One race into his pro career, Jay Vine is already turning heads
“I know that Alpecin-Fenix really want to develop me as a cyclist and not just fulfil the contract they have with the Zwift Academy. The performance manager said I confirmed all his expectations and that gives me confidence going ahead.”
This is Jay Vine, the 25-year-old racer from Canberra, Australia who currently lives in Girona, Spain. Vine was the winner of the 2020 Zwift Racing Academy. He scored a contract with Team Alpecin-Fenix for his troubles and then made waves in his very first race with the team. In last week’s Tour of Turkey, Vine came second in the queen stage to Göğübeli and fell one second short of winning the overall classification too.
“I watched that stage back and the commentators were also at a bit of a loss. They said: ‘oh there is the jersey of Alpecin-Fenix’ but they had no idea who I was,” Vine tells me with an almost audible smile. He’s a talkative guy whose enthusiasm almost explodes through the phone line. He got this unique opportunity and is planning to enjoy it as much as he can and make the most of every race.
“As a 50-kilo kid I did some rugby,” Vine says of his early years in sport. You can hear he’s mocking himself. “I was just standing on the field. I also did some cricket but I wasn’t any good.”
He ended up on a mountain bike to ride to and from school. It was the start of the grand adventure Vine has embarked on. He saw the 2014 Tour de France, the one Vincenzo Nibali won, and fell in love with the first Classic he saw: Il Lombardia.
“I had started doing some stage races and marathons on the mountain bike and did some road racing on the side,” Vine says of the early stages of his career. “I mixed both but had more success on the mountain bike. That changed in 2019 when I got to ride the New Zealand Cycle Classic. I was third overall and loved every single minute of it: getting up every day, the mates, the peloton, the travel and the result of course. I was determined that I wanted to do this for the next 10-15 years or as long as I could pull it off.”
Vine was working for the Australian government in compliance and data analysis in the pharmaceuticals space. When his contract ended his wife Bre (an elite cyclist herself) saw the spark in his eyes and told him to throw everything at a career in cycling.
“As an amateur in Australia you get a mention in the paper but you don’t get noticed,” he explains. “I needed to get on the radar of pro teams. I started in the  Herald Sun Tour [racing for the Nero Continental team] and got fifth but I didn’t have enough UCI racing experience to get signed. The plan was to race a bunch of races in Asia later in 2020 but then COVID hit. We couldn’t leave the country or couldn’t afford coming back and pay the [mandatory] quarantine. We couldn’t guarantee [the organisers of] those races that we would actually show up so we weren’t invited.”
Plan B was to travel to Europe, get on whatever team he could, which would give him some kit and a race to line up for. His wife Bre would pay for his living in Europe because living off a few race primes wouldn’t really be feasible. But Vine wasn’t a pro athlete so he couldn’t travel and with virtually no racing in Australia, and no races abroad, the new adventure seemed like a dead-end already.
“I had heard of the Zwift Racing Academy but when they started in 2017 as a U23 program I just wasn’t good enough,” Vine says. “I regretted coming into the sport so late. When for 2020 Zwift announced the race for that spot on Alpecin Fenix was open for all elite riders I took my chance. Go hard or go home! I peaked for the finals and here I am.”
Vine joined Alpecin-Fenix on a one-year contract and met his new teammates for the first time at the Tour of Turkey: his very first race with the team.
“My wife and I were still in the visa process so we had to clear that all before I could ride,” Vine says from his new home in Spain. “I never got the traditional winter training camp and meeting-all-the-team experience.”
The Tour of Turkey is traditionally an eight-day stage race with many chances for sprinters and one, sometimes two, uphill finishes. In the 2021 edition there was only one: the traditional climb to Göğübeli in Elmali, the country’s apple-growing region.
“The first three days it was a shock to see how easy someone like Jasper Philipsen moved through the peloton,” Vine says of his teammate. “In the Herald Sun Tour there were maybe 100 riders and, in the amateurs’ NRS [Australian National Road Series] races maybe 60? In Turkey I had to be focused all the time to even keep Jasper’s wheel. When I lost focus for a few seconds he was five rows ahead of me. It’s the race instinct that I still need to learn; the ebbing and flowing of a race and a peloton.”
During the first three sprint stages Vine was given little jobs to do in the bunch but on day four he was off duty, preparing for the all-important stage 5 summit finish. The team performance manager Kristof De Kegel had already assured Vine his numbers were good enough.
“I rode the climb blind without looking at my numbers,” he says. “I had learned that yielding positions on a climb makes it really hard to get back to the front. We had watched some old climbs back and I tried to hold back until the final two kilometres. Then it was a question of having the legs.”
Vine finished second on the stage and moved up to second overall. But the team hadn’t given up the fight for the general classification yet. Vine got within one second of overall leader José Manuel Díaz after taking bonus seconds in some echelon action on stage 7. On the final day Díaz’ Delko team wouldn’t let themselves be surprised again and they took home the overall win.
Vine now has to wait a while before he can race again. He can’t take part in any WorldTour events yet because he is still building his ADAMS or biological passport profile. A lot of races have been cancelled too, especially in France, which makes planning a pro’s life a real issue. Vine hopes to race in May and June and has the ambition to ride his first Grand Tour this or next year.
“Kristof [De Kegel] said I confirmed all the expectations he had from my numbers so that’s a reassurance,” Vine says. “Sports director Frederik Willems says I thrive in a more controlled environment like a stage race. It’s a really supportive environment in this team where they want to let me race to my ability. Usually with climbs of course.”
While his contract with the Belgian Pro team runs out at the end of the year, Vine feels the pressure to perform is not hampering him. After all, he has already shown the team results.
“My first year will be a success if I secure a new contract,” he says. “Turkey was a confidence boost. I would also love to win a race this year. My biggest dream is a podium in Il Lombardia, the first Classic I saw back in 2014.”
Vine still has a lot to learn. The Tour of Turkey had a decent startlist but the level will be much higher in other races. He is loving what he is doing right now and will use his race-free time to learn one very important skill that will come in handy in his new career.
“On stage 3 we started with temperatures near freezing in the mountains so we had arm and leg warmers on and shoe covers,” he says. “Then we went to the warm coast line [in Alanya]. I had to actually stop at the side of the road to take off the arm and leg warmers so that is a skill I will be practicing now I am not racing.”
Jay Vine is the kind of guy who found something in life he really loves. In his own words, it’s “the first time I love doing what I get paid for”. He had a rare opportunity in these hard COVID times to get a place on a team, and to show his skills. He is adamant to make the most of that opportunity, every day.
As he says, go hard or go home.