The global pandemic took an obvious toll on the professional WorldTour calendar, and while several high profile races were saved or rescheduled, the under 23 scene wasn't so fortunate.
That left a group of riders without the chance to take part in key races and although many U23 deals were extended for an additional year many riders struggled to gain a foothold or a shot in the pro ranks.
Red Walters is one such rider. Hailing from the South coast of England, Walters came to the sport relatively late and didn't start racing until he was 17. Now 22, he has very few results that he can rely on from the last 18 months, but the Dave Rayner funded athlete has found several ways to amplify his profile as well as his talent. Whether it's winning Zwift races, recruiting his own sponsors, being a role model for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) riders or his must-see Youtube videos, Walters has looked to find relevance in a competitive world in which competing has become almost impossible. Even though the European race scene looks shaky, to say the least, Walters' ambitions remain high.
"I think that I can get to the WorldTour," he tells Cyclingnews from his home in England.
"I wouldn't be able to push myself in the same way if I didn't honestly believe that I couldn't reach that top level. I aim for the top, I dream for the top. It's hard to explain but I fully believe that I can do it. I appreciate that for someone at my age and my level, most people would say I couldn't get to the top, but I fully believe that I can get there. I know how hard I can push myself and I can see the trajectory that I'm on. It's been fairly consistent and I don't think that I've started to plateau."
The problem for Walters, as with so many U23 riders, is that opportunities to race are so few and far between.
In 2020 he racked up just four days on the road before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. He did take a win in the Spanish one-day race Volta La Marina - Trofeu Ajuntament de Xàbia and he's experienced races in Belgium and France. He has a place with a French squad for this year but the likelihood is that he won't be able to pull on their team colours until July at the earliest.
"I'm racing for a team in France called CC Plancoet, which is a club. They're a feeder team for the division one team called Côtes d'Armor Marie Morin. So I've been told that I should be able to move up to that level in the next couple of months, Walters tells Cyclingnews.
"The only real reason I couldn't start at that level is because they didn't really know me and I had no real chance of going over there and meeting everyone. They couldn't really sign me just on what others had said or my results but hopefully I can go across, get some results and move up nice and early. That's the ideal scenario."
The final year
There's certainly an urgency to Walters' situation. This is his final year as a U23 rider and without the chance to race, either in the UK or abroad, he knows that his options could be limited come the end of the campaign. The situation becomes even tougher because Walters barely raced as a junior.
"Last year didn't really hit me and I was managing to keep training and remain motivated," he says.
"It was actually fine right at the start of this year, too but it's really dawning on me that this is my last year as a U23 rider... Last year was my third year at U23 and there was COVID-19, so nothing really happened and this year is looking like it could be quite restrictive. So I've got a palmares which is basically just the first and second-year versions of me at U23 and nowhere near reflects what I'm capable of now.
"That progression for me as a rider from where I was two years ago to where I am now is just such a huge difference. I think I'm doing 50 watts more and just have so much more power. I'm happy with where I am physically but I just have no way of proving that at the moment."
Along with a strong support network and the help of the Rayner Fund, which has been assisting young male and female riders transition to Europe since the 1990s, Walters has embarked on raising his profile through other means.
He has recruited his own sponsors, set up a dedicated YouTube channel where over 3,000 subscribers can watch his self-created videos. Although the road scene is on pause the 22-year-old has become a force to be reckoned with in the virtual world with a couple of Zwift race wins already under his belt, including the London Lockdown e-Race.
"That side of things makes such a difference," he says.
"A lot of people have told me that if a team is looking at me and another rider and we've both got the same power and results then there's me with a Youtube channel and that definitely helps.
"As a U23 rider, it's really helped me bring on personal sponsors, which although is much less of an issue when you're on a big team, makes a massive improvement when you're at this stage. They've made a huge difference and I think it's just good practice to be able to use tools like YouTube and Instagram to promote yourself in the right way and also pay back your sponsors that have invested in you."
Racing with the Black Cyclists Network
As well as signing with a team in France, Walters has also agreed to race for the Black Cyclists Network – a domestic team created in London to provide a space for BAME riders and with the hope of one day becoming a UCI registered squad.
Walters joined the team last year when his chances of racing abroad were put on hold and he competes in their distinctive kit when racing in the UK and online.
"I thought that it would be good to help promote diversity towards the end of last year and I'll also stay with them for the races that I do here in the UK," he says.
"Mani, who runs it, is an awesome guy and he's always had this big vision of where he wants to take it. Even I'm a bit surprised with how much they've grown, especially in the last six months. They've got a great number of sponsors and seeing the amount of diversity they are bringing is just huge."
The immediate hope for Walters is that British travel restrictions are lifted and that he can venture to France and kick off the next phase of his aspiring racing career.
His goals are ambitious, to say the least but if his drive and commitment are anything to judge by then his future looks bright. With a growing online following, he also knows that he's blazing a trail for others too.
"There aren't a huge amount of people of colour in cycling for people to look up to, especially in the UK. There are a few in America and a few in the WorldTour but there aren't many in the UK. When I'm told that I've inspired people that's incredible to hear but I think that improving diversity is down to a lot of factors but it starts at the grassroots and getting more diversity in cycling in general. That will lead to more people racing but it's going to take time and I think that the media play a big part in this too. It also comes down to the public perception of what's the sport is about and then hopefully it slowly snowballs from there."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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