It’s almost 12 years since GRC rider Dominic Free, who had then recently turned 18, was selected to ride as part of the Scottish team in the 1998 edition of The Junior Tour of Wales, an annual three-day cycle race held around Brynmawr, Blaenau Gwent, Wales. The event has run since 1981, attracting international teams as well as national teams from Wales, Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland.
The list of competitors over the years includes a vast number of youngsters destined for top-level continental professional racing. Notable Junior Tour of Wales podium finishers include Matthew Stephens, Roger Hammond, David Millar, Charly Wegelius, Kristian House, Johan Van Sommeren, Dan Martin, Geraint Thomas, Lance Armstrong’s new protégé Alex Dowsett, Norwegian superstar in the making Edvald Boassan-Hagan, and rising stars of GB cycling, brothers Peter and Tim Kennaugh – to name just a handful! The fastest man on the planet, Mark Cavendish, also rode this event in 2005, describing it as:
“a great experience that definitely played a part in launching my professional racing career.”
David Millar, a former World Champion and winner of multiple Grand Tour stages, currently riding for Garmin-Transitions, remembers its difficulty:
“It really did test me to my limit, I can still remember that last hill, even after all the Tours I’ve done on the continent. Whoever finishes well up in that race has the ability to go forward with their career.”
Considering the calibre of riders setting the pace each year, it’s clear that The Junior Tour of Wales is not a race for the feint hearted. Dominic not only got round the five stages in 1998; on occasion, he out-performed some riders who would go on to bigger, better things some years later.
I asked Dominic a few questions about the event.
How did your selection come about?
Dominic: “Back in the day, 1998, just when I turned 18, I don’t think there was too much of a scene for Junior and Juvenile cycling in Scotland (correct me if I’m wrong) so getting selected wasn’t too difficult. I hadn’t really participated in many races prior to the Tour of Wales but I put myself out there and did a couple of races, one of which was part of the Buckley series for juniors, including riders from down south. This particular one was round the Campsies, up the dreaded Crow Road a couple of times. Needless to say I didn’t do very well but Bill Lonie, Martin Lonie’s Dad, gave me some encouragement and told me to keep racing and he’d consider me for the Tour of Wales. At the time of the Junior Tour of Wales, the Junior Tour of Ireland was going on, which had already attracted some of the other more promising young Scottish Riders, so the leftover rejects like myself were selected lol. Thanks Bill I think ”
What do you remember from the event? How did you get on?
Dominic: “The whole event was amazing from start to finish; it’s something I’ll never forget. It was really well organized and, for a young rider like me, it was really exciting and full of atmosphere. There must have been close to 80 or so riders, most of the teams were from across the UK but there were two teams from Holland, which made me realise I might be out of my depth. I was able to hold my own with most of the riders, at least on stage 2!!!
Day 1 – Stage 1 – Time trial, I think it was about 5 miles. I got a fairly average time if I remember, so I was pleased with that.
Day 1 – Stage 2 – Road Race, 80 miles. This was most certainly my best stage, I finished 28th. Off the top of my head I can’t remember the route we took but we finished on a huge climb, which was to my advantage cos I was built like Mark Miller (GRC) back then… the side of a 5 pound note… so I was able to put it in the big Scobie (as Tam Gordon says) and go for it.
Day 2 – Stage 3 – Road Race, about 40 miles. This was the start of my downfall. There were lots of breaks and attacks and I got caught out. The bunch split in two and me and a few riders got left behind. I finished quite a bit behind the leaders.
Day 2 – Stage 4 – Circuit. This was where my inexperience and lack of strength began to show. I wasn’t able to keep up with the pace and eventually I was lapped, like many of the other riders.”
Tell me a bit about the team and the managers?
Dominic: “The Team comprised of me, Robert Scott, Alex Maughan, Cameron Fraser and a mountain biker turned road racer – for some reason his name isn’t on the start sheet. Managers were Ian Jardine and Bill Lonie.
Robert Scott – was a really good road racer and was by far the strongest out of all of us. He did very well and in all the stages he was always highly ranked. I think Rab has given up cycling now, it’s a pity.
Cameron Fraser – was like a towering giant. Unfortunately due to his size and, if he excuses me saying, lack of strength, he struggled on all the hills. He eventually bailed out the race and became the team helper. I’ve heard he’s a really good rider these days.
Alex Maughan – Another great wee rider who came out from Stirling way. Very good on all the stages but again, like myself lacked a little experience but did well in all the stages. Not sure what’s become of him.
Un -named Mountain biker – Pulled his hamstring on the final stage and bailed, really good rider.
Bill Lonie – Father of Martin Lonie. Really nice guy and helped out a lot with guidance and tutoring.
Ian Jardine – Nice guy, I think his son had participated the year before. Again, nice guy and really thankful he was there.”
What are your stand out memories from the whole experience?
Dominic: “There are many great memories, not all to do with cycling mind you!! Some of the best ones were just the sheer excitement of riding in such a big field and having a laugh and joke with them. I remember at the start of the 2nd stage we rode round the town centre a couple of times so the crowds could cheer us. Even then it was a big event so that brought a big smile to my face. I also remember the level of organization, police cars and police motor bikes that were there to block off all the roads. That added to the sense how big a race it was at the time.
The weather was really good on most of the stages, which made the cycling great. I remember on one of the stages prior to going up a massive hill climb one of the lads was changing gear and fell off his bike, crashing into a tree. He wasn’t going fast and wasn’t hurt, but all his team mates were laughing at him and taking the mick, that amused me.
I remember Bill and Ian went to the pub on the first night and got locked out of the B&B. I was sound asleep in my room, two floors up, and at about 2 am I saw the curtains rustling and Bill and Ian stumbled in half cut – it was very funny.
I remember the B&B we were staying in was full of other teams and it was good being able to mix with them and find out the chat that was going on with regards to the race. Apparently, the two teams from Holland weren’t getting along and the managers had fallen out… who knows why. I also remember someone telling me that David Millar had won the race a couple of years before and it made realize what a great race this was to be participating in.”
Thanks to Dominic for taking the time to answer the questions and for digging out his collection of memorabilia on the 1998 Junior Tour of Wales! Looking at the result of the second hilly road stage, it’s interesting to see that Dom rolled in just behind Daniel Lloyd, now a highly-rated Cervelo Test Team domestique, riding alongside Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd in the spring Classics and for Carlos Sastre in Grand Tours.
Dominic still rides his bike for fun and hopes to return to racing in the not-too-distant future.