Racing

James Shaw rides into his own

The Brit got to the Tour de France the hard way

July 7, 2023

“This is the level, isn’t it? What was I—fifth? Fifth over the bloody Tourmalet at the Tour de France. If you can do that, you can win a stage, right? Yeah you can.”

James Shaw was eating his gummy bears in a towel, watching journalists gather outside the bus to speak to him. All of a sudden, they all wanted to speak to him. James had just astounded the Tour de France’s media pack with his ride on a historic day in the Pyrénées. After years, bouncing around bike racing’s minor leagues, the Brit was coming into his own. There was newfound confidence in his voice.

James always knew that he had the ability. At times, he just feared he’d missed his chance. It was hard to keep believing in himself and to keep going.

He never fit into the British cycling system. Riding lap after lap on indoor tracks just didn’t appeal to his imagination. A velodrome in Manchester is pretty much the same as one in Rio, Tokyo, or Paris, and James loved road racing, so he went to Belgium to prove himself instead.

As a teenager, he spent all the money he’d saved from work to get to races across the English Channel. He got better and better. One week, it all came together, and he won six small-town races in a row on the Belgian circuit. That got him a spot on a Belgian development team, which gave him a bike and kit and told him that if he won races he’d go to the World Tour. James won. His first years as a pro were a struggle though. He was a Brit on a very Belgian team and never quite found his place. At the end of his first two-year contract, he was told that there was no longer a spot for him in the team.

So, it was back to the amateurs for James for a season. He raced hard and earned a spot on a second-division professional squad for the next year. But it folded when COVID hit.

After years of grovelling in bike racing’s gutters, James just about quit. He started training to become a train driver.

“I was done with cycling, done with racing—I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says. “It was other people and family that actually said that you’ve got to keep going, you can’t stop, you are too young. It was quite hard to believe them, because I had lost a lot of faith in myself. Other people were saying that you are too good to stop, whereas I didn’t believe that. I was of the mindset that I had got myself to this point, therefore it was my fault sort of thing. It was a lot of other people around me that had seen me grow up through cycling that said they were not going to let me stop. They were going to make sure I gave it my best shot before hanging up the race wheels.”

James’s friends and family convinced him to keep going. After a winter in which he hardly touched his bike, he signed up to a small amateur team and set about getting himself into shape. The dream was still alive. And the dream was to ride grand tours, to be a Tour de France racer. First, he had to show what he was worth. That year, James did just that at the Tour of Norway and Tour of Slovenia. Fifth placed rides on GC in both races caught the notice of our head sports director Charly Wegelius, who convinced team CEO Jonathan Vaughters to sign him.

Last year, James made his third professional start to a season. He impressed with his rides at the Tour of Wallonie and his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España. This year, he wanted to step up his game. He worked hard over the winter and stayed disciplined through the spring. At the Criterium du Dauphiné in June, he had a breakout ride.

“I was riding better than I have ever ridden and it obviously didn’t go unnoticed,” James says. “Our DS Charly pulled me over on the last day and he said, look, we’ll put you on the long list. We’ll send you home to prepare. Don’t do Ventoux Challenge. Go home and get ready and prepare as if you are going to go and I thought, is he pulling my leg? He said he is considering me, but is it a serious consideration and stuff? So I was like oh, don’t build yourself up too much. So I prepared as if I was going to go. I put everything into it, the best recovery I could have done, that sort of jazz. And then he rang me and said we’ll crack on with it, we’ll do it. So I thought, oh, this is actually going to happen. I was a bit sort of taken aback by it. I didn’t really know what to do.”

He was even more taken aback when he arrived in Bilbao. The Tour de France is on a different plane to every other bike race, let alone the minor-league ones James was doing just a few years ago. The crowds and amount of media attention blew him away. It was hard to stay focused.

“To be honest, I struggled on the first days of the Tour, struggled to take it all in,” James says. “It is an achievement just to be at the Tour de France, isn’t it? Just to be selected from something in the region of 25ish riders and they can only pick eight. So, just to be here in the team is an achievement in itself. But it is turned up to 11 and I was a bit—I think I let it get to me. Our DS Juanma Garate came to me and he tried to calm me down a bit.”

When the race arrived in the mountains, James finally felt like himself. He went up the road with the break early in stage six, and then it was just a bike race. Up the Tourmalet with the lead group, through a parting sea of fans, the pain in his legs was the same he’d always known. He was just riding faster than he’s ever ridden before in the biggest bike race in the world.

The GC favorites caught him over the top and together they ripped down the legendary descent. On the final climb to Cauterets-Cambasque, James proved that he belonged here at the Tour de France—to himself above all.

“I just didn’t want to get dropped,” he says. “I was just like one more k, one more k, one more k, right. I’ve got to just ride my own tempo now. I am already in the red. I’m just going to have to sit on that red line for as long as I can. This is what cycling is all about. It is about being in the lead group, after the Tourmalet, getting chased by the best riders in the world. As a young lad, I might have thought I would have one of those careers that you were on the conveyor belt and you would just get taken along it, but I have probably fallen off the conveyor belt a few times and getting back on has been quite difficult really. I have always had to fight for my next contract. It has not been handed to me on a plate.”

James fought all the way up Cauterets-Cambasque. At the summit, he was fifth. It was the affirmation he needed.

James put on his team clothing, walked out of the bus, and told all of the journalists assembled outside the door that now he wanted to win a stage at this Tour de France.

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