James Shaw secured one of the best results of his career at the weekend with fifth overall in the Tour of Slovenia and, despite contemplating retirement for the past three seasons, the British rider is now fully enjoying himself in the Continental ranks.
A few years ago, Shaw, now 25, was part of the Lotto Soudal WorldTour team but, after a bruising exit from the Belgian squad in 2018, he has bounced around the lower divisions of the sport.
At the weekend, however, he went toe-to-toe with 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and a host of WorldTour teams. In fact, the British athlete was the only non-WorldTour rider to finish inside the top seven overall and he spoke to Cyclingnews as he travelled back to the UK on Monday morning.
"I’m over the moon, and I think that we did really well out there. We were by far the least funded team in the race but we rocked up in our hire cars and showed what we can do," Shaw told Cyclingnews.
Tadej Pogačar won the overall but the top riders in the race included Diego Ulissi, Matteo Sobrero, Rafał Majka, Tanel Kangert, Matej Mohorič, "and then there’s little me," said Shaw.
"It’s not right, is it? I think that no one is more surprised than me. I knew that I could go uphill well, I’m not particularly heavy and it’s not something that I’ve ever struggled with but I never thought that I’d be able to climb with guys of that calibre. I didn’t think that I’d be able to do that."
Shaw signed a one-year deal with the well-respected Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling team in the UK at the start of the year after his 2020 team, Riwal Readynez, closed down. Shaw has bumped around from Continental and ProContinental ranks since being told that he was surplus to requirements at Lotto at the end of 2018.
The result in Slovenia reconfirms his natural talent as a rider and provides him with a huge amount of confidence going into the second half of the season. Not only that, but the result is likely to encourage race organisers to invite Ribble to move events.
"This gives me a boost. You’ve got to believe in yourself to be an athlete. You’ve got to have that self-belief. It just confirms how I think that I can perform and hopefully it confirms it to other people as well and they have more faith in me in the future.
"The race was a bit surreal really. The last that time I raced Pogačar competitively was back in Innsbruck for the 2018 Worlds. He was seventh and I was 10th. But it was surreal because we rocked up here with our small budget and our hire cars and everyone else had these big vans. It was weird but the lads bent over backwards to help me all week and they did all they could. I can’t thank them enough really."
Shaw's fifth place overall also reconfirms his belief that he can compete at the higher echelons of the sport and it quells some of the doubts that surfaced in the last few years when he faced uncertainty over contracts.
"I’ve had that thought, about retirement, a few times now actually. I’ve been on the fence. I asked my coach to ask a manager of a team if they had any advice for me and he came back and said that if it hadn’t happened for me by now then it was probably best to knock it on the head and stop.
"That was hard to accept but I had it in my head, the idea of stopping, at the end of last year and then at the end of 2018 and 2019. Results like this, and teams like this, where I enjoy racing my bike, make it all worthwhile."
Slovenia only marks one – albeit convincing – result for Shaw but it could potentially lead to interest from WorldTour or second division teams in the coming months. Shaw would never rule out a return to the WorldTour, but after his experience at Lotto, he has seen that there’s a career outside of the WorldTour and that there are certain aspects of that division that do not match with his attitude towards racing.
"I think that I’ll be a lot more careful about what I want out of the sport. I’ve realized that the WorldTour is an industry and not a sport and it’s about getting sponsorship to fund teams. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s such a cruel sport," he said.
"Hopefully this does give me an opportunity and maybe it leads to a contract that I want rather than just one that’s offered. We’ll see what happens though because I’m not in a position to have multiple contracts thrown at me.
"But I find it strange that the best years I’ve had and the most enjoyable years I’ve had have been done on the smallest teams, if that’s what you wanted to call them. My year last year at Riwal was ruined because of the virus but it was actually one of the most enjoyable years that I’ve had. It’s the same with Ribble, it’s been a really heart-filling year so far.
"While I’m still young I still think that there’s a result aspect that I can get when riding for myself. I want to make things count for me while I’m still young but later down the line I’ll happily ride for other people."
Editor in Chief - Cyclingnews.
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