Interview: Aelwen Davies and Family

Steve Chapman from Cycle Sprog spoke with Aelwen Davies (and mum and dad), a 13-year-old multi-discipline cyclist who has just won her first National Championship jersey in Cyclo-cross whilst balancing school and life generally.

Steve finds out how the Davies' manage to do it...

I've known the Davies family for a few years now, back when I was racing cyclo-cross and working at events I often bumped into them and would always be mega impressed by how talented Aelwen was, even as a 7-8 year old.

Even then she was clearly much faster than kids her own age and was often lapping all the girls in her races and most of (if not all) the boys.

As Aelwen's got older she's taken on all cycling disciplines and has become a real all-rounder.

As a kid, none of this would be possible without family support, and the Davies' are mega dedicated. As a family, they are at races pretty much every weekend, year-round. That is a big undertaking.

I spoke to Aelwen and her parents just after she had won the U14 Cyclo-cross National Championships jersey in Ardingly.

 

What is Cyclocross?

Cyclocross is a type of off-road bike racing that takes place during the wet and muddy autumn and winter months.  Riders race around a lap, with obstacles and slopes to tackle.

The Cyclo-cross National Championships are a once a year event where the UK's best riders converge for a 'winner takes all' race. Whoever wins on the day gets to wear the National Champions jersey (white with a blue and red stripe) for the rest of the cyclo-cross season.

Interview: Aelwen Davies and Family - Cyclocross Journey

Hello Davies family, thank you so much for agreeing to have a chat with us. First of all, we just wanted to extend huge congratulations from all of us here at Cycle Sprog, to Aelwen on becoming U14 Cyclo-cross National Champion. What an achievement! 

Thank you! It’s been 5-years in the making. I first raced CX as an under 8 in the Welsh Cyclo-Cross League and this has been a long-term target of mine.

How do you get into Cyclo-cross?

Cyclo-Cross is a great way to get into cycle sport. It’s relatively inexpensive and possibly the safest form of racing as it is done in traffic-free environments.

Generally, it’s held in fields, parklands and woods. The courses are short (especially for younger children), and not overly steep or technical to ride.

For children, almost any bike will do, but most will start out on a mountain-type bike. There are bike companies that manufacture cyclo-cross style bikes, but they aren’t really necessary in order to participate.

Age categories start at regional level at under-6, under-8, under-10 and so on. And races are to time, for example, 10-minutes for the youngsters.

The best way to find out more is to look at the British Cycling website and search out your local ‘Go-Ride’ cycling club, however, children don’t need to belong to a cycling club, nor British Cycling in order to race in their local cyclo-cross league.

When Aelwen first started racing cross, fees were £1 per race. It’s quite a bit more expensive at Nationals now though!

On average, each national race costs several hundred pounds when you also factor in travel, accommodation, and food.

Aelwen Davies Cyclo-cross
Aelwen Davies Cyclo Cross

To Aelwen: You've just won the U14 Cyclo-cross National Championship jersey in Ardingly, we want to hear all about the race? Did everything go as planned?

It went as well as you can plan with constant changes in track conditions.

We walked the course on Friday morning and were given a rare window of opportunity to ride the course too.

We practised the technical sections but knew that it was all likely to change with the weather forecasted. Had it remained dry it would have been a fast course and ‘draggy’ in the lower boggy sections which would have made tyre choice more difficult to make.

On Saturday, the rain was late to arrive and we still couldn’t decide on tyres, so I was relieved when the rain eventually arrived making the choice easy.

I slept well the night before and was full of nervous energy all morning. Dad made a few bike set-up changes to reflect the changes in course conditions. I was fortunate and very thankful to be taken in by the Rotor team so could remain dry in their gazebo before the race and for my warm-up.

My plan was to stay dry and warm until the race so didn’t bother with course practice. On the start line, I was completely focused and went full-gas from the whistle.

I soon found myself out on my own before hitting the deep mud and kept it going full-gas until I could see that I had a good lead.

Thereafter it was just a case of bike management, half-lap changes, trying to minimise mistakes and go hard where I need to and rest when it was easy. I was catching and passing lots of under 16 riders, so had to make sure that I was patient and didn’t get caught up with them.

Matt Payne on the microphone kept me updated, as did dad in the pits. Paul with the Rotor team cleaned my bikes in the pits of which I’m very grateful. I was really enjoying the race and would liked to have done another lap!

When I crossed the line, Matt gave me a nice welcome commentary which made the occasion very special.

What do your friends at school think? Have you been asked loads of questions about it? 

To be honest they don’t’ say a lot because this is what I do all year round.

When I was younger, I used to take my medals and trophies into school so that the headmaster could mention it at morning assembly. The problem was that I was winning races every week so I soon stopped taking them in.

Before I left primary school I presented them with one of my Welsh Champions jerseys for them to keep as they’d never had one before.

Since going to secondary school I tended to keep everything to myself, however, as I get authorised absence to travel to national events held far away from home, my parents give them updated reports on my progress.

Only since winning this title and now the National trophy Series too have I consented to the school mentioning it in their social media.

to mum and dad: Have you had to make any sacrifices to allow for all this racing? 

Yes, very much so.

We have stayed in our marital home and extended it rather than moving as our family grew. We have stalled all forms of career moves in favour of a work-life balance. We have sacrificed any form of social life outside of cycling.

As parents, we go without and rarely buy anything for ourselves. We have re-mortgaged and have a fair bit of money on interest-free credit. If you’re in, you’re in, unless you are already lucky enough to be relatively wealthy or have a beneficiary willing to give cash handouts.

To Aelwen: This must all be very time-consuming, how do you fit it all in?

With difficulty!

There will come a time that I will have to focus more on one or two disciplines because there just isn’t enough time in the week to balance everything.

It’s especially difficult for me as I have nobody local I can cycle with, so I have to travel a lot just for training. But my parents are quite strict when it comes to sport and life balance. I know that I must do my school work, I must have rest and have time for friends and family too.

I try to focus on the quality of training rather than quantity. If my race is a maximum of 40-minutes, then I don’t need to be out riding for hours.

There’s plenty of time for this when I am older.

To mum and dad: As we all know, cycling can be a costly pursuit, especially when you get into competitive cycling, how do you manage this? Does Aelwen have any sponsorship? 

We don’t manage to be honest! As Aelwen has grown (and hopefully she has stopped now!), there is this constant need for the kit.

Whether it’s a longer stem, the next size-up cycling shoes, or a bigger bike, it’s relentless. Even now we have a kit-list a page long.

What we have tried to do is shop around, buy everything second-hand (except consumables like tyres and drive-train) and balance quality, over price, and over weight.

We have been lucky in the past, that we’ve done work for our local bike shop and in return, they have given us some kit at trade.

What we have found as Aelwen has moved through age groups is this ‘arms-race’ for better and lighter kit. For example, when Aelwen competed at the European Youth Tour of Assen a few years back as an 11-year old, there were children riding bikes costing more than our car, and the same as you’d see on the Tour De France!

Right now the latest ‘race’ is for private cycle coaches.

We’re in a situation that, if we're not too careful, it will only be accessible for the wealthy, in a similar way to how triathlon has gone.

Going to a National Cyclo-Cross race for the first time is a real eye-opener, with camper vans costing tens of thousands and bike equipment we can only dream of providing Aelwen.

No, she doesn’t have any sponsors.* We did try a few local large companies, but they weren’t interested. We have been very lucky and had a few ‘gifts’ along the way, but mostly linked through family and friends.

We don’t have any magic answers for any parents starting out with their children, other than to say choose wisely when it comes to equipment and what to focus on.

To Aelwen: Has it sunk in yet that you’re U14 Cyclo-cross National Champion? 

Yes it has because I’ve worked really hard for it. I’ve been lucky to be able to train with world-class cyclo-cross racers like Joe Beckinsale (Montezuma), Ffion James, Ruby James and Steve James (Hope Factory Racing), and coached by Paul Crapper at Abergavenny RC.

There is no doubt that they have helped me reach my goals this season.

I could do a lot more training, but it’s really hard trying to balance this with life, as I have to travel a lot because of where I live in mid-Wales.

Be honest, did you wear the National Champs jersey to bed for the first week of having it? 

Ha, ha! Not this time. I’m fortunate enough to have already won a national champs jersey last summer at the track omnium champs at the Olympic Park Velodrome.

I know how good it feels to win as it is to lose because I took silver medals at both the road circuit and mountain bike cross-country champs too.

We’ve already had a national champs skin-suit made with my club’s logos because I will need to wear it as we move into the Omnium season.

You’ve had a season long battle with Zoe Roche, how did it feel to beat her by nearly a minute and a half on the day of the National Champs? 

Zoe is a class rider. We both have our strengths and weaknesses. I am a power rider, Zoe is lighter and more skilful than I am.

Course conditions should have suited both of us. I had to rely on power to work through the mud and kept it safe through the technical sections. My running was strong and I seemed to make good decisions when it was a choice of run or ride to maintain momentum.

To mum and dad: If parents out there are reading this and are thinking their kids’ would really like to try this, how would you recommend they go about it? 

Start small. Keep it local. Keep it fun.

Don’t feel obliged to join the arms race. But, be prepared for politics, whether at club level or through parents.

Any tips or tricks that you’ve picked up that would help them and their kids on their way? 

Weight matters.

Don’t expect your child to ride a bike made of ‘pig-iron’ and still have fun! Use experts like those at Cycle Sprog to help guide you through the pitfalls of buying a child’s bike that a) is light enough to ride and b) is designed for a child to ride.

Aelwen has never been fortunate enough to have been bought a new bike, so as parents we do our homework, and buy sensibly what we can afford (or not, as the case may be!).

To Aelwen: What are your plans for 2022? Are you going to be riding a bit of everything?

My background is in gymnastics and swimming. I only started cycling racing at aged 8.

Sadly, gymnastics has taken a back seat for the time being because of training clashes. I was really enjoying my swimming and pre-Covid was just hitting times to race at Level 1 meets, but, sadly post-Covid, I lost my place at the swimming club that I belonged to, and my local swimming pool doesn’t have coached swimming sessions, nor a club.

I am a member of a local triathlon club too, but youth triathlon races have seemly disappeared completely off the race calendar for the past 2-years so this year I will continue to focus on cycling.

My plan for this year is to target championships including track, road, and mountain bike cross country.

In cyclo-cross I will move up an age category but in other disciplines, I am still an U14.

Aelwen Davies and family, Cyclo-cross National Championships 2022

So, what’s next for Team Davies? What are Aelwen’s plans? Where do you want to be with your cycling in 5 years time, Aelwen?  

That’s a really tough question because it’ll all depend on money. In my heart, I’d like to pursue a career and race off-road, in both cyclocross and mountain bike cross country, but that will depend on financial support which is lacking at the moment.

If I lived in Belgium or Holland I would be better placed to be picked up by a sponsor where they value their grass-roots cyclists who show potential much more.

But at British Cycling their current focus is chasing medals at track and road, so I may be forced down this route if I want support to pursue my dream of becoming a professional cyclist competing at world championships and the Olympics.

I really hope that with Tom Pidcock's Olympic gold medal, and Evie Richards’ World Championship wins, British Cycling will support athletes more in these disciplines. For now, I’d like to finish school, go to college to study a sport-related subject, continue to compete in all disciplines for as long as possible and see where that takes me.

*Since doing this interview it has been announced that Aelwen will be part of RR23 for 2022. A race team put together by some of the movers and shakers in the bicycle industry. The team has the specific goal of developing riders who are under 23 years old. The team will help with kit, promotion, coaching, mechanical support and all other aspects of racing. Congratulations Aelwen and all the other riders on the RR23 team. Good luck for 2022!

You can keep up-to-date with Aelwen's racing exploits by following her Instagram.

Aelwen's top tips for getting into racing:

Join your local Go-Ride Club. Ask your parents to take you to a local cycle cross league race.

Make friends and have fun before, during, and after races.

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