Riding in France can be intimidating enough without the shadow of one of the nation’s finest towering over you at ever turn.
For young rider Stuart Balfour there’s a constant reminder that he’s in the presence of such greatness ever time he leaves his digs in a tiny corner of north western France.
The Scot – who is on his second year with the Brittany-based Côtes d’Armor – Marie Morin Véranda Rideau team – has based himself in the home village of Bernard Hinault and it’s fair to say that the locals there hero-worship their favourite son.
“It is very much the land of Hinault, living in the village where he grew up he is a legend here, with a large mural of him up on the main street is is easy to see how much cycling and specifically Breton cyclists mean to everyone,” Stuart said.
The 21-year-old – who admits he was so obsessed with Jan Ullrich as a youngster that he demanded a pink cycling jersey for his ninth birthday! – is one of two Dave Rayner Fund riders writing regular blogs this year for Allez! Allez! CC.
Stuart got his season underway at Le Barre-de-Monts on Saturday and admitted on Twitter afterwards that it had been a tough race to kick things off.
Before he pinned on his race number for the first time, we asked him to introduce himself to Allez! Allez! CC readers by answering a few questions…
So Stuart, how did you journey in cycling start?
I come from a small village in the Scottish Borders called Heriot. I started racing at eight when I joined my local cycling club Peebles CC doing time trials.
I first got into it when I was given old tapes of the 95-98 Tour de France from a family friend in the village, I would watch these videos on loop. I was totally hooked on it from there, so I quickly got a tiny steel Raleigh road bike and of course demanded it would be painted yellow.
On my ninth birthday I asked for a bright pink Telekom top so I could look like Jan Ullrich (maybe not your standard ninth birthday present but I thought it was pretty cool). I started racing the local time trials where I got a lot of support from others in the club at the time and really started to learn how to be a cyclist and not just a little kid playing on his bike.
From there I slowly progressed on to crits in Scotland where I started to get a taste for racing and just wanted to race more and more and then it started to snowball and soon I was racing all over the UK and internationally.
You mentioned Ullrich there, was he the cyclists you looked up to when growing up?
I have had a few idols throughout the years, it started off with Ullrich when I was younger watching him in his prime on my old tapes.
Then more recently it would always be Fabian Cancellara, he was always such a classy bike rider and the way he would win races by attacking solo and just riding off on his own was one of the most inspirational things for any young cyclists.
I always thought the best way to win a bike race was to cross the line alone.
How would you describe yourself as a rider?
I would say I am a fairly versatile rider, I can do a bit of everything expect a big bunch sprint. I would favour the hillier races as my strongest place would be more on the climbs. My goal is to be more of a stage racer as I mature as a rider.
As I like a mix of parcours, France was the perfect place for me to come as it has such a wide variation of races, from flat windy races to climbing/mountainous races. I think as a country it has something for everyone.
Compared to some other countries for example, Belgium is perfect for bigger riders like your sprinters and rouleurs with its flatter races, whereas there is Italy which is favoured more to your pure climbers. So France has given me a chance to practise a wider set of race skills which I think has made me into more of a complete rider.
You found some great success in some big races in France last year – you must have been delighted with how things went?
The 2018 season was definitely a good one for me, yet it was not all plain sailing. After crashing in the first Coupe de France I broke my collarbone for a second time in the space of six months. I had to go back in for surgery to get it replated and pinned.
This put me out of competition for two months but I didn’t let it ruin my season as I kept working hard and after less than a month back racing I got my first win of 2018 at Ronde Briochine. In the second half of the season I feel I really managed to make a name for myself here in France but also back home in the UK.
GP Plouay was the real stand out moment. I didn’t quite realise at the time just how prestigious a race it is. It wasn’t until I saw the response that I found out just how big a victory it was.
Last season definitely gave me the confidence that I have what it takes to make the step up to the higher level.
Throughout this winter and coming into the start of the season I have really kept that confidence with me, knowing if I keep on progressing the way I am and listening to the people that matter I can make that step up at the end of the year.
You’re based in the land of Bernard Hinault – what’s it like racing in that part of France?
The racing is savage here, with 3 DN1 teams and 1 DN2 in such a small area each race you go to you know it’s never going to be easy. It really forces you to up your game. It really is a case of sink or swim. In my opinion it is one of the best places for an U23 to come and learn the trade, as you have such a large calendar of quality races nearby.
Having raced and lived in other areas of France it has, by far, one the highest levels of competition if not the highest. I may be a little biased but I think there are many people who would back me up.
I think for this reason you see pro teams looking to make partnerships with development teams here, for example this year we start our partnership with Israel Cycling Academy.
They have put trust in the team to prepare young riders to be able to step up into the Professional ranks.
How important is the Dave Rayner Fund for young riders? Does the Fund go beyond the funding side in terms of the support you receive, the prestige of the DRF etc?
The Dave Rayner Fund has helped me a huge amount. It isn’t just the financial support that makes the difference it is very much the exposure as well. Often riders go abroad and get forgotten about, I have often felt this before I came to the Dave Rayner Fund.
But through the fund, and the social media outlets it has given young riders a way to get more exposure back home. They are very proactive with getting information and content out there, which in this day and age is very important.
I didn’t quite realise this until coming to the dinner at the end of last season where suddenly everyone knew what I had been doing and I hadn’t just been forgotten. Then I realised just how much of a difference the fund had made on raising my profile back in the UK.
What are your hopes for this season – is there particular races you and the team are targeting?
This season my thoughts are totally on making the step up to the professional ranks, that is very much the end goal for this season.
To get there there are a few races I will target – the Tour de Bretagne will be the first, after the team sadly will no longer be racing Liege-Bastogne Liege-U23. Then later in the season I will look to national Championships and Kreizh Briezh Elites to be summer goals, from there I would really like to get a place in the National Team for the U23 worlds.
Competing in the World Championships would be a massive opportunity for me and to be able to race in front of a home crowd after so many years racing abroad would be the cherry on top.