Rob Britton's runner-up result at the Tour de Beauce last week marks the culmination of a long road back to the level where he feels he belongs.
The 29-year-old Team SmartStop rider from Canada signed his first UCI Continental contract with Bissell Pro Cycling in 2010 after riding for the Trek-Red Truck amateur elite team in 2009. He rode for Bissell the following season as well, but he wasn't offered a contract for the 2012 season. Britton competed on the amateur level again with H&R block that year before signing for 2013 with Raleigh, a British Continental team.
"It was tough," Britton said of his season back in the amateur ranks. "But I was up for a challenge, and today is a perfect example of that. I mean it was hard, for sure, but I had some pretty big supporters, like Canada's best rider, Svein Tuft. He really helped me with this and that. Some people were really in my corner, like H&R [Block] got me where I needed to be. And like Mike [Creed] and SmartStop. So I'm here now and I'm riding well at the level I should be."
Britton started his first season with SmartStop by finishing second overall at the Vuelta Independence Nacional in the Dominican Republic. He backed up that result with a third-place overall finish at the Tour of the Gila, where he crossed the line second during the difficult Gila Monster stage on the final day.
In Beauce, Britton was fourth on the Queen Stage that finished at the top of Mont Megantic on the second day, but he finished a disappointing 12th during the 20km time trial the next day. He finished with the main group and most of the general classification contenders during the stage 4 circuit race in Quebec, and he went into the final day in fourth place overall, 1:43 behind eventual winner Toms Skujins of Hincapie Sportswear.
"I was really hungry for a good result this year," Britton said. "And I knew going into the stage that everything can change. Every year it's always hard, and my God, this year they made the course even harder, if that's possible. For me that's always going to play out better than an easier day."
The circuit race on the final day in St-Georges was a winding, twisting, up-and-down affair through the city center and residential neighborhoods of the town that lies about an hour south of Québec City. The circuit is notorious for shaking up the general classification, and this year more riders abandoned the race than finished it. But Britton hanged tough throughout, losing by a bike length to Skujins at the line and moving into second overall.
Britton was having a hard time believing he got such a good result in the 29-year-old event that is one of Canada's most prestigious stage races.
"It's my fifth or sixth time doing this race," he said. "And it hasn't really sunk in. There are some pretty big names among Canadian riders that have been on the podium, so to be amongst those riders is pretty exciting."
Some changes in training and the move to his new team are responsible for Britton's uptick in results this year, he said, and he credited new coach Chris Baldwin with helping him build his current form.
"He's kind of taken over my coaching, and we click really well together," Britton said of Baldwin, who finished his career with Bissell last year. "I'd say that's the biggest change. And then working with [SmartStop director] Mike Creed. Both of us mesh really well with our personalities.
"[Creed] did a phenomenal job building a team where everybody respects everybody else, and everybody's personalities work so well together," Britton continued. "Everybody is more than willing to do all for one and one for all in every race. I think the results are a reflection of that kind of cohesion."
Britton's new level of fitness, combined with the new team structure, has helped him rise to the top of North American domestic racing. But he said the head-turning results have not been the best part of his latest success.
"Every race I keep learning more and more about what I can do on a bike," he said. "So that's been incredibly satisfying this year. That's probably been the most satisfying thing. Each race it's like, 'OK, that was new.'"
Britton's next event will be the Canadian national championships in two weeks. He knows winning a maple leaf jersey will not be an easy task, but he's hopeful for a good result.
"Nationals is always a bit different, especially now that people look at you once you've had some results," he said. "That always makes it a little bit harder, but I think I'm up for the challenge."