Red Walters blog: My first pro races with Hagens Berman Axeon

Red Walters second from the right with Hagens Berman Axeon at Brussels Cycling Classic (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Red Walters was awarded a stagiaire spot with Hagens Berman Axeon for the second half of the 2021 season. In his latest Cyclingnews blog, the 22-year-old talks about his debut races and the lessons he has already learned.

Hey everyone. In my last blog, I’d just won the U23 Caribbean Championships and was preparing for the Pan American Championships. A lot has happened since then, so lemme fill y'all in.

I’ll cut to the bad bit real quick. The Pan Am road race was three hours on a pan-flat circuit, on an out-and-back course. Colombia had controlled the majority of the race and were the main lead-out train heading into the finish. With no teammates, I made sure to get myself onto their sprinter's wheel. But with approximately 500 meters to go, another rider tangled bars, flicked across, and took out their sprinter, leaving me nowhere to go.

I’m generally a very calm and controlled person, but I haven’t felt rage like that in a long time. In the video you can hear me cursing for a long time after the crash - not from the physical pain, but the devastation of missing out on the chance to sprint for a continental championship title.

As you can probably tell, I’m still a bit salty about that, so moving swiftly on… my next stop was Girona. After 36 hours of travelling, including a night in Madrid, and a genuinely petrifying taxi drive shaving 30 minutes off the estimated journey time, I arrived with my friends Ross and Vitor, who very kindly let me stay for the week.

My first ride shortly after arriving was with my new teammate Joe Laverick, who showed me the "fresh off the plane" loop, which I’m told is a staple for anyone who’s new to Girona. My legs felt surprisingly OK considering the crash and the travel time. Even the next morning, I managed to get through a solid sprint session with good numbers, but It was too good to be true. 

As soon as I got back from that second ride, the jet lag hit me like an uppercut from Mike Tyson. A four-hour nap - which by the way wasn’t a choice - didn’t seem to help too much, and to make matters worse, my bike's headset bearings had decided to fall apart.

It was a bit creaky before, but that loud click I heard in my last sprint effort was definitely not the 'be reyyt' kind of click. Not only was it a long job because of the internal routed hoses, but I couldn’t even find anyone who had the bearing in stock.

For the next few days, I rented a bike from the local bike shop. To be fair, It made me appreciate how good budget bikes can be. It was good fun to ride, even if I was still pretty floored by the jet lag, which at this point was starting to make me think I was fighting an illness. I only started to feel properly better after six days, which does follow the "one day for every time zone flown through" rule, but I dunno man, I felt wack.

Anyway, after a week in Girona, it was finally time to start my stagiaire with Hagens Berman Axeon. Conveniently, almost all of the team are based in Girona, so we all got in the same F1 car, I mean taxi, and after a quick flight we were in Brussels - ready for my first pro race. 

Before the Pan Am Champs, I’d only ever been able to get the opportunity to do one UCI race, a 1.2 called GP Lillers. This was a 1.1 (Druivenkoers Overijse), and even for a 1.1 had a pretty stacked start list as it used a lot of the same roads as the World Championships in September. With guys like Evenepoel and Alaphilippe in the peloton, it was definitely a novel experience to start with, but I was absolutely focused more than anything else on learning as much as possible, and figuring out how best to approach this kind of racing.

In a normal race, I consider positioning to be one of my strengths, but here it’s a whole different kettle of fish. I managed to stay near the front for the majority of the race, but shortly before the second set of savage climbs, I found myself towards the back. Timing is a critical factor with positioning. This also happened to be the moment my mates Remco and Julian decided to launch their attacks. So you can imagine being 150 riders back, at that point it was very much sub-optimal. The whole peloton pretty much exploded immediately and, before I knew it, my group had been dispatched out of the race.

Being an optimist, and someone who always expects the best from myself, part of me was a little disappointed. But all things considered, I think it’s important to take away the positives, especially considering I hadn’t even ridden the bike until that morning!

The cool thing about this trip was that we got to race again two days later, this time a 1.PRO (Brussels Cycling Classic), which despite being the next category up, was probably a similar level field. Remco won both races solo if you were wondering… I got to implement what I learned in the previous race, and hopefully improve. I decided to make it my objective to get into the break of the day, something I knew wouldn’t be easy, but I wanted to get involved, and I know I’ll learn more by trying and failing than not trying at all.

They don’t joke when they say the fight to get into the break at the start of these races is hard. It feels a bit weird and surreal attacking a QuickStep rider, but after a couple of big attempts, the second of which I was convinced was 'the one', it wasn’t to be for me as I watched a peloton of WorldTour riders attack behind and reduce the gap to nothing. 'Big attempts' is an understatement here, I was all-in on the second one, and it took me a hot minute to recover and move forward again. 

Unfortunately, as a team we missed the break, which we had targeted overall. We got that info through the radio, as I watched QuickStep and Alpecin-Fenix block the road. The gap went out super quick, and was already a minute, but what I did next goes against all the unwritten rules, and frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t end up in a Flemish prison.

When the break goes, the controlling teams will sit on the front and block the road. The break is gone, no more attacks, end of story… But we missed the break, and you never know what could happen if you inject some more impetus right? I found a little gap in the gutter, and attacked solo like a kid who’d just stolen the last slice of cake at a party. I was back in less than two minutes, stared down hard by the QuickStep rider who brought me back. I was never going to catch the break. My teammates countered a couple times, but nothing else changed.

The next couple hours were pretty steady until we hit the Muur. I tried to help position my teammates, but didn’t really do that quite right, and ended up riding hard for a couple minutes for nothing. Probably not the wisest thing going into one of the most famously challenging cobbled climbs in the world… Despite that I actually made it over the Muur still hanging on, but the following climb, the Bosberg, is the one that put the nail in my coffin, getting slightly distanced over the top, before spending the next 30 minutes in the convoy.

It’s hard not to come away thinking I could’ve done better, but I think that’s the nature of any new kind of challenge. It will always be easy to retrospectively spot all the mistakes, and all the places where I could’ve been more efficient. I felt like I’ve learned more in these two races than in the past two years, and the thought of improving at this level is so exciting to me. I can’t wait to race more at this level!

Another quick flight home was followed by one of the most frustrating things that’s happened all year. I was due to fly back out to Belgium five days later, but a tickly throat quickly became a full blown illness, and it was a no-go. Luckily, after a few negative tests, I can confirm it wasn’t COVID, but I was ill all the same. 

I write this now two weeks later, getting back into training properly and doing my best to prepare for my next race, the U23 World Championships. I’m not giving myself too much pressure, as I’m only just able to start training properly again, but I’m really looking forward to the experience and hopefully learning more racing against such a high level of competition.

Thanks again for reading, I’ll update you all after Worlds.

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