“I feel like it’s offered me everything in one hand yet it’s snatched everything away from it at a different time with the other hand,” James Shaw tells me in Bilbao, way back in June before the start of his debut Tour de France.
He’s just been reminded of a previous conversation we had a couple of years prior, where he described the WorldTour as a brutal world. From joining the top ranks in 2017 with Lotto-Soudal before a series of unfortunate events saw him fall back down the pyramid, then arriving back where he should be with EF Education-EasyPost in 2022 and now on the cusp of a debut Tour, which is the big milestone in any rider’s career.
“I think what that almost adds [to] the brutality of it is it’s not always knock down, knock down, knock down, it’s give one minute and take the next minute, it’s almost like it’s a cruel mistress. Maybe my view has softened a bit but then I look at actually how hard it’s been to get back to this point,” he says.
“Being a train driver would have certainly been the easier option.”
I’m sorry, a train driver?
“You might not know him,” Shaw replies. “A bloke from Worksop [a town in Nottinghamshire] way and his nickname is train driver ash. The engine sheds are are not a million miles away from where I live … he’s a train driver but all he seems to do is ride his bike, so I had the idea of becoming a train driver. I looked into it, like how long you had to train for, how they were taking on new drivers at the time and the basic salary and then what you go on to, things like that and I actually don’t think it’s too much of a bad living. Partly the shift work and I thought I could learn to live with that. At one point it was a serious consideration.”
That was in the 2020/2021 winter, in the depths of COVID-19, when he wasn’t riding his bike and had lost all faith. He was ready to pack it all in save for family and friends who said he was too good to quit. And they were right.
“Of the two I think I think it might have been obviously the potentially the less rewarding,” Shaw continues of life behind a train that doesn’t consist of dozens of riders. “If somebody had said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll ride the Tour,’ then that would have been different. but at the time you don’t know, you’re just stabbing in the dark, you’re potentially wasting your time.”
The 27-year-old only found out he was going to the Tour the week before the start. He missed a call from sports director Charly Wegelius as he was answering the door to a courier who was delivering Shaw’s bike for Nationals.
“Obviously, I knew what he was calling about,” Shaw says. “But I didn’t know what the answer was so I rang him. He was a bit weird to begin with, it was like, ‘Hey, you alright?’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah,’ a bit nervous because obviously I know what this phone call is about but I just want an answer really. He was like, ‘Are you ready for nationals?’ Just stringing it out and that. It was like ‘Please just put me out of my misery.’ So obviously he gave me the good news but I didn’t really know what to say, to be honest. ‘All right, cool. Yeah, great.’ I was probably a bit blunt. But then give me an hour and it had sunk in. I drove up to where I was staying for Nationals that week and obviously I knew I had to arrange dog care with my mom and dad. Things like this. ‘Are you doing anything in July?’ I asked them. ‘No, not really.’ ‘Ah I might need you to look after the dogs for a month, because I’m away’.”
By this point, sat in his hotel room the day before stage 1 of his first-ever Tour, he’s done with being asked what it’s like to be here, just ready to race his bike again. While there were likely fewer people around in those days where he was considering train life, everyone wants a piece of him now.
At 27, he’s old for a Tour de France debutant by today’s standards but of course, Shaw doesn’t know any different. During his previous stint in the WorldTour he was racing as part of his development, but says that obviously that development didn’t go according to plan, but regardless he’s back and now has a job to do.
“And if the opportunity does the door opens for myself, I’ll be I’ll be diving through it obviously as everyone would.”
The door would open, as soon as stage 6, and on the Tourmalet day too. While Tadej Pogačar romped to the stage win with Jonas Vingegaard not far behind, a fifth-place finish for Shaw was a new high point of his career.
“This is the level, isn’t it?” Shaw said after that stage 6. “What was I—fifth? Fifth over the bloody Tourmalet at the Tour de France. If you can do that, you can win a stage, right? Yeah you can.”
When he signed for EF, Shaw spoke of a broad goal he had set himself: to find his athletic limit. Is that still his north star aim? One that has carried him to this point?
“Yeah, I think that that [goal] will see me out for my career because I just want to get to the end of my career and retire on my terms. Because I’ve been in the situation where I’ve almost had it forced upon me a couple of times. I’d like to get to the end and be like, ‘I did everything I could. I was as lean as I could be, I ate as well as I could.’ And I think that will always remain. But honestly, I do feel actually like I’m closing in on that gap. I’ve always felt that maybe the years that I missed were crucial years of development that I’d never catch up on. But I look at the condition I’m in now and the weight I am and I do feel I’m rapidly approaching that position. I could, probably, still feel like I’m trailing, but you know stuff like this is what I’ve worked towards, where I’ve always wanted to be. I’m here to absorb it as well, make sure I’m making the most of it.”
“For me, I never know when I’ll come again,” he continued of being at the Tour. “And I’d really like to hope and think that I would. Sometimes you do have to force yourself to just take a minute.”
He may need more than a minute to realise what he’s achieved. Not only did he step back up to the WorldTour after falling out of it, a club to which membership is vanishingly small in number, but he did so without an agent. Does he still operate without an agent?
“Again, that’s quite a good story,” he begins. Having been at the Riwal team following his stint at Lotto, the unraveling of the Danish squad meant the manager had to find a new job alongside his riders, and decided to get his UCI agent licence. So, for the past eight months, Shaw says his life has been “a lot easier.”
But back to the Tour. Another jaunt up the road on the Grand Colombier stage 13 delivered a second top 10 stage finish.
But of course, as Shaw has already said, the highs and lows percolate together. A crash the very next day saw the Brit leave the race alongside teammate Esteban Chaves.
“Obviously gutting to leave the Tour like that, isn’t it?” Shaw says from home the next week, when concussion protocol allows him to once again respond to WhatsApps. “The piece of mind I can take is obviously I didn’t withdraw myself from the race, it wasn’t because I was struggling or wasn’t good enough or because I got an illness, it was because a medical professional wrote me off.”
So, what did he make of his whirlwind two weeks in France?
“I look back on it as a successful Tour, really. All things considered, even with the disaster, it was great. I showed myself and what I can do and go back in the future hopefully and do better and learn from the experience and put it to good use and try again in the future. All positive really. The experience of the whole thing was quite overwhelming. The first few days were quite daunting, quite scary. But I feel like I made the most of it and it was quite a mark in the sand moment for my career really and where I can potentially go in the future. Obviously the priority now is all in recovery and getting over the concussion and the side-effects that come with concussion and working towards the next goals. It will be a funny few months and a different challenge as it’s something I’ve never properly experienced before. So I’ll get stuck into that.”
James Shaw, the train driver that never was.
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