besancon, in Eastern France near the Swiss border.
“The team’s service course is here, half the team stay in apartments above the service course but I’m based in a team house which isn’t too far away from the service course.”
How does it work with twin demands of GB and FDJ programmes?
“For Gent-Wevelgem I really wanted to ride it for GB and pestered the GB u23 Manager, Matt Brammeier about riding.
“I could have ridden the race for FDJ but they actually lobbied for me to ride with GB.
“There’s nothing planned long term, we just communicate as the races come up.”
The team is pretty cosmopolitan, what’s the language situation?
“Yes, as well as the French guys we have English, Kiwi, Aussie and an Estonian guy; every rider speaks English and the staff too.
“As far as my speaking French goes, I wouldn’t say it’s great but I’m trying!”
How’s the race programme looking now?
“We leave for Liege tomorrow, we’re riding the u23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Saturday, we then have two races in Italy in the week, the Giro del Belvedere and GP Palio del Recioto.
“I have a free period after that then back for Paris-Roubaix and the u23 Giro.
“The team race programme is excellent, that’s one of the reasons I chose to go with the team.”
What’s the situation with coaching now?
“It’s provided by the team, they have three coaches and the regime is very different from what I was used to with GB.
“With GB we had the track element all through the winter for the last two years but the winter past I didn’t have that; I had five weeks off then a very slow build up.
“When I started training again I felt refreshed in the legs and in the head.”
I believe you’ve had a visa hassles?
“It’s been a pain, if you don’t have a visa then you’re constrained by the, ’90 day rule’ where you’re only allowed to spend 90 days out of 180 in Europe, it’s one of the consequences of Brexit.
“My visa took ages, I should have had it in January but then the border was closed and then I had Covid.
“You have to submit your passport with the application so I had to organise a duplicate passport and travel to Edinburgh to the visa centre – it was all a real pain but I have it now and as an employee of the team with a visa don’t have to worry about that aspect anymore.”
The future, have you had any interest from World Tour teams as a result of your win in Gent-Wevelgem?
“I think that it’s generated interest with the Groupama FDJ World Tour team…”
You grew up as a neighbour of Tom Pidcock, his success and that of young British riders like Ben Turner must be an inspiration?
“I grew up watching the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Cav who were all mature riders – but the guys you mentioned are all just a little but older than me and to see their successes brings it home that success at the highest levels is achievable.”
Season 2022 will be a success if?
“I win some more races and can make myself into one of the best u23 riders in the world.
“I’ve had a look at the u23 Worlds parcours – which this year are in September in Wollongong, Australia – and think that they suit me, so…”
Great to see young Brits like Sam out there, refusing to be overawed and ‘just doing it!’. It’s also great to see The Rayner Foundation still helping riders as they start their climb up the professional ladder – chapeau.
VeloVeritas will be keeping an eye on those u23 results.