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Leon Mazzone: Manx on a mission

Leon Mazzone is 23-years-old. It's a fact worth remembering, given the experiences he has already amassed in a career on two wheels begun at the earliest age.

A native of the Isle of Man, where cyclists start young at the famous National Sports Centre in Douglas, he is from the first generation of local riders directly inspired by the international success of islanders like Mark Cavendish and Pete Kennaugh.

The younger of the Mazzone boys (elder brother Tom rides for Vitus Pro Cycling Team p/b Brother UK), Leon has already completed a three-year sojourn in Belgium, boarding with the sister of cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys. Few who make it to the top in this most demanding of sports do so without a period of study in European cycling's most demanding heartland.


"I'm an all-rounder, I guess. I can get over climbs, I can sprint, I can produce a decent time-trial, and I'm still only 23. I've always been one of the youngest riders in my age group."


He represented the Isle of Man at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, before finishing the most gruelling edition of the Tour de Yorkshire to date, and later China's 13-stage Tour of Qinghai Lake. His easy conversation and laid back demeanour forbid the characterisation of a young man in a hurry, but Leon has not wasted time.

He worked as a 'key worker' on his home island throughout the COVID lockdown, having flown back to the Rock from a pre-season training camp with Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing almost as the airport gates were closing. 

His ambition is undented, evidenced by victories on Zwift and on the road. Having already raced as far afield as Australia and China, and in a range of disciplines including BMX, cyclo-cross and kermesse races, he can call upon a valuable catalogue of experience.

"I'm an all-rounder, I guess. I can get over climbs, I can sprint, I can produce a decent time-trial, and I'm still only 23. I've always been one of the youngest riders in my age group," he explains. 

"I finished in the top 35 at the Commonwealth Games, which made me the second-highest finisher on the team, and that earned me a place at the Tour de Yorkshire, racing alongside Russ Downing and against riders like Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet. It felt good. I felt like I belonged there."

Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sat on yellow bike, facing camera, smiling

Escape from Calpe

There is no reason why Leon wouldn't feel at home, even among such elevated company. He has shown the dedication required to reach the top. Professional cycling is a brutal business of constant suffering, even on good days.

Crashes - sudden and often catastrophic contact with surfaces as unyielding as tarmac, concrete and assorted items of road furniture - are an occupational hazard. Riding in a convoy can be akin to riding in the fast lane of a motorway: team cars hurtle past the riders with inches to spare, a blaring horn the only concession to health and safety. It ain't easy.


"We trained in Calpe in the last days before Covid kicked off. We headed to the airport and got straight on the plane."


His recruitment by team owner Matt Hallam for the Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance squad represents the next stage in Leon's development. An amateur team with professional standards, it's a rapidly rising outfit that Brother UK has sponsored from its inception. Leon recalls how the team's carefully laid plans for a pivotal third season, including organising its own race, were derailed by Covid19.

"We came back from the training camp in Calpe around March 9. The week after, I was supposed to have ridden the Crimson Performance road race, which had been planned as my first race of the season. I was literally packing to travel to the mainland when it was cancelled. I'd only intended to come home to the Isle of Man for a few days. I was ready to get back to racing," he recalls.

"I was on pretty good form. I'd completed a solid, two-week training block in Calpe. The weather there was perfect, while at home, it was atrocious: rain and high winds. I was glad to be in Spain. We trained in the last few days before coronavirus kicked off. There were already a few cases in Spain. It suddenly became uncertain whether we'd get back, so we headed for the airport and got straight on the plane."

Leon and his team were not the only ones caught unawares by the speed at which Covid19 spread across the planet. Their rapid response ensured a safe return home. Pre-pandemic days already seem far distant. For an elite athlete like Leon, losing a year of his prime is tough, but he has “taken it on the chin.”

Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sunglasses, white socks, black shoes, riding yellow bike past stone house

A Belgian education

Leon has known no other life but the bike. His father Gary, a former downhill mountain biker, wasted little time in introducing his sons to cycle sport. Leon recalls Tuesday night visits to the National Sports Centre in Douglas and racing "with 200 other kids".

He began on the BMX track as a three-year-old and later 'graduated' to circuit races around the perimeter of the athletics track. His early education culminated with selection by the Isle of Man's national squad for the Junior Tour of Wales, arguably the most prestigious of its kind in the world, with a winners list that includes five current WorldTour riders (Davis, Dowsett, Dunbar, Martin and McLay).


"If you want to become a professional cyclist, you have to go to Belgium and race. You'll learn everything you need to know. The style of racing is completely different to the UK."


Eager to build on a third-place stage finish and third overall in the points competition, Leon moved to Belgium as a first-year under-23 and stayed in accommodation owned by Britt Nys (sadly, her Behind The Weyreldt hotel in Herselt was destroyed by fire last March). Leon stayed there for three years, "eating, sleeping and racing," before finally succumbing to an unrelenting regime of living solely to ride.

"I moved to Belgium when I was 18 and joined the Illi Bikes amateur team. I absolutely loved the racing. There was a race almost every other day. You could pick and choose. Every race was very well-supported, and many had a carnival-like atmosphere," he recalls.

"If you want to become a pro cyclist, you have to go to Belgium and race. You'll learn everything you need to know. The style of racing is completely different to the UK, which is more controlled. A Belgian kermesse is always going to be flat out; always going to over 45kph. There's always a guy who wants to go full gas from the start!"

Leon was far from the only Brit abroad in the Antwerp hinterland. He shared his first year under Britt Nys' roof with fellow British pros Jake Scott and Jake Womersley. James Shaw, then riding for the Lotto-Soudal development squad, was only 5km away in Blauberg. Dan McLay (Arkea-Samsic), former British champion Tim Harris, and former Irish champion Matt Brammier were also close by. Day-to-day life, however, was dull, and Leon returned to the Isle of Man to consider his next move.

 
Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sunglasses, white socks, black shoes, sat on yellow bike, talking to other cyclists

Downing Street

His opportunity came with the Dean Downing-managed Holdsworth team, a UCI Continental squad owned by Planet X mogul Dave Loughran. Leon and brother Tom were part of a 12-man roster picked to fulfil an ambitious plan.

In 2018, the team's debut season, they took on a race programme that included the Tour de Yorkshire and China's two-week Tour of Qinghai Lake: events open to the heavyweight squads of the UCI WorldTour. The British event especially was a baptism of fire.


"It was reassuring to ride with Russ Downing. When my legs cramped, he told me to spin in the inner ring and warned me that cramp could affect the following day, too. That advice will stay with me for the rest of my career."


"The Tour de Yorkshire was brutally hard. It was my first big race; my first professional race. Seeing Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet flying up the climbs was quite daunting. The first day wasn't too bad, but stage two finished on Ilkley's Cow and Calf climb. The racing was already hard before we reached the summit finish, and the bunch split on the previous climb. Most of my team-mates pulled out that day, but I managed to hang in there and finish the race," he recalls.

"It was reassuring to ride with Russ Downing. On stage two, my legs cramped, but Russ told me to stay in the inner ring and spin as much as possible. He warned me that cramp could affect you the following day too, and that advice will stay with me for the rest of my career. After only 50km of the final stage, I had stomach problems and couldn't eat or drink. I got a second wind and caught up with Russ. He literally pushed me up the final climb of the race, with team-mate Sean McKenna: Russ on one side, Sean on the other."

There were other advantages to having a former British champion as a team-mate too, Leon reveals. On the opening stage, the UCI WorldTour grandees made space for Holdsworth Pro Cycling to ride among the first 20 riders: a token of the esteem in which the former Team Sky rider is held and an honour for a young rider like Leon, competing in his first professional race.

Russell is not the only Downing to have influenced Leon's career. Sports director Dean had told him he wouldn't be selected for such a demanding event but changed his mind after Leon's performance in the Commonwealth Games. You can read an in-depth feature about Dean's career on this website, and listen to him in conversation on the Brother UK Cycling Podcast.

 
Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sunglasses, riding blue and yellow bike with trees and parkland in background

A new home

Leon has found a new home at Crimson Performance. Encouraged to join the squad by the enthusiasm of team owner Matt Hallam, he has not been disappointed, despite the lack of racing. The team has maintained regular communications throughout lockdown, and its riders are already looking forwards to a programme of training and racing on Mallorca in January. Leon will be content to experience island life in warmer climes.

In Hallam, he has a young manager eager to maximise every opportunity. His team is on a meteoric rise. That their greatest successes to date have been commercial is indicative of Hallam's innate understanding of the value of sponsorship to a cycling team. The team's budget has grown, substantially, in each of its three years. Leon, too was attracted by the manager's can-do attitude.


"Most of the team came to the Calpe camp, and everyone got on straight away. I clicked with the boys immediately. It gives you confidence going into a race."


"I love Matt's enthusiasm. He approached me last year at the Ryedale Grand Prix. He described what he wanted to achieve and outlined his plans for the future. It just drew me in. When we trained in Calpe, I could tell how much Matt loved cycling. He'd be dropped from the group and forced to 'dig in' to regain contact. The next moment, he'd be 'half-wheeling' you, and you'd know he was ready to go again," he says.

"Most of the team came to the Calpe camp, and everyone got on straight away. Many of us had known each other for several years, but only spent a couple of days together. I clicked with the boys immediately. It gives you confidence going into a race."

Leon seems precisely the type of rider Hallam needs to advance his project. Young enough still to require the support of a development team, and yet already equipped with experience gained from racing against the biggest names in the sport, he represents a valuable mix of potential and solidity. He has finished every UCI race he has entered, from one-day tear-ups like the CiCLE Classic to the gruelling, 13-stage Tour of Qinghai Lake.

With hindsight, it seems extraordinary that a pandemic prevented the squad from building upon such solid foundations. The camaraderie Leon describes has never yet been tested in the heat of battle. Team manager Hallam, hugely ambitious, is unlikely to squander such a precious resource. The team's recent social media posts contain the hashtag #Project2021.

 
Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sunglasses, riding yellow bike, trees and green parkland in background

Sibling support

If assimilating into the Crimson Performance culture has so far been simple, when the flag finally falls at national races next year, Leon must adapt to racing on a different team to older brother Tom. He insists that they will never race against each other and expects their professional relationship to remain unchanged, despite Tom now riding for Vitus Pro Cycling Team p/b Brother UK.

Naturally, the brothers share a close relationship, off the bike and on. Until Tom’s move to the mainland, they were training partners as well as team-mates. Endless hours logged in the Isle of Man’s often inhospitable conditions have built an innate understanding, augmented in race conditions by the elder sibling’s cool, tactician’s brain.


"It's great to have your brother next to you. Even though Tom and I are now on different teams, it's still the same dynamic. Hopefully, we'll be back on the same team one day."


"We talk to each other about anything and bounce ideas off each other. In a race, Tom is very tactically aware. He'd say: 'Oh, just attack here,' and end up being in the winning break. He's very switched on. He knows how to read a race. It's great to have your brother next to you. Even though we're on different teams, it's still the same dynamic," he says.

"At Holdsworth, Tom had a lot of bad luck with crashes, but it was amazing to experience the Tour de Yorkshire together and to race with him in China. Hopefully, we'll be back on the same team one day. We argue sometimes, but that's only because we push each other."

The brothers will spend at least one season more on separate teams. The bond shared by cycling siblings seems to be unbreakable, however. From the WorldTour (the Sagans and Nibalis, the Barnes and Quintanas), the benefits of racing alongside a family member clearly outweigh any drawbacks. Blood is thicker than water, even when the H2O is mixed with carbohydrate.

Ultimately, Leon hopes to follow in his brother's footsteps by moving to the British mainland; a step he regards as essential to advancing his career. There are financial hurdles to overcome first; a reminder of the dual existence lived by semi-professional cyclists chasing a dream.

 
Racing cyclist, purple and blue jersey, blue shorts, white helmet, sunglasses, white socks, black shoes, jumping yellow bike over stone

Cross, purpose

In the meantime, Leon has made the most of his time on the Rock, and of the slow relaxation of lockdown restrictions, to ride in local events. A recent winner of the Tour of the Middle, and a participant in the Gran Fondo Isle of Man, he has not allowed opportunities to turn his legs to pass.

He is hoping to cross the Irish sea this winter to test his cyclo-cross skills in rounds of the National Trophy Series, assuming it goes ahead. Crowds can be more closely controlled at 'cross races, and the smaller fields dissipate more rapidly than the bunch formations typical of road races. Last year, Leon raced in Scotland, on the beautiful and challenging course at Irvine, where the demands of hills and sand are counterbalanced by stunning views of the Firth of Clyde.


"Cyclo-cross has come quite naturally to me. I developed good balance and bike-handling skills in my BMX days."


"Last year, was my first proper go at cyclo-cross. I don't know why I wasn't interested when I was in Belgium, boarding with the sister of a 'cross legend! Sven Nys visited a couple of times, and I had a brief chat with him. He dropped off his son Thibau, who was very small then and is now a world champion," he remembers.

"I managed to get a 'cross bike from Holdsworth in the year my contract ended. 'Cross has come quite naturally to me. I developed good balance and bike-handling skills in my BMX days. I finished ninth last year at the Irvine round of the National Trophy Series and then second in the North of England championships in Burnley. I enjoyed it. I'd like to have another go this winter if things get back to normal."

A return to normal is far from certain. Covid19 is odds-on to be with us still in 2021. A 'new normal' of face masks and social distancing, crowd control and team 'bubbles' has allowed bike racing to continue, however. The European calendar resumed in August with no ill effects. British Cycling will need compelling reasons not to give the domestic scene the same opportunity next year. Leon - an all-rounder able to compete in a range of disciplines and circumstances - will be certain to seize every opportunity that comes his way.


Images by HardyCC
 

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