James Shaw bounded off the Lotto Soudal team bus into the Bergamo morning sunshine with a spring in his step, despite his cloudy future.
He had not expected to be on the start line of Il Lombardia for his maiden Monument. Eight days before the race, the Briton was on a ferry, heading to a Belgian baby shower in which he’d been asked to be godfather of his friend’s child. Then he got a phone call from team management asking him to do a series of Italian season-ending races as a replacement for the sick Jelle Vanendert.
“I could have said no, but I’d have been the one missing out on the pleasure. I’m happy to be here, it’s quite impressive, isn’t it?” he said, looking briefly at the grand buildings around. “So I’m here, ready to go.”
Shaw’s season clicked into gear this summer, culminating in tenth place in the U23 World Championships road race at Innsbruck, his best result of the year. Fortunately, despite intending that would be his farewell race, he kept riding with friends and family and reckons he lost little form before his eleventh hour call-up.
“Performance-wise, it’s been grand. Especially coming into the last two months, since the Tour of Poland, I really picked up and I’m just starting to find my feet with this pro cycling malark [sic]. And then I found myself in a bit of a pickle contract-wise.”
An unsure future
After impressing with Lotto-Soudal’s U23 team, Shaw turned pro with the Belgian WorldTour team in 2017 at the age of 20. He lined up at the likes of Het Nieuwsblad, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Volta a Catalunya. But after working mainly as a domestique for two seasons – at Lombardia, he was supporting Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens – no offer was forthcoming from his current squad or any other team.
“I’m not being secretive about it – that’s it, there isn’t anything, which is difficult mentally as well. It’s not the biggest confidence booster. It’s a bit disappointing, it’s a challenge. It’s going to happen at some point in everyone’s career and unfortunately for me, it’s happening while I’m still 22.”
You’d think his age and promise might give him a little leeway, but evidently that’s not the case. Shaw’s situation epitomises the scrappy, cutthroat side of the sport come the autumn. Every year, there are limited spaces available for a glut of talented riders on the market. This season is as messy as ever: Aqua Blue Sport are closing, BMC are joining with CCC and there will be a merger between Veranda’s Willems and Roompot. “It’s the nature of the sport, it seems to be on its knees at the minute,” Shaw observed.
Shaw: I wish I’d stayed U23 longer
On reflection, Shaw reckons turning pro in January 2017 was a “rash, young error” on his part. “I should have stayed as an amateur and done more in the way of results,” he says. “I think if I had some advice to give to a younger rider in the same predicament, the same rock and a hard place, I’d say prolong your amateur years as long as possible. Because if I could go back and do mine, I would. They’re the best cycling years of your life.
“All right, you took it seriously but it wasn’t pressured, it wasn’t for money, for a career, to make sure you could pay your rent, it was because you loved cycling. And while I do still love to ride my bike, I do miss having that amateur, do it for the love side of things. I deprived myself of that, really.
“I don’t regret the decision I made on that day, I’ve had a good two years as a professional but it’s put me in a bit of a sticky place now. Any young rider out there who’s wondering what to do, my bit of advice is just step back and think. Make sure that you go to a team that will help you definitely progress – that it’s not just for the benefit of the team, it’s going to benefit you as well.”
The irony is that the biggest race of his nascent career came at the end of its first chapter. Il Lombardia was a last chance to put himself in the shop window. “Today’s the priority at the minute, so hopefully something’ll happen there. I’m excited about my first Monument. I want to make it a good one, I want to start as if I mean to go on,” he said, before heading off to grab a coffee on the team bus.
Unfortunately, Shaw’s luck didn’t change. He crashed midrace at Lombardia, looking dazed before abandoning.
The diagnosis was a left collarbone broken in two places, injury added to insult. Still, after his last race for Lotto Soudal, Shaw has some time off and will hope for good news from his agent; it’s all he can do. “It is getting late [in the season], it is in the back of my mind but it’s been a funny year for the old contracts. A lot of guys are in the same boat at the minute so we’ll see.”