“MY DAD’S BIKE was on the turbo trainer in the garage. I went in one day and was sitting on the top tube of it, just pedalling away. I did that maybe two or three times, and he turned to me and said, ‘Would you like me to buy you a bike, son?’
“It all went downhill from there,” Jack Wilson laughs.
It’s a cold afternoon in Tielt, the Belgian town an hour outside of Brussels. If you’re wondering what would drive a 19-year-old to push his physical limits on a bike for four or five hours a day and then spend the rest of his time preparing for tomorrow’s slog, all for little or no money, fame or recognition, this is good a place as any to start asking questions.
Wilson is the newest Irish signing for An Post-ChainReaction, the team set up by Sean Kelly in 2006 to help develop young talent and move them on to the professional ranks. An Post is a Continental team, racing two levels below the household names of the World Tour, and this season he is here to learn.
Hailing from Jordanstown, County Antrim, Wilson was born with cycling in his blood. Dad Gary rode for Ireland and travelled the hard-worn race circuits of France and Belgium. There was no pressure for young Jack to follow in his father’s footsteps but the bikes were around the house and the opportunities were always there. By 2004 — “I was nine or 10″ — he had his first cycling licence.
“I think it was just coincidence that the bike was there. I was bored one night and just went in and started pedalling. That’s how it all started.
I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my dad. I work with Tommy Evans, my coach, but up until December two years ago everything was just me and my dad.
He knows me better than anybody. He knows when to push me or when to let me be.
Together they plotted a rise through the national ranks. Wilson was Irish U16 champion in 2009 before coming back the next year to add the junior title to his collection. An invitation to represent his country at the Junior European and World Championships followed and from there an offer to join UCS Crabbe Performance VOO, an amateur team based in the Belgian province of Limburg.
It was there he learned the ropes, living away from home with a Belgian family and making his mark by winning some kermesse races, but the future was thrown into doubt when Wilson was told that they would not be fielding a team in 2013. As he left for the World Road Race Championships in Valkenburg last September, his next move was very much up in the air.
Worlds was the perfect opportunity for him to impress but it didn’t go to plan. A crash left him stranded and by the time he had made up the lost ground, Wilson was spent. He didn’t finish.
“I didn’t know what to do this year. Do I stay in Belgium? Do I go home and race? I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have a team at that point.
“I was in good form going into Worlds but there was just one thing after another and I had to do too much. There was a crash in the second feed zone with just over a lap and a half to go. I was at the back of the bunch and I killed myself to get back on.
We got into Valkenburg and turned up the Cauberg. I got to the Cauberg and the springs went, it was over. After putting my lights out to close the gap and get back on after the crash, I think that just killed me.
If that hadn’t happened I probably would have finished. I’m not making excuses. I didn’t have a good day.
Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Without a team, a return home to Ireland, to college or a job, and to part-time cycling was a very real possibility. Fortunately for Wilson, Kelly and An Post team manager Kurt Bogaerts were in the Netherlands that weekend with two of their other young riders, Sam Bennett and Sean Downey. Kelly and Bogaerts liked what they saw and invited Wilson to link up for their winter training camp in Calpe.
Now he lives in Buggenhout, 40 minutes north of Brussels, with his three Irish team-mates (team veteran Ronan McLaughlin is the other) and some of the team’s other riders. On Saturday Wilson braved freezing conditions along with McLaughlin and Bennett in a seven-man squad for the Beverbeek Classic; again, it ended in the disappointment of a DNF.
“It’s a learning year,” he explained earlier this week. “Learn the races, learn the field, help out the team as much as I can, when I can. There’s no panic, no sweat, take it slow. I don’t think they’ll be throwing me into big races too soon.”
If there’s one thing Wilson has shown himself to be good at, it’s learning. He has made good progress already in his young career, so much so that he admits to even surprising himself at times. It helps too that he has been surrounded by talented friends and team-mates, no matter what the discipline; in his rugby-playing days as an openside flanker with Belfast club Malone, he was friends with Ulster and Ireland U20 out-half Stuart Olding.
The ultimate goal is to make the progression from a Continental team to Continental Pro and eventually to the star status of the World Tour. The sacrifices needed to get that point are no secret, nor are the shortcuts which have dragged cycling’s name through the mud in doping scandal after doping scandal. Wilson says he’d rather walk away than ever cross that line.
The sport is changing and you have to be strong enough to know that I will not do that and have not done that. If it ever comes to that point, that’s it, game over. No chance.
It would be hard to [walk away] but it’s not worth it. In my eyes, I just find it stupid. Why would you? I’d rather do it as a hobby and race at home and enjoy it.
For now he’s enjoying the climb, but there’s nothing like a cold Belgian morning to remind you that the road to the top ain’t always pretty.
“It takes so much commitment and so much hard work to get there,” he reflects, “but I’ve never really planned years in advance. I take it step-by-step.”