Over the past seven years or so, Stevie Williams has made a smooth progression from riding youthful 10-mile time trials with Ystwyth CC to signing on the dotted line with Bahrain-Merida for 2019. Season on season, the Welshman developed steadily, and, for the bulk of his short amateur career, even the most important decisions were self-evident.
At the end of 2015, for instance, it was clear that he had outgrown British domestic outfit Pedal Heaven, and so he moved on to the JLT Condor squad. After just a year under John Herety’s tutelage, it was already apparent that he needed a steady diet of Europe’s toughest espoir races to progress further, and Williams duly signed with SEG Racing Academy ahead of the 2017 campaign.
Williams reached a fork in the road, however, in April of 2018, a season he had pinpointed as presenting his final opportunity to make the final step up to WorldTour level. The Commonwealth Games in Australia in mid-April overlapped with a vital sequence of under-23 racing in Europe – the Tours of Normandy and Brittany, as well as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, part of his build-up to the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard.
He chewed on the dilemma for some time. Williams had been on Welsh Cycling’s radar since joining the body’s talent programme as a junior, and Darren Tudor’s influence as a mentor remained long after he had ceased to be his coach.
On the one hand, Williams felt an obligation to wear the national jersey in what amounts to Welsh Cycling’s flagship event, though one that hardly registers beyond the competing countries. On the other, he owed it to his talent to prepare assiduously for the Ronde de l’Isard, where the WorldTour teams would certainly be sitting up and taking notice.
"My mindset was that Welsh Cycling had done so much for me, so it took ages to make a decision. I was going back and forth,” Williams tells Cyclingnews. “If it had come three years earlier, I could have done it, but this was really my last year at under-23. Fortunately, Welsh Cycling were so supportive. They just said it was my decision and that they would support me no matter what I did."
Williams’ decision to stay in Europe was a sage one. He performed strongly at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, placing ninth on a day where the break stayed clear, and gathered further momentum in northern France at the Ronde de l’Isard. He travelled to the Pyrenees in May in what amounted to the form of his life. After winning the uphill finish at Eycheil on the opening stage, Williams repeated the feat in the yellow jersey on the long haul to Goulier-Neige the following day.
"Ronde de l’Isard was the best race I’ve ever done," Williams says. The only fraught moment came on the final descent of the fourth and final stage, when an untimely puncture forced him into a desperate pursuit of challenger Aurélien Paret-Peintre on the road to Saint-Girons.
"I just thought, aw mate. I thought I was done. I was ready to throw my bike in the ravine," Williams laughs. "It was all just a mess. The guy in second has just gone past hammering down the descent and it was pelting down with rain. But I just managed to hold on. I wasn’t losing that, no chance."
More often than not, the Ronde de l’Isard winner is courted by professional teams, but Williams still wasn’t sure he had done enough to earn a contract. "It’s only four days of racing. You can never rely on that sort of thing," he says.
It was important, then, to add to the portfolio at the following month’s under-23 Giro d’Italia, and Williams moved into the maglia rosa after placing second on the mountain stage to Malga di Dimaro. Although he lost the tunic the next day, he lifted himself again to solo to victory atop Pian delle Fugazze.
"I was disappointed with how I lost the maglia rosa, by letting the break go, but I took the anger out the next day and won the stage," Williams says. "It was nice to prove Isard wasn’t a one-hit wonder. I showed I could do it in France and go for it in Italy too."
Williams would finish the Giro in fifth place overall, and field a call from Bahrain-Merida general manager Brent Copeland shortly afterwards. By midsummer, his 2019 promotion to WorldTour racing had been confirmed.
The 2018 season ultimately proved to be a year of two halves for Williams, whose imperious early form was balanced by a more trying finale. A crash at Tour Alsace in early August impacted on his preparation for the Tour de l’Avenir, though the 22-year-old refuses to cite it as an excuse.
"The crash didn’t help but I wasn’t myself," he admits. "I went to l’Avenir and I think that’s the most gutted I’ve been in cycling, when I got dropped on that first mountain stage. I was getting dropped by sprinters. Something wasn’t right."
Williams recovered enough to perform solidly at the Tour of Britain, while the final weeks of the season also saw him make his debut in Bahrain-Merida colours with stagiaire appearances at the Giro della Toscana and Coppa Sabatini in September.
"That was just to meet everyone and make the transition easier because for any job – whatever you do – when you go somewhere new, it’s hard, isn’t it?" Williams says. "That was perfect really. When I came back for the training camp, and I sort of knew everybody, so it’s a lot easier."
Williams was an accidental cyclist. He was a runner in his youth and, more than anything, he loved football. He still does and is more than pleased to remind supporters of rival teams that his beloved Liverpool lead the Premier League. "Make sure you get that in," he says, leaning towards the Dictaphone on the table before him.
As a teenager, however, his own nascent footballing career – "I was playing at county level, and I enjoyed it" – was cut short when he was diagnosed with Osgood Schlatter disease, an inflammation of the patellar ligament. No longer able to participate in impact sports, Williams took up cycling. If his early, 10-mile time trials were a struggle, his first club runs with Ystwyth CC were a revelation. "The chain gang was mega, because of the craic with the boys and that."
In time, Williams applied to the Wales Junior Academy, combining racing with his studies in carpentry and joinery, before turning to full-time competition when Welsh Cycling began an under-23 programme in 2015.
That pathway led quickly to SEG, though his first year on the Continent, in 2017, was blighted by crashes – some 15 in total, by Williams’ own estimation. "In 2017, to be honest, I got my head kicked in," he says. "The crashes were down to a lack of experience, but I still got a few little results here and there."
Williams’ 2018 displays, meanwhile, have seen him draw repeated comparisons with Dan Martin, another rider with a penchant for performing strongly in the Ardennes and the Pyrenees.
"I think I am sort of similar in terms of my build and shape, and my attacking mentality," Williams says. "I like to go for stages as well as GC, and I like little short, sharp climbs like the Ardennes. It is a fair comparison, and if I could replicate some of his performances, I’d be dead happy."
Williams’ 2019 racing programme was still being finalised during Bahrain-Merida’s December training camp in Hvar, Croatia, and he is aware that his maiden season at WorldTour level will primarily be a learning experience. He will likely base himself in Girona, while his coaching will be overseen by David Bailey after two years under Vasilis Anastopoulos at SEG.
"I just want to be consistent, help the team whenever I can. And whenever I get opportunities, take them. I’d love to win some races next year, whether it’s at the highest level or lower down, but I also just want to learn off riders like Haussler, Pozzovivo and Nibali," says Williams. Not that he is a starry-eyed neophyte.
"Coming in first day and being sat next to Vincenzo at dinner isn’t something that happens every day. But it quickly feels like you’re part of the team and you’re here to do a job. You realise you’re here because you deserve to be here. That’s the way I think about it."
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