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Riders in the storm: the young British talents facing down Brexit and Covid to fulfil European dreams

Eighteen months ago, the dream of beginning a career on the Continent in earnest seemed like it was just a step away from fruition for a whole raft of young British hopefuls. But many of those riders didn’t even race last year and now in 2021, with a return to something more normal on the cards, Brexit has battered them from a different angle with its 90-day visitor’s limit. We spoke to a bunch of young riders funded by the Rayner Foundation and found that even if the red tape isn’t particularly willing, the spirit certainly isn’t weak.

George Bazley (VS Valletais, France)

In Nantes by the skin of his teeth, hanging on for a residency visa

I’ve just finished my application to become a French resident, which will allow me to come and go as I like, if I get accepted. Under the current regulations, I’m allowed to stay longer than the three months that’s been agreed, because my application is in progress.

When I came over here they almost turned me around, because my Covid test was 15 minutes too early – you have to have it 48 hours before, something like that. I’ll be brutally honest, if I hadn’t got on that boat there and then that day, I’m not sure I’d even be here right now. It’s pretty stressful.

Luckily I had a back-up private test in case I ever got stopped, so I did that test at the ferry port in my car. And they let me get on the boat. I was pretty lucky that day.

My team, especially, have been really helpful. I went down the route of student-slash-professional placement – work experience, essentially. And the team helped provide the evidence that I needed to show that I’ve enrolled with the club to help with a group of young people. I help with the Ecole Vélo…I go to some schools and teach about cycling, and I help with the engagements for races, I do the entries now and then.

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I’ve been quite lucky – I think I’ve raced eight times already. Equally, a lot of the big races have been cancelled so we’ve been travelling a lot further to race – the Tour de Basse-Navarre was six hours from where I’ve been staying.”

Alex Haines (GSC Blagnac 31, France)

Living in the UK, waiting to head out to his team in France

I applied for a talent visa a few weeks ago, and it got denied. But my team has a Canadian rider on it, who also applied for the talent visa – he got accepted. So I don’t know what to think.

The team were really helpful in giving me what seemed like a really good letter of recommendation about how they really want me on the team, and it’s really important that I get the visa. Telling the team that it got denied, that was a little bit stressful.

But the team have put no pressure on me to get across quickly. The DS is a really nice guy.

I feel that as soon as one person finds the pathway, then it will become easier for everyone. So I’m quite confident it won’t [end up with Continental teams deciding Brits are too much hassle].

The plan now is to go over there – hopefully the end of March – and start the 90 days, and just hope that by the end of the 90 days, someone’s figured out how to get back for another set of days.

Hopefully by then with the coronavirus situation easing up, France will be open to allowing more visas – longer stay visas.

If I get back from France after 90 days and I find out I can’t go back, it’s gonna be a massive headache…whether it’ll be trying to race in England to keep me going until next winter, or maybe just, you know, have a break from cycling. Though I’m confident that won’t happen.”

Tom Portsmouth (Carbon Discar Academy, Belgium)

Preparing to return to the UK after having a residency application rejected

We got the news earlier today…I’m just going to have to start planning to come home early, which is two steps back.

I was just trying to get the case forward for a kind of resident’s permit…and they don’t want to give me one. So I’m gonna have to find another way to stay out in Belgium for the foreseeable future. I think that might have to be school [university]. But it’s not ideal – it just takes so much out of your training.

As a cyclist [at this level] you don’t fit many visa categories. You’re not earning anything. You’re not paying anything. You’re full-time. You’re not working. You’re not doing school. And so that’s where the difficulty lies, I think.

I’m feeling bloody amazing on the bike. I’ve set several new power PBs in the last month since being out here.

I think that’s a lot to do with confidence and happiness. Belgium is where I’ve been [coming to race] for five years now. And cycling wise, it’s where my heart is. It’s very frustrating.

So I just need to get a Covid test together and that’s pretty much all I need to get back across the border [into the UK] and, I guess, dominate the criterium and time trial scene if I can. Though they might all be 15-minute races, which will be another unfortunate thing, because obviously I’m looking to go into a sport where races are four hours-plus.

The last couple of months here have just reminded me how much I missed it in 2020. I’m so determined to make it in Belgium.

Joe Laverick (Hagens Berman-Axeon, Spain)

Living in Girona, hoping for a residency permit 

It’s just a nightmare to be honest. It’s that simple. I am in the process of applying for residency out here. Which is kind of my Willy Wonka golden ticket to the whole situation. 

Also added in is that Covid is stopping a lot of governments issuing visas, so we’ve got the dual Covid-Brexit battle to be fighting.

However long Spanish administration takes to process the application, whether that’s two months, six months or whatever, the lawyers have told me I can stay here. Once they’ve made a decision, is it then that my 90 days start, or do I have to leave straight away? I don’t know the answer to that question – and I don’t want to think about the answer to that question.

So I don’t want to be in a situation where I’ve got to fly back and forth every week. The travel day I had a month ago scarred me for life – it took 18 hours to get from Grimsby to Girona, so I don’t want to go through that again any time soon.

At the minute, I think the biggest thing is the fear of the unknown. 

My first race keeps getting put back. It’s great watching all these top names in the UCI 2.1s and 2.2s, but they’re the races where we’d usually start our season.

My first race is due to be under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège – no messing around, just straight in at the deep end. And at the minute, it’s Covid-dependent, like everything.

Emily Wadsworth (NXTG Racing, Netherlands)

Currently living in Sitaard, Netherlands, thinking about a temporary visa

There is no definitive answer to what we should be doing right now. Everyone I speak to has a different way. I’ve got some friends who are committing to the 90 days and flying in and out. I know some people who are trying to get work visas, some people are getting temporary residences. Some people are getting visas in other countries…but then also there’s a lot of people like me, who are here but haven’t actually got anything fully sorted yet. You’re just here, hoping that something comes up.

I think maybe I haven’t had the time to think about Brexit too much because of coronavirus. The double-whammy of it just makes it impossible. I’ve got the Brexit rules telling me I can’t really live outside of the UK, then I’ve got the corona ruling which makes it virtually impossible to get in and out of the UK.

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I have a big break between some of my races, and to save my days, I should really be going home. But if I go home, there’s a chance I might not get back out again. I drove out here with my car, and I knew I had all the forms in place and technically I should get across.

Even though it was only essential travel allowed, this was essential, because I had to move to Holland to do my job.

But my team-mate Amelia Sharp, the next day, got to the Eurotunnel with identical forms to me, everything exactly the same. And they wouldn’t let her across because they said her reason wasn’t essential. So it seemed to me that it literally was luck – like it depended on who you got that day on the border. It’s a nightmare.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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