Feature Interview: Jack Rees (Ribble Weldtite)

Feature length chat to Ribble Weldtite’s Jack Rees about his team’s goals for 2021, when their season will start and the challenges they face.

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Feature Interview: Jack Rees (Ribble Weldtite)
Photos: James Huntly

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With the plans for lockdown in the UK released and everyone crossing everything that bike racing starts to return from April onwards, for UCI teams, the road map back to what we were used to before this pandemic is somewhat complicated.

Right now, teams of all shapes and sizes (UCI & Non UCI), have major challenges to racing in Europe from changing rules due to the pandemic or those introduced with the UK Government’s Brexit deal with the other countries in Europe.

Jack putting in the hard yards ahead of what is hopefully a busy year for the team

For the riders in the Ribble Weldtite UCI team, the road to racing is around a month away as the team’s Jack Rees explained. “We made a conscious decision around Christmas knowing that travel would be challenging and costly in early March” explains Jack. “We hadn’t anticipated the pandemic would be as bad as it is has been and still is so we are hoping to start in April. That still looks like an option as we have a few races where there’s a good chance of them going ahead.”

The race programme for Ribble Weldtite will be one in mainland Europe as well as the UK and it is here in England that some of the biggest races have already been cancelled. “It is a shame to see those cancellations as we were hoping to come back from Europe for these races and get in Rutland (CiCLE Classic) and Lincoln but sadly Rutland is cancelled while Lincoln is still possible”.

A goal for the team is the Tour Series with a strong team for the crits. Jack says of the move for the series going to August, “to see the Tour Series moved to August is a great move from them so it is looking like if things do get back on track in time for summer and the autumn, the calendar will be full of racing because a lot of the Belgium and Dutch races have also been rescheduled for September too”.

“The organisers having condensed it into a few weeks instead of a month or longer means the guys can go into it having prepared for it over the six weeks beforehand, get through it and then slot in some endurance work after before moving on towards the Tour of Britain.”

The season could well be kicked off with some TTs

Asked if racing now (Feb/March) would have been useful when the major British events are not likely to return until late June, Jack explains “we could have done some racing in obscure parts of the world in February/March but they would have more than likely been a standalone race before coming back here and having three or four weeks before another race. So it makes sense to slow down the build-up process and instead of hitting the ground running in March, do that in April and May for a more condensed season where the lads will be racing week in, week out.”

“It gives us some breathing space now. We’re not backing off the training but are backing off the intensity of the training and having a few extra recovery weeks to keep things nice and fresh. Now we have the Elite Athlete exemption in place, we are planning a training camp in the UK in late March, to put the finishing touches together as a group before the season starts.”

In interviews with pro riders like Connor Swift, whilst the pandemic is still causing havoc around Europe and the World, being tested is part and parcel of the travel process. For Ribble Weldtite, they have a helpful sponsor to manage that. “We have a process in place for travel where you have to present a negative Covid test 72 hours or less before arrival so I think what we’ll be doing is we have a partner in the UK, Medichecks, who have been doing blood testing for us for a few years. They also do PCR testing which is really helpful so they will be doing that in the UK for us”.

As well as the testing, the to&froing into mainland Europe is also part of the process in managing the challenges of the pandemic. “Rather than going abroad for one race, which we weren’t planning on doing anyway regardless of the Covid situation, we will go for a block of time with a bubble of riders and staff to try and minimise the risk with them for a period time.”

And Brexit, how does that affect the team I asked? “It doesn’t impact us hugely but it might have done had we been on training camps in Europe. Riders are really having to measure each day they spend outside the UK because it could impact their potential calendar they are available to do once racing really kicks off.”

“I think for us, the only major concerns are around the possible significant fees for equipment and we don’t know if that will be the case for cycling with the bikes etc. That could be prohibitive but until we start travelling like we have in previous years, we won’t know what the ramifications are for us. It ties in with our plans on minimising the frequency of travel if we are going to France or Belgium, we’ll go for a significant period instead of a weekend of racing.”

The team’s weapon for 2021 from Ribble Cycles, complete with Continental GP 5000 tyres

“Our aspiration is to provide for our riders a broad and wide ranging calendar and to do that, we need to go beyond the domestic scene. The races here in Britain are a very important focus part for us but we need to go beyond them to provide our riders with the opportunity to show themselves in UCI races to elevate themselves back to where they belong. James (Shaw), Matt (Gibson) and so on”.

“Based on the correspondence with organisers, we have quite a strong programme lined up in place regardless of the changes in scheduling. We have consulted with our riders like James as he has a lot of experience in different UCI races and we’ve talked about ones that he particularly wants to ride again; ones he’s had success in in the past so we have enquired with the organisers to ride some of those.

The team, travel permitting, is looking to start their racing at the popular race with British teams, Tour du Loir et Cher on April 14. The race was won by Graham Briggs (2014). “We’ll do a training camp in France beforehand, a race replication camp, to prepare the lads as best we can” says Jack. “We were supposed to be in the Netherlands the week before that for the Holland Cup but that has been postponed” says Jack.

The challenges from the pandemic and Brexit are multi-faceted and that means a lot of research. “It’s not the only dynamic of the race calendar but also the travel restrictions as well; quarantining, travel corridors and generic government rule changes” says Jack. “It’s almost a full time job keeping track of news across all areas and is posing some challenges.”

“We have a good system for tracking the calendar and rider availability so it’s important for me that as soon as we have a clear understanding that a race has been postponed, or cancelled, the calendar is changed to reflect that so if the race is moved to a new date, everyone is aware of what is going on.”

“We (the team) speak regularly and have a few active channels of communications within the team so when someone found out about the Tour of Normandie (cancelled in 2021) which I didn’t hear about, it was noted on the calendar. So it’s a team effort keeping track of all the changes that seem to be coming thick and fast”.

Zwift racing until racing outdoors is on the cards.

Tour of Britain

What teams don’t know as yet, at least that was the case at the time of the interview at the end of January, is whether there will be selection criteria for the Tour of Britain. This was a thorn in the side of teams and the way they raced the selection events so I asked Jack for his opinion on Tour of Britain selection.

“Our personal opinion is that the commitment we have shown to the domestic scene should be rewarded by getting a ride in our national tour. We would not expect to be there if we weren’t able to compete for example but we have a strong line up with international riders proven at that level. It may depend on the WorldTour teams programme as we know there will be a knock on effect for them if programmes are cut in other parts of Europe. The appetite to ride the Tour of Britain will then be stronger from higher levels and that could impact on local teams but we have to prepare that we are in it and it will be a massive objective for us”.

The other scenario may also be that the available races for the World Tour teams at that time may be greater if races postponed now are held around the time of the Tour of Britain so the local UCI teams may all get a chance but Jack isn’t taking chances. “We may have to make sure that for the races that are really important to us in the domestic scene, like the Lincoln Grand Prix, that we take our best line up to them as opposed to before when we were thinking of maybe giving some of our development riders that opportunity and sending the more experienced riders to UCI races.”

“That could be subject to change if the criteria for the Tour of Britain is announced before events like Lincoln. If we have to amass points to put ourselves into a position to do the Tour of Britain then obviously we will have to approach that criteria and the races within that with our best teams to get that spot”.

“When the Tour Series is on, we will have some other races happening but overall, we have to make sure, we have the top eight doing the series. There are two or three guys on the border of that top eight and those two or three guys are potentially not going to get the race opportunities that we need to give them to have that opportunity to break into that top eight and get that racing under their belt, so that will be a challenge we need to be aware of.”

Looking at their strengths for the Tour Series, the possible contenders are numerous says Jack. “Freddie Scheske and Matt Gibson stand out and we also have Mark Stewart coming back from New Zealand. He is really training well and getting a lot of racing in New Zealand. We also have Charles Page who won it with Canyon and Ollie Moors who was top 10 in the National Criterium Champs in 2019”.

Matt Gibson, a former crit champion and unbeatable in sprints for a time, is one of the teams big strengths

“We also have Tipper, Dan, Will, Gruff and Cameron Jeffers who was second in a Tour Series round at Durham. So we have a lot of depth for the Tour Series and I think we can put in a strong five in every round. So we will put emphasis on that and it’s great that the organisers have been able to secure the venues and the support and hopefully will run in August. That is 100 per cent one of our objectives”.

“The overall would be good to win but for us we want to win bike races and if we win a few rounds and that leads to the overall, that would be good, but we certainly won’t be playing it cagey to defend an overall position in lieu of winning the rounds which is the most important.”

So getting the hands in the air is important I said? “I think so” Jack replied. “I think now more than ever. I can’t speak for other teams but I think the guys have been so committed during these testing times and it’s been difficult for them without racing so for us, we’re going out there to have fun and win bike races. The most motivating thing for the lads now is to get stuck into racing, winning and getting their hands in the air.”

“We haven’t had any tangible racing for 12 months so we don’t how that is going to impact on rider form and who is going to come to the fore. What will the impact be for example on riders who were strong in the past? Will they still be the same without that racing in the last year? There are a lot of unknowns at the start of the racing season and so we have to be ready to change our plans because what could look good on paper could in reality may not be working as well, so we need to be dynamic and prepared to adapt.”

If the racing is like 2020, it could be time trials that dominate the racing to start with. Ribble Weldtite is a team that dominated the time trials in 2020 and Jack says “we will be putting some emphasis on those events like the blue ribbon ones such as the 10 and the 25 championships, stuff we’d always focus on. Internally, we’re also working, with the help of Dan (Bigham) to get James (Shaw), Matt (Gibson) and Freddie (Scheske) up to speed on the time trial stuff and it will be good for them to dial in their equipment early season and give them a secondary focus there.”

“We are quite in a unique position in the emphasis we put on that discipline and it complements our other programmes. I think Dan will surprise a few people. Some of the races we’ve selected him for, have a time trial in them as well so that will be an emphasis for him but his two main goals are the national championships and he’s keen to deliver his absolute best performance in those. He’s also up for the Tour of Britain if the team is selected and the team time trial is in that race as it was going to be. He’d be a key part of that.”

Good luck to the team in 2021 and thank you Jack, great chatting as always.

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