He took part in the Conti’s exceptional 2022 season and is one of the eight youngsters to have made the jump to the Groupama-FDJ WorldTour team for 2023. Very consistent over the previous year, Sam Watson displayed all his potential before entering the “first league”. We sat down with the 21-year-old Englishman to get to know him better.
One friendship is sometimes enough to inspire a vocation. That of Sam Watson as a cyclist finds its roots in primary school, in Leeds, when the young boy became friends with a classmate. His name? Joe. His surname? Pidcock. Indeed, before coming together again as teammates within the “Conti” team, the two children shared their first rides, together with the big brother, Tom, now a big name of pro cycling. “I used to go around the Pidcocks’ house quite often”, says Sam. “They were all very keen cyclists, I became close to the family, and they eventually got me into cycling. I started going to school on a BMX with Joe and Tom, and I remember one day after school, their mother Sonia asked me if I wanted to come to a session ran by British Cycling. I went there, I was really nervous, but I really enjoyed it, and I started going more and more to these sessions. Eventually, I started going to the races with the Pidcock family.” After having tried football or swimming, he quite quickly focused on cycling, although competition was not yet at the heart of his practice. He was also separated from Joe in his first races, as he surprisingly learnt that he should be riding in the upper age category. “That’s as an Under-10 that I started racing more and more,” he adds. But it all still started through the Pidcock family. “I couldn’t have done anything without my parents”, assures Sam. “They bought my bikes, they took me to a lot of races, but I lived so close to the Pidcocks that it was easy to share that with them, to go to the races with them, because they were going anyway”.
Breakthrough as a U16, confirmation as a Junior (and Lewis Askey nearby)
His passion started from there, and Sam Watson gradually moved on to the next steps, at his own pace and without particular expectations. “I just saw cycling as having fun,” he says. “I never really did any serious training until I was U16 or so. In the area where I grew up, there are a lot of group rides, and I used to take part in them”. In the races, the young Englishman was certainly not in the back, but did not particularly stand out in the early categories. “When we were youth riders, in every National event, Lewis Askey and Alfie George used to ride away from us or put ten bike lengths away from us in the sprint”, remembers Sam. That’s only as a U16 that it ‘’clicked’’ for him. The young man from Yorkshire performed more and more, scored a few wins on the local scene, and also took podiums in higher events. He even managed to keep pace with Lewis Askey. “This is what made me realize I wasn’t bad,” he smiles. “I wanted to do a career in cycling from a very young age, I dreamed of it, I knew I was ok, but I didn’t really have serious results up until that point. I would say this season was a turning point. I said to myself: “I can win races and continue to improve”. He was further convinced of it the following season when he was crowned British champion in Milton Keynes, as a U16. That same year (2017), he also had his first experience outside the national border, at the European Youth Olympic Festival, in Győr, Hungary.
His momentum kept on going in his very first races as a Junior. With the national team, he made another detour to the “Continent” where he took on the cobbles for the first time, on Paris-Roubaix. A baptism of fire which ended up with eighth place, while his teammate Lewis Askey won the race. “It was a special time”, he says. Returning to British territory, he won the overall and one stage of the Tour of Isle of Man, took the bronze medal in the road race of the national championships and captured a stage win of the Tour of Wales. He also shined on the track, where he was crowned in the points race and the scratch. The young man gradually established himself as one of the spearheads of his generation, but he still had to make a statement outside of his borders. This is what he brilliantly did in 2019. His very first race in Belgium, the Guido Reybrouck Classic, even ended with victory. “It was again a very good start of the season, and that’s when I realized that I really loved the Classics,” he claims. His third place in Ghent-Wevelgem the following week is just another proof of that. The rest of the season is in line with this tremendous start, and the Brit tallied no less than twelve top-10s in the major races that are the Trophée Centre Morbihan (2nd), the LVM Saarland Trofeo (6th) and the Keizer der Juniores (2nd). “I knew I was doing good, but I didn’t win as many races as I wanted”, he regrets. “I was rarely satisfied that year. I was always hungry for more”.
“I said to myself: no one knows who I am anymore”
He still grabbed another stage win on the Tour of Wales before heading to the World Championships in Harrogate, on home soil. “It was incredibly special,” he says. “I was literally racing the Worlds on the roads I ride nearly every day. It was really strange. I left my house in my car, and I said, “Mom, I’m going to the world championships!” Of course, it wasn’t the result I wanted (28th), but I still remember the goosebumps I got when I entered the circuit”. With his third place in the national Juniors ranking, which combines road and track, Sam Watson could still be quite confident entering the U23 category. However, like everyone else, he was stopped short in mid-March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic sent the British selection home for a while. “It was quite a tough time”, confesses Sam. “I did two road races that year. It was hard, for sure. I cracked a bit at first, but then I really put my head down and I improved as an athlete, not too much as a racer, I guess. I trained hard and I came out better.” That being said, the young Englishman did doubt for his future: “At the time, I kind of felt that the guys from European teams would get quite a lot more races than we did. It felt like we were trapped in the UK because we couldn’t travel. It lasted at least a year, and I said to myself: “the time is flying, I’m not doing any races, no one knows who I am anymore”.
Almost a year later, it was therefore a whole new beginning for him. “I told myself that it was as if I had just come out of the juniors”, he says. “It was strange racing the bike again, but I really did everything I could to be as good as possible because I knew I missed out. We first raced in Italy, and I saw that I was ok. Later in the year, we also did a few races in France. It was still extremely difficult to get out of the UK. We had to go to Girona and stay there for a week in order to enter in France. That was probably the best investment I have ever made in my life, because without these races, I don’t know where I would be today.” Eager to show himself on the French scene, Sam Watson complied: seventh in the Etoile d’Or, third in a stage of the Tour Alsace, and then the realization, on stage 4 of the Kreiz Breizh Elites. “I was getting a lot of very good results, but I really wanted to win a race,” he explains. “I remember this stage very well, I said to myself: “I’m going to win this, no matter how”. I just felt unbeatable that day, I was in the shape of my life. When I crossed the line first, it was one of the best feelings of my career, also for the way I did it”. As a crucial consequence, this victory opened for him doors that he was trying to push with difficulty until then. “I spoke to a few development teams before that, but because I hadn’t done much in two years, there wasn’t really much interest from them”, he explains. “That changed after that win”. That’s why he also put into perspective his abandon following a crash the very next day, while he was leading the race with just one stage to go. “I was of course disappointed, but it felt like I’d gone out of France and did what I needed to do. It set me up for my career.”
“Blown away” by the Conti, where he became a safe bet
After he returned at the end of the season from his broken collarbone and following a solid performance at the World Championships in Leuven (13th), Sam Watson chose to join the “Conti” Groupama-FDJ over the winter for his third year as a U23. An easy choice for him. “I had to take the next step, and that was to race all the races I wanted to race, also to have peace of mind,” he says. “Now, I think that the Conti has the best calendar in the world in terms of development teams. I’m obviously very good friends with Jake, Lewis and Joe. They spoke of the team very highly and really recommended me to sign there. They told me it was the place to be”. A few weeks later, the Briton was not disappointed. “I was actually blown away by the team’s professionalism,” he recalls. “I didn’t think it would be this good. It was a bit as if I was already in the WorldTour”. For him, starting the 2022 season also meant leaving the track aside. He always preferred the road anyway, which he finds “more entertaining”. Sam Watson therefore had a clear vision when he resumed racing in March. “I always said that I didn’t want to rush things, that I wanted to learn how to win big races before turning pro,” he says. Learning is also at the heart of his first experiences with the WorldTeam on Nokere Koerse and the Grand Prix de Denain. “I was extremely nervous when I got there, but everyone made it easy for me”, he adds. “You obviously want to make a good impression, you want to do things right. After Nokere, I was like: ok, I’m comfortable at this level, I can now focus on the race. Having raced with the WorldTeam gave me quite a lot of confidence and joy.”
This confidence translated into a major result barely ten days later. With the GB team, Sam Watson conquered the U23 edition of Ghent-Wevelgem. “It was a real relief to win Ghent,” he assures. “Since the competition within the Conti team was extremely high, I didn’t want to be left behind. I wasn’t desperate, but I said to myself “I really need to win because some guys on the team have already won”. It was a weight off my shoulder”. He then got back to a domestique role, sometimes in the Conti, or sometimes in the WorldTeam. However, he boldly seized his chance on the Tro Bro Léon in mid-May, a few days after his first stage race with the big boys, the 4 Jours de Dunkerque. “At this point, I no longer felt like a ‘guest’, but really part of the team,” he says. “The Tro Bro Leon took place on the day Paris-Roubaix U23 should have been held. It was one of my big goals for the season, I was really in good shape. I guess I made the most of that race coming fifth (!). It’s not something you expect as a Conti rider, but the more the race progressed, the more the scenario played in my hands, and I thought: “I can really do a good result”. The 20-year-old made quite an impression, and he did not rest on his laurels: two podiums and a victory in the Course de la Paix, a second place behind Romain Grégoire in the Baby Giro and a rising popularity after the British Nationals, where only Mark Cavendish prevented him from winning. “I was really happy with my performance, because even if I didn’t win the elite title, it was one of the best races I’ve ever done,” he said. “Then, it’s of course very difficult to beat Mark Cavendish in the sprint, but it was a good race for sure”.
“I don’t want to define myself as a single type of rider”
This performance earned him, the following month on the Tour Alsace, and on all events since, to be presented on the podiums as “Sam Watson, second in the British championship to Mark Cavendish”. “It’s quite nice to hear”, he smiles, “but I want to be known as a winner”. In Alsace, precisely, he returned to victory, but with the Conti jersey this time! “It was quite late in the season, and I said to Jérôme [Gannat]: “I know that if the team rides for me, I can win”, he says. “We had the yellow jersey with Finlay [Pickering], and the scenario was almost perfect on the last stage. I was really nervous all day because I said I could win. So, I was really, really happy to win at the end”. Following this victorious sprint, he placed eleventh in the Commonwealth Games, obtained two podiums in the Tour de l’Avenir, three top-10 finishes in the Tour of Britain and finally flew to Australia where he finished fourteenth of the U23 Worlds. Earlier in the summer, his move to the WorldTour team had already been confirmed alongside seven Conti teammates. “I probably had options elsewhere, but I never really explored them because I really wanted to join the Groupama-FDJ WorldTour team”, he insists. “I think it’s the place to be, and to be able to jump straight to the Classics team is just perfect. Marc Madiot was often at the races where I was promoted last year, and I love the passion he has. He really wanted me in this team, and it’s very nice to feel like a valued rider”.
A versatile rider, the 21-year-old Englishman showed the extent of his capabilities during his only season with the development team. He now pretty much knows his strengths and relative weaknesses. “I’m not a pure climber, and I don’t think I can win the Tour de France,” he says with a smile. “For sure, the Classics are the races that really suit me, but I don’t want to define myself as one type of rider either. I want to be able to perform on different kinds of terrain. For now, the cobbled Classics are the ones that suit me best, but if I improve my climbing, I may also be able to go for the Ardennes in the future. I would like to get over the longer climbs. I also know that I have a good sprint, but I don’t know how fast it is within the WorldTour peloton”. In any case, the races he dreams of winning have not changed for years: Paris-Roubaix, the World Championship and a stage of the Tour de France. “For me, these are the three most iconic races,” he confirms. These are also races where his British elders inspired him when they were dominating the 2010s. He’s now able to meet some of them in the bunch. “At first it seems unreal and strange”, he explains, “but then you realize that everyone is human and that you are all here to do the same thing”. He will certainly meet them again this year, in competition, or around Nice, where he settled “for the training routes, the weather”, and not for the language, which he seriously intends to work on.
A win already this season?
The big boy’s world, Sam Watson has already tasted it, but he will definitely enter it on Sunday on the Grand Prix La Marseillaise, to start a season he hopes successful. “Having already done a few races with the WorldTour team, I already know where my level is, and I would really like to finish this year with a victory”, he concludes. “Of course, I’m not talking about Flanders, but rather a French Cup or something like that. The other goal would be to be there in the final of the big races to help guys like Stefan. The team wants to build one of the best Classics groups in the world, and it’s great for me to be part of it and to help make that happen.”