Leaving home is huge deal for any youngster, whatever the reason for doing so.
Spare a thought then for the dozens of young bike riders who, each year, leave home and head to mainland Europe on the first steps towards what they hope will be a professional career in the world’s toughest sport.
Each year the Dave Rayner Fund – set up in the memory of former British professional rider Dave Rayner who died outside a Bradford nightclub in 1994 – provides funding and support to riders treading that path.
As we revealed last week, over the course of the 2019 season we’ll be supporting the Dave Rayner Fund and two of its riders Stuart Balfour and Kim Baptista.
To kick off our Dave Rayner Fund-related coverage, Allez! Allez! CC spoke to two riders who were supported last year about their 2018 season, the essential nature of the fund and their homes for this season.
Mansfield-based Ross Lamb rode for the now-defunct T.Palm cycling club in Wallonia while Zak Coleman, who hails from Great Yarmouth, raced with the VP Consulting-Zannata team across in Flanders.
The pair both agree that racing in Belgium is worlds apart from the domestic scene in the UK.
Zak said: “There’s so many differences (between racing in the UK and in Belgium). Just something like the roads being closed is massive – you only get that in Belgium.
“It’s a different world and the racing is so much more advanced. It’s so simplistic but so hard – you get all the top riders turning up but the best way to improve is to race against the best isn’t it?
“But you’re in the right environment to do it.
“It was a big learning experience last season. Stepping up from junior to under-23 you don’t really know what to expect too much but I think I settled in and got some fairly-consistent results in kermesses.
“I had some good performances, so I was pretty happy overall.”
Ross picked up plenty of good results last season with T.Palm including a very credible third in the Circuit de Wallonie, a top 20 in the 1.1 GP Stad Zottegem and 31st in the Primus Classic.
And he says he was pleased with his lot: “Last season was a massive step up. I think if I’d have done the same calendar last year that I’d done the first time I went over to Belgium then I probably would have won 15 races so that step was huge.
“It’s improved me a lot. Finishing 30th or 20th in a race means a lot but from the outside people don’t see that as a big thing. I can guarantee that not many people would be able to come over and finish that high.
“I had one race where I was in the breakaway with five or six guys with 15km to go and after the race I got messages of a few random Belgians via Facebook and that almost gives you a better feeling.
“It’s pretty cool when you start getting out there and people come up to you before the races and recognise you.
“At the last race of the year I had this little kid come up to me and he asked me for a jersey. I’d brought some along in case it happened and he offered me this little bottle of beer for the jersey which was nice.
“I had one guy come up to me and he had pictures from the last three years of me and I couldn’t believe it! People come up with the rider cards to get signed as well so the scene is massive in Belgium.”
Ross has spent the last two years on the Dave Rayner Fund while Zak was supported last year and will continue to be so this time around.
Both are, as you’d expect, keen to stress just how important the fund is for young riders trying to make their way.
Ross said: “It’s just incredible how a fund like the Dave Rayner Fund can support you because you can never get enough money to go and do it for yourself.
“It’s probably £4,500-5,000 a year all in but it’s impossible to do on your own.”
Aside from the financial contribution, the fund is also a vast support network, as Zak found out last year.
He said: “It’s quite a close-knit environment is the Dave Rayner Fund, there’s a lot of contacts you get from it and there’s constant support.
“I had a problem with an infection in my heart at the end of the season and there’s so much you can tap into and get advice from.”
Two of the key figures within the Dave Rayner Fund machine are Jos Ryan and former British national champion Tim Harris, who are not only on hand to give advice to the dozens of riders who seek it each year but also host young hopefuls at properties in Flanders.
It’s fair to say that what the pair don’t know about the Belgian scene isn’t worth knowing.
Ross found racing success in Belgium three years ago after seeking advice from Jos – who pointed him in the direction of another cycling institution Café Sur Place – while Tim’s links with Zak’s old British club led to him making a maiden voyage to the continent.
Zak said: “My old race team was connected to Tim Harris, who was the president of our team, so I went out to stay at his house and did a couple of trips to Belgium as a junior and got some decent results.
“I was then picked up by a Belgian junior team and there I stay at Tim and Jos’ house and they said that I should apply for the Dave Rayner Fund.
“When Tim is around, he’s always giving us tips and there’s so much that I’ve learned from him – stories and tactics and a different perspective on racing that you don’t see these days.
“Everything now is all about this power or that power but he’s very old school in the way that he thinks and that’s what I really like so there’s lots of philosophies that you can take.”
So, what does the 2019 season hold in store for the pair?
Zak is sticking with the VP Consulting-Zanatta team in Flanders – and will be returning to Tim and Jos’ house for another year- while Ross has moved onto pastures new in France with one of the country’s oldest clubs – GSC Blagnac V.S. 31.
Both are keen to build on last season.
Zak said: “Now I know what I’m aiming for and where I am at, I want to get some results, pushing into the top 10s in the kermesses and hopefully if I can push into the inter-club races and gets result in them as well then that’s where you’ll get picked up and looked at.
“While you’re still at under-23 level it’s about pushing up – it’s the most important time because that’s when you’re going to get picked up if you are.
“March 1 will be my first race so I’m going out to Belgium at the end of February. There’s not too much racing in the first month or so – maybe one or two races a week. Our team has a good early season calendar and they’ve stepped up this year and got some bigger invites.
“There’s a couple of UCI Under-23 events in there this season which will be really good.
“There’s a lot of first year seniors on the Dave Rayner Fund this year so I assume they’ll be a lot of new riders in the house.
“There’s a couple of us who were there last year coming back but it will be interesting to see because I’ll be more experienced this year.”
For Ross, the move to France is not something he’d considered. But the demise of T.Palm late last year meant his options suddenly became limited.
But he said: “I spoke to a few people and they said that French racing is massively different to Belgian racing, but they think it will suit me because it’s more team-orientated.
I’m hoping that the best man wins whereas in Belgium it’s a bit of a free-for-all and there’s an element of luck involved as well.
“I’d turned down teams, I obviously wanted to move up – I had tried to get a stagiaire from August but that didn’t happen – but I wasn’t going to go Pro-Continental so my idea was to stay on a team.
“But when the team told us in the first week of October that it was definitely stopping it was a bit like ‘oh crap, I’ve got to rush around looking for something’ because even my back-up plan had gone.
“When I started searching for a team, I looked at my results and looked at what I’d done best in and I’ve done well in races where it’s not overly-hilly but there’s a few in there.
“So, from that I thought France was possible but that’s what excites me, I want something that pushes me in a direction. I’ve got used to the Belgian racing now but I want to become a more all-rounder as a rider.
“I am kind of scared of the climbing because it’s going to take me probably half a season to get used to it but I’m ready to accept that so hopefully when things do turn around it’ll be really good.
“I’m not expecting to go over there and win straight away but that’s always my aim.
“Nigel Smith, who used to be a pro in France years and years ago, has sent me a load of CDs to try and learn so I’m on the bike riding along repeating it back to myself so people must think I’m a bit weird if they see me at the traffic lights but I’m just trying to learn French!”
And what advice would the pair give to any young rider thinking about take the first pedal strokes towards the pro peloton?
“I would definitely recommend going abroad because it brings you on as a person. If you can do that – living abroad with different people – then you can pretty much do anything,” Ross said.
Zak agrees: “I’d say to people just give it a go. There’s such a different level and so much that you can learn from being out there.”
For more information on the Dave Rayner Fund click here.