Jimmy Whelan isn’t done yet – TDU winner talks contracts, comebacks, and more

After a torrid 2021, James Whelan has started 2022 in imposing fashion. Now he just needs a contract.

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2021 was a tough year for Aussie pro James Whelan. He had two big crashes – both of which left him with multiple broken bones and needed months of recovery – and then, after getting back to full fitness for the second time in one season, he found out that his contract with EF Education-Nippo hadn’t been renewed for 2022.

The search for a new team proved challenging but as the Australian summer races approached, Whelan trained hard, determined to perform at his very best. Racing for Australian Continental team BridgeLane, Whelan rode to an impressive second place at the National Championships (beaten only by a rampaging Luke Plapp) and then went on to win a stage and the overall at the Santos Festival of Cycling (despite receiving a one-minute time penalty).

Whelan’s January was proof that he’s still a world-class bike racer, even if a pro contract for 2022 has proven elusive so far.

As the dust settled on Whelan’s win at the TDU Festival, the 25-year-old Australian caught up with CyclingTips to chat about missing out on a ride with EF in 2022, his two big crashes in 2021, his Aussie summer, his chances of getting a pro contract this year, and what might come next.

Matt de Neef: So you’ve had a pretty good few weeks …

​​James Whelan: Yeah, it was a really good summer. It was a short summer of cycling. It would have been nice if we had a full race block. Obviously I was on some pretty good legs so it would have been exciting to do Herald Sun Tour after TDU, and Cadel Evans road race.

But yeah, I definitely made the most of my training that I put together after the off season. And I was lucky enough to have one stage win and GC at TDU. The big goal was the Nationals so coming second kept the fire in the belly.

Whelan winning stage 1 of the Santos Festival of Cycling, setting up overall victory.

We spoke after you came second at Nationals about how you were super motivated for the Aussie summer, after losing your WorldTour contract. Can you talk more about that and how you prepared for the summer?

It was super disappointing not to be renewed with EF in the first place. That was the crux of the issue. I had two big crashes so I didn’t race much last year but in the Italian races I showed in my form that I was well and truly back up to WorldTour standard and so to not get renewed after showing that I was back to the athlete I was, was super disappointing.

And the process after that of trying to get into contact with teams … I hadn’t contacted any teams because I thought I had good job security with EF. The process of that was disappointing; getting down to the last few riders with like seven teams and then just falling short every time. However, now after these two results with Nationals and TDU, I’ve kinda got back into contact with all these teams that I fell short on, in the hopes of maybe there’s a spot available, whether that’s this year or next year or whether it’s still a no.

I have to keep showing myself with BridgeLane in Europe, and that’s also fine. I mean, obviously things are going well with BridgeLane and I enjoy the environment there.

But yeah, I was super motivated during this summer. I had to make sure that after the Italian races, I had a proper off-season, just to reset because the amount of mental energy that I spent last year with two crashes and getting back twice was quite a lot. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. The least I can do is get back to the physical fitness to race again, but it takes a lot of energy when the year’s not going well, especially in a contract year.

So I did three and a half weeks of no riding. And then just had a really consistent run of training every week leading up to Nationals. Nothing crazy. There wasn’t like any big 30-hour weeks, it was just consistent load, resting well, being well, and relaxing well. I didn’t necessarily do any crazy sessions, like no zone work as such. I’d just go out north [of Melbourne] into the hills, ride pretty hard, try to get a good average speed, do a few crits, and do some heat training where I’d leave late and ride out north on some of the highways there.

And that probably put me in some pretty good stead for Nationals. Obviously Nationals was hot and that stage 1 of TDU was super hot, so it all came together quite nicely.

For people that aren’t familiar with the crashes that you had last year, can you just explain what happened and what the recovery was like?

Yeah, so I did the Australian Nationals last year and came sixth. Then I did the UAE Tour and then my first race in Europe was the [Tour of] the Basque Country [in early April]. On stage 2 on a wet downhill going dead straight, a bunch of us slid out and I broke my pelvis and my ribs and my shoulder. I still managed to finish the stage somehow. I don’t know how I did that. It’s amazing what adrenaline does in a bike race.

So it was basically a wet downhill straight cash; just slipped out on oil or something. And then I was off the bike for six or seven weeks, revamped during the summer at altitude, and then got ready for the Tour of Wallonie [in late July].

On stage 1 [his first race day back – ed.] I was coming back through the convoy and hit a huge pothole on one of the sketchy, not-so-well-maintained Belgian roads. And my handlebars snapped and I superman-ed onto the ground and that’s what this thing is [Whelan points to a scar on his chin]. I rebroke my shoulder, my ribs, my jaw, lots of skin loss, and then got ready for the Italian races and was in good form again until the end of September.

It’s pretty remarkable that you were able to come back twice in one season from bad injuries like that.

The reason why I was able to come back so fast was because no crashes required surgery so it was a pretty simple recovery process. It was just: sit on the couch, ride the ergo up at altitude, use altitude as a tool to get fit faster than normal, and then find myself back at a bike race in good form.

The main thing was there were no big complications with crashes. I’ve got good bone density because I’m a former runner – I still run a little bit. From what I understood my bone density is so good that if most other riders had crashed the way I did on my pelvis, that it would have been shattered in quite a few pieces. So I’m lucky that I’ve got some good bone density.

So the motivation that you had coming into this summer, was it a case of “Well, I’m going to do everything I can to get a contract”? Was it more like “I’m going to show everyone that I still deserve to be WorldTour?” Was it a combination of those things? Or something else?

A lot of people over social media would say I had a point to prove, but that wasn’t my motivation at all. My motivation was just … I wanted to win the Australian Championships. That was my motivation. And if I won that, then the rest would be taken care of.

I put so much time and effort into setting up my whole life overseas and investing into cycling that it would be crazy for me just to throw a tantrum and say that I’ve been treated poorly. But actually I could be doing this until I’m 35 years old so I’ve just got to stay focussed for the next few months and maybe I’ll reinvent myself. And I feel like I almost have in a way.

I couldn’t say what the exact motivation was, but it wasn’t for anyone else, it was just for myself. And also, I just love being an athlete. When the weather’s nice, all my mates are riding, there’s crits on, it’s pretty easy.

So where do you think you’re at, realistically, in terms of getting a WorldTour or ProTeam contract for this year? You’ve got the BridgeLane ride which is great, but are you still hopeful of something bigger?

It’s a pretty important week right now. My agent Dries Smets from Squadra Sports is doing a pretty exceptional job of contacting the directors he knows and all these teams. We’ve got maybe six or seven teams that could be possible, but I honestly don’t know what they’re going to come back with.

I mean, there were six or seven teams in October that said “maybe”. I was in this position and they all fell through. So I don’t want to get my hopes up too much. But I do feel like I’ve got a bit more leverage now after the Nationals ride and TDU ride. I think I really did show my ability as a bike rider.

When I came second in the Australian Championships I think a lot of them were like “Oh, it’s an impressive ride, but it could have been a one-off.” But then I’ve shown again my form at the TDU to win that stage the way I did and then also hold the GC and to be in the top four or five climbers in that race from the peloton. I think a few teams saw that.

Hopefully a team will open up a spot. There’s definitely no current spots available, but teams could reshuffle things and open up spots for me. So that’s what a few teams have said; “We’ll look into it.” And yeah, I’m assuming that just means that they need to talk to the GM there and a few of the directors need to have a chat about whether they want a rider like myself in their roster.

I think one thing that my agent’s been stressing is, with the COVID situation, having an extra rider in the team is not the worst thing. So, yeah, I guess I can kind of use COVID in my favour here to try and find a job.

How did the BridgeLane contract come about for this year?

During October, I realised I was going to be in a bit of a pickle when EF weren’t renewing and then I was eventually contacting teams and they said “Look, we’re already full” or “We’re not interested.” From what I understood I would have been on the rider list with Qhubeka. And I told Andrew [Christie-Johnston] that “If Qhubeka folds, then can I please have an opportunity to ride for Team BridgeLane?” And I told Andrew that I want to win the Nationals and I want to win TDU and then go from there. He said “Absolutely no problem.”

They already had 16 riders, which is the maximum for a Continental team, and they were actually able to shuffle a few things around and they squeezed me in. That worked pretty well and I was able to have their support for the Australian summer, which worked out really well. So I’m grateful for that.

And look, it’s not a paid gig and he made that clear straight away. And I said, “I don’t need a bit of coin, I just need a good race programme and some good support to get my career back on track.” So we both had an agreement with that. It’s going nicely so far. We’re meant to head over to Europe in April.

I was going to ask: what are the races you’ll do with BridgeLane from here? Will you do some local or Asian racing before Europe?

I’ve got the Tour of Gippsland, not this weekend coming but the weekend after [this interview was done last week. The Tour of Gippsland is this coming weekend – ed.] And then the weekend after that, I have the Warrny [Melbourne to Warrnambool] so that’ll be good. I’ve done the Warrny once as a stagiare with the Drapac development team, so it will be nice to do that. 

And then we head over for our first French stage race. It’s a 2.2 in the middle of April and then we do the Tour de Bretagne after that, which is a big one, at the end of April.

Maybe I’ll get a job opportunity, but for the time being, it doesn’t change my current situation. I’ve just got to keep ticking along, got to keep the momentum going for the summer. It would be pretty easy to relax right now. But I’ve kind of got to understand that if I do get a job opportunity with a WorldTour team, then this is some pretty important pre-season training.

And if you don’t manage to get something for this year, then I guess the rest of the season from now becomes even more important, right? 

Exactly. Teams will have their eyes on me, and if I get one result in Europe, then that could be the ticket. So it’s pretty easy to stay motivated. I know what training I need to do. I know a few of the races and how to race in Europe. So the idea of getting a result in Europe is quite feasible. 

Obviously, it’s easier said than done – a lot of things have to go right – but I can do all the controllables at my end.

Whelan’s win at the 2018 U23 Tour of Flanders – in his first European race – was the result that put him on the map.

So what about your setup over in Europe. Did you have to pack everything up and ship everything home? Or do you still have a place over there, waiting for you?

I had a spare room in Girona and then I lost my residency in Andorra, and I lost my apartment in Andorra, lost my car. Which is difficult because I put a fair bit of time and effort into setting up my life there and then just to lose it because I’m no longer a paid athlete … You have to be earning a certain amount of money in Andorra to be under the professional athlete programme that they allow cyclists to be in there.

So I’ve kept my room in Girona just to make sure that I have space to go back to, in the confidence that I do go pro again and then I can rebuild my life. But yeah, it was disappointing to lose more or less my training home in Andorra. That’s where I did all my hard work over the last two or three years, but that’s just how it rolls. Everything happens for a reason. That’s what I keep telling myself.

You seem very philosophical about the whole thing.

Getting stressed about it and getting angry about it is not great. I mean, you have to be grateful for what you had in the first place. Just to get the opportunity to have the three years that I had is pretty amazing. There’s plenty of NRS riders that are just as talented as me that’ll never get that opportunity. So if you keep that perspective then it’s easy to not lose your wheels too much. 

I think it also helps having the Australian summer where I can just put all that negative energy straight into results. It’s a completely different ballgame for the European riders that have four months now during their winter period. It would be super difficult to keep your mental health in check and I think that’s a real challenge.

I’m lucky to have the Nationals and the Aussie summer to put my energy into and to try and achieve a result. I look at the guys over there that lost their jobs and are trying to negotiate new job opportunities this year whilst they’re in the depths of winter without any bike racing. It’d be pretty difficult.

Whelan (left) after taking silver at the Australian National Championships in January.

What do you think you would do with yourself if, for whatever reason, a pro contract doesn’t come around this year or next year? Do you have those thoughts or is that just not even on the radar at the moment?

Yeah, I try not to think about that. I mean, I’m six months away from finishing my Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning at RMIT [University], so that’s in the background but I really do put 100% into my cycling.

I think if I start thinking about life after cycling, then I dunno. I understand its importance but for the time being, the energy that I can put into cycling is still very useful. So yeah, it’s difficult to say what I’m doing after bike riding. Hopefully I can find a ProTour job and maybe I’m still pro for another decade. Who knows.

I mean, you sound confident that it’s going to happen, if not right away, then next year, right?

Yeah. Maybe a situation could come where a ProTeam will say “Look, race with BridgeLane this year and we’ll give you a spot in 2023.” After dinner I’m always looking at my phone waiting for emails and messages to come through from my agent or whoever, starting to piece together what teams have said. I’m pretty wired when I go to bed at the moment because I’m just like … it’s not good. I’m not sleeping great, but it’s good stress.

From what you’re saying, you seem to feel like you’ve still got a lot to give at the WorldTour level, right?

Yeah. I think after my two crashes last year, I know a lot of people had doubts as to whether I’d be the same athlete I was, including myself. I think in the final Italian races, at the end of the year, I really showed that I was a class WorldTour domestique where we got a few wins at EF. And I was riding so well that I started to question whether I should be sacrificing myself as a domestique because I really did think if I didn’t ride the front in this stage, I would have been in the final group of five or 10 riders, which was super, super important for me to see for myself.

Whether other people saw it … I know my teammates did, but just for myself to know that I can get to the top, top level physically, tactically and from a skills perspective in one of the hardest, most technical races of the year, just to know that I can be good enough … It makes the idea of training and my goals all worth it because you know you can go to the top of the sport.

Hopefully I can share that in a team that’ll give me a job this year.

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