With Britain’s newest UCI Continental team launching last week, Brendan Gallagher went along to find out more about the NFTO Pro Cycling squad, containing several familiar names. Here is his take on the new boys on the block.

FOR a man who used to operate in the shadows and avoid any publicity like the plague John Wood and his exciting new look NFTO cycling team are certainly making the headlines as they plunge into their first season as a fully professional outfit.

After competing as an amateur team for the last two seasons, competing for fun as well as well as the plaudits, NFTO (Not For The Ordinary) are making a quantum leap this season and if a busy season goes well – Premier Calendar, Pearl Izumi Tour Series, the Crit circuit, Prudential RideLondon – Surrey Classic and The Tour of Britain plus much besides – there is already optimistic talk of becoming a Pro Continental team in 2015. From a modest start all sorts of possibilities are now visible on the not so distant horizon.

NFTO are thinking big and why not, the vibrant British cycling scene is a fertile breeding ground these days in which the sport’s full potential lies untapped, but can they retain their magic and individuality in the process? With Wood in command you fancy there is little chance of them taking a wrong turn.

The former Special Forces officer turned cycling fanatic from Hereford – I will probably have to shoot you if I reveal any more – treated his team to a swish launch at the BMW salesroom in Park Lane last week to parade one of the strongest rosters on the domestic circuit. The Downing brothers are fully on board and Adam Blythe is race fit and excited at his first ever season racing in Britain after a career hitherto spent mainly based in Belgium

Old habits die hard though and Wood politely declined to give any press interviews at his own press conference. He who dares might sometimes win but alas not on this occasion as our requests were deflected and Wood merged into the background. Another time perhaps, not that it really mattered. The professionalism of the launch itself spoke volumes while his hired troops gave handsome testament to their leader and his methods.

“He brings all that military background to the party, John is so organised,” says Dean Downing who will contest one final season, indeed probably a half season, before concentrating on management and DS duties for the team. “I have never been involved with a team like this where everything is signed off and in place before Christmas, he is so precise it’s great. There are some things you are never going to reinvent in cycling – there is a black and white way of doing them – but he wants us to train and race properly and has brought in Jon Sharples and Sean Yates to help with that. We will be working towards specific goals, not just travelling the length and breadth of Britain and Europe for the sheer hell of it.

 

Dean (pictured above) is no stranger to the Tour Series, seen here winning in Exeter 2009 as the National Crit Champion.

Adam Blythe, who joins the team from the giant BMC outfit, concurs: “John is a really good guy, straight down the lines as honest as they come and when he gets into something you can see he gives it everything. That’s good in anybody but it’s exactly what you want in a boss and it’s very exciting to see how far this can go.”

Wood has gathered a potent looking mix of gnarly old veterans, riders in their pomp and promising youngsters for this year’s campaign. Already the rump of them have been to Majorca and Adelaide for training camps and this week they embark on a final race specific block in Majorca before heading into the season. Their preparation, at this level at least, could not have been more comprehensive.

The Downing’s need little introduction with former Team Sky professional Russell, the current British Criterium champion, having 100 or so career wins under his belt including the 2005 British Nationals while elder brother Dean has twice won the British Circuit Race Championships.

Sam Harrison, still only 21, is a big all-round talent and although his Olympic ambitions lie on the track with the GB Team Pursuit squad he is the GB Under-23 Time-Trial champion and has a massive road engine that can cause real damage and stack of experience racing with the GB U-23 team around Europe in the last three years.

Matt Rowe, brother of Team Sky professional Luke, and James Lewis are two powerful rouleurs, former ski instructor Hugh Wilson is a fast developing sprinter while Jon Mould has won a Pearl Izumi Tour Series round in the past and is a former European Madison champion. Veteran Scot, James McCallum is another versatile performer who darts from track to road and back again. He was winner of the inaugural London Nocturne, is a former Pearl Izumi Tour Series Champion and will also be targeting the Commonwealth Games this year.

In an eclectic squad Wood has also acted on a hunch by offering a contract to Brecon postie Ryan Bevis, a former mountain-biker, who impressed the boss when he just happened to join in Wood’s training group in Herefordshire one Sunday. The owner is determined that element of fun and the feeling of belonging to a club is retained and even intends to compete in some races himself.

Perhaps the most interesting signing is Blythe, 25, who quit the British Academy set up and took himself off to Belgium to race in his teens and has forged a considerable career at both Omega Pharma Lotto, as was, and most recently BMC. He returns to race in Britain for the first time as a senior, with license to go looking for race wins rather than always having to bury himself for others which has been mostly his brief in his professional career to date.

“I was out of contract and looking around when John phoned out of the blue,” says Blythe. “He came down to Monaco where I live, we had lunch and a good chat, got on really well and I was immediately impressed with him and his plans for NFTO. I had got to the point in my career where I was missing racing my bike, the thrill of being able to attack if I was feeling good. I want to feel like I am a junior again and having fun.”

Blythe is young enough and talented enough to secure a Pro Tour contract again at the end of this season and the ambition still burns, so it will be fascinating to see if he feels NFTO has progressed enough by this autumn to offer him that opportunity with a British based and funded team. There is a certain irony there. Blythe felt compelled to live a hand by mouth existence in Belgium to fulfil his dreams but British cycling has now advanced at such a rate that increasingly everything a young rider needs is now on his own doorstep.

Meanwhile overseeing things quietly in the background at NFTO, or at least on call for advice at any stage, is Sean Yates the only Brit in history to both wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France and to mastermind a successful Tour de France campaign as a DS, his role in 2012 when he guided Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky to their historic triumph. Yates has subsequently stepped down from Sky, set up a freelance coaching business and written his autobiography.

If ever a cyclist was born to be a Special Services Operative it is Yates, the hardman of the peloton for years, the extremist who used to challenge his powers of endurance as a youngster by sleeping on top of Scottish mountains in winter in just a sleeping bag. Yates on patrol, living off the land or going without food altogether, is a thought to conjure with! As you would expect he appears to have struck up an instant rapport with Woods and has undertaken to oversee much of their pre-season training and to DS at a couple of Premier Calendar races and throughout The Pearl Izumi Tour Series.

I’ve been to one camp in Majorca with them already and we are doing another and I have spoken to Dean and Russ quite a bit about the team. I am just happy to help out and who knows where it might go. The book last year was closure on my career. This is my post career life if you like. I don’t have to do this, its dabbling, a labour of love and opportunity to give something back. I will always love bikes and racing and being involved in something like this is good, a little part of the jigsaw.

“Our approach to training is not unlike Sky but obviously it is smaller in scale. The young riders are not at the same level yet, time will tell if some can make it through to the big-time. The quantity of training is not as big – you have to take into account limitations of recovery and constitution. When you are working with Brad, Froomey, Edvald Boasson Hagen, these are top end athletes who can work harder and absorb a much bigger workloads on the way to major results

“We haven’t got the back-up, the big mechanics truck out the back, five masseurs lined up but we work with the tools we have got and I really enjoy that back to grass roots feeling. There is less pressure for a start. When you have all the tools there are fewer excuses for not doing well! As long as the spirit is there you can achieve.”

Sean’s book (pictured right) was part of the shortlist for SweetSpot’s inaugural Cycling book of the Year award