Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks
A week ago, life was quite literally a beach for Will Stephenson. He was sitting on the Bournemouth sands, watching his dad sea-swim.
Then the phone rang. It was his Rapha Condor JLT team manager John Herety.
Four days from the start, Felix English had fallen sick and he would be taking the Irishman’s place.
“This all moves pretty fast. I was going going from thinking I’d finished my season to being right in the middle of the biggest race of my life,” he reflected at the finish of stage one at Drumlanrig Castle on Sunday.
Suddenly, he was in snarling Scottish weather, rubbing shoulders with Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and company. Very carefully, mind.
“It’s really weird [riding alongside them]. You worry about doing something stupid or swerving and knocking one of them into a bush.”
At 18, Stephenson is the youngest rider at the 2013 Tour of Britain. It’s just the next sphere up in the man from Ringwood’s rapid rise.
Just three years ago, he was doing his first full season of racing with local club Bournemouth Arrow.
Stephenson has spent most of the racing season at school too. He finished his A Levels in June. “I don’t think John knew that when he signed me,” he adds.
His results – two A stars and an A – were so good that he gained a place at Cambridge University to study natural sciences, which he has deferred for 2013-14.
By now, Stephenson must be getting used to good opportunities coming out of the blue. When he was doing the CV rounds with domestic teams last winter, he didn’t even bother sending his to Rapha-Condor-JLT.
“I thought there’s not much point, they’re not going to be interested,” he reflects.
He was doing himself a disservice. Team manager John Herety was keeping tabs on Stephenson, a runner-up in the 2012 Junior Tour of Wales.
He signed Stephenson for his development-focused outfit after the junior world championships last season, where he rode strongly, despite being held up by a late crash.
Stephenson doesn’t seem out of his depth at the Tour of Britain. The tall teenager has acquitted himself well in the opening few days, saving energy in the bunch.
“The first stage wasn’t as bad as I expected. I thought I was going to get freezing, my legs were going to be rubbish, and get dropped as soon as the pace lifts,” he said after day one.
“I felt good with the distance and at the end, it just ramped up so much at the finale – then with the crash, I couldn’t close enough gaps.”
Stephenson wants to get in a breakaway before the end of the race. “Even if I completely kill myself and get dropped from it.”
Whatever happens, the national tour – comfortably the longest race of his fledgling career, if he completes it – will round off a season of happy surprises for Stephenson.
“I was thinking that last year ‘if I told myself’you’re going to do the world championships and next year the Tour of Britain’, I’d have been like ‘there’s no way that’s going to happen.”