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Cyclist Joey Walker riding towards the camera, along an unmarked road  with mountainous terrain to the sides and in the background

Joey Walker: Northern Gravity

Joey Walker is 23 years-old but speaks with the voice of someone more mature.

Its depth and cadence reflect the accumulated experience of folding teams, good but hard times with British Cycling’s Olympic Academy, an horrific crash, and a Covid-enforced break from racing that has lasted more than a year.

This is not to suggest that Walker is downbeat. As British circuit race champion (a designation extended by British Cycling to accommodate lockdown) and marquee signing for the Brother UK-sponsored Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing team, he has reasons to be cheerful. Rather, he speaks with a wisdom that belies his youth.


“Team manager Matt Hallam and I both wanted to make it work, and the final incentive for me to sign the deal came from Phil Jones at Brother UK.”


Excitement is absent from his measured tones as he prepares for a fifth season as a professional rider. In its place is a steely resolve, fashioned from his return after a horrifying crash at the 2018 Tour of Britain and the subsequent demise of Madison Genesis and Vitus Pro Cycling.

“I first met the Crimson squad when I was training on my own in Calpe in February 2020. I bumped into [team manager] Matt Hallam and the lads two or three times. When Vitus folded at the back end of the year, I reached out to as many teams as possible. With Matt, it was very natural. We both wanted to make it work, and the final incentive for me to sign the deal came from Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK,” he says.

“If it’s a team where we can both grow together, I think that will be a good thing for both of us. Matt’s got some good ideas for growth. He’s doing more than most British teams with social media content and doing it properly. Another big attraction was the opportunity to be team leader. I can pick and choose my races and hopefully help other riders to progress. It gets the ball rolling, and if the team grows while I’m on it, even better.”

Walker is the son of Chris Walker, a prolific winner and highly-respected domestic professional who competed in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of the Walker dynasty (sister Jessie enjoyed a brief professional career before becoming disillusioned with her Italian team and retiring, aged 22), Joey has a significant pedigree.

Cyclist Joey Walker riding along a country road with a mountain and blue sky in the background

Michaelgate, aka Downing Street

Further, the youngest Walker has grown up at the centre of the country’s strongest cycling community. A member of the formidable “Donny Chaingang”, he occupies a position at the heart of a South Yorkshire cycling mafia comprised of paid professionals, past and present, including former Madison team-mate Connor Swift (Arkea-Samsic).

Certainly, Walker does not lack routes accessible from his doorstep or partners with whom to ride. He trains each year in Calpe, where his parents have a business, but beyond this Costa Blancan mecca, and perhaps Girona, there can be few areas with so many professional cyclists per square metre.


“The opportunity to be team leader at Crimson Performance was a big attraction. I can pick and choose my races and hopefully help other riders to progress.”


Despite seeming destined to pursue a career as a professional cyclist, Walker insists that he was never pressured to follow his father’s example. A schoolboy rugby player with only a casual interest in cycling, his epiphany came as a spectator on the savage Michaelgate climb at the Lincoln Grand Prix.

“There was never any pressure from my family to get into cycling, which obviously I really appreciate. It was more of a natural occurrence. The big catalyst was when we went to watch the Lincoln Grand Prix. I would have been about 11 or 12,” he recalls.

 “I was stood on Michaelgate with my dad. We were all shouting for Russ Downing, because Russ is a good family friend. My dad turned to me and said: ‘We could be shouting your name one day.’ And that was it, really. I said: ‘Ok, get me a race bike, and I’ll have a go.’ It was my decision, and I haven’t looked back since.”

The Downing connection continued into his own career. Dean served as Walker’s coach and Russell as his race mentor, although Joey is now self-coached. Both Downings were highly accomplished domestic pros, while Russell endured a comparable level of success and frustration in European professional racing to Chris Walker, Joey’s father.

While the hard as nails Downing brothers epitomised the regional trait of ‘northern grit’, the youngest Walker offers a different interpretation: what might be described as northern gravity. Our interview and subsequent podcast recording reveal him as grounded, centred and possessed of a self-knowledge that many of his contemporaries lack.

Cyclist Joey Walker leaning over his handlebars as he rides uphill with greenery in the background

Studying the sport

Walker is realistic about the demands of a career in the sport’s top level. His sister's experiences are unlikely to have provided a ringing endorsement for racing in Europe, while his year in Italy with a struggling British Cycling Academy set-up led to disappointment and “pastings” for the 2016 cohort.

In an attempt to recreate the success achieved with Cavendish, Thomas, Stannard et al, British Cycling again based its men’s endurance squad in Italy. A different location and the notable absence of Rod Ellingworth, formerly U23 Academy coach but by then high-performance manager at Team Sky, yielded a different outcome.


“I had good and bad experiences with British Cycling's Olympic Academy. Looking back, it was a good time, but a hard time.”


“I had good and bad experiences with the Academy. When I joined, it was their first year back in Italy. They tried to replicate what Ellingworth did with Cavendish and people like that, but for me, and I think a few other riders who were there would agree, it felt a bit rushed. Things were missing. We didn’t want five star accommodation, but living conditions weren’t great, let’s put it that way,” he recalls.

“We were doing the top-level Italian national series races; pro races, basically. Every single one of us, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, found it hard. In most races, only one of us would finish. I can understand why people say there were downsides to the Academy, but at the same time, it was about learning, and we did a heck of a lot of learning that year. Looking back, it was a good time, but a hard time.”

Walker and his cohort certainly had the talent for professional careers, but the fact that only Gabriel Cullaigh has found a berth in the UCI WorldTour suggests more might have been made of it. Like Walker, former Academy team-mates Matt Gibson and Ollie Wood now pursue careers in domestic cycling.

Golden generations require golden coaching, it seems. Youthful talent must be carefully nurtured if it is to bloom. The varying pathways chosen by British riders who have followed Cavendish et al to the top of the sport (Pidcock, Geoghan-Hart, Carthy et al) prove that the Academy is only one option.

Cyclist Joey Walker rehydrating with greenery and a cloudy sky in the background

A domestic education

For a time, Team Wiggins seemed to offer a second incubator for Walker’s generation, and he describes his two years with the now-defunct squad as a valuable learning experience. His education included appearances in Europe’s highest-profile U23 races, as well as in the Tour of Britain and Tour de Yorkshire.

It was a truncated tenure with Madison Genesis that arguably showed Walker at his best. As well as being crowned British Circuit Race Champion, he demonstrated his recovery from crashing through a car window at the preceding year’s Tour of Britain: an incident that required 60 stitches and multiple surgeries.


“I’ve realised over time that I’d be happy to make a career out of racing in the UK. At the end of the day, I just want to be happy racing bikes.”


Significantly, he takes pride in his role in a team performance that helped Matt Holmes claim two stages and overall victory at the 2019 Manx International. Ironically, the performance followed a mid-season announcement that the team would conclude only months later. Happily for Holmes, its young guns continued to fire.

Holmes’ subsequent career – he won the queen stage of the 2020 Tour Down Under on his first appearance for the Lotto-Soudal UCI WorldTour squad – has not inspired Walker to pursue a berth in the sport’s top tier. Despite an unquestioned talent, he is content with success in Britain’s biggest races.

“When you’re younger, you aspire to be in the Tour de France and the biggest races. I had the same ambition when I was riding for Team Wiggins, but then I had quite a bad crash in the 2018 Tour of Britain,” he explains.

“My confidence took a big hit. I’ve built that back over time and obviously winning the national crit championships and other races has helped. But I’ve realised over time that I’d be happy to make a career out of racing in the UK.

“Kristian House enjoyed a good ten years doing what he loved: racing bikes in the UK and being successful. At the end of the day, I just want to be happy racing bikes.”

Close-up of Crimson Performance team jersey displaying sponsorship logos

Crit factor

Crit racing is arguably the dominant feature of elite British road racing. The Tour Series and National Circuit Series are significant milestones on the domestic calendar. Fast and furious, it is an environment in which no prisoners are taken, and where positioning, cornering and acceleration are as important as endurance.

This year, Walker will wear the national champion’s jersey. He acknowledges that such an obvious badge of success brings increased expectation. While he will enjoy undisputed leadership of Crimson’s crit squad (team manager Hallam has created a dedicated unit within his 15-man roster), Walker does not expect an armchair ride.


“Having the full support of a dedicated squad is a big confidence boost. That brings a responsibility from me to dig that bit deeper at the end of the race for the result.”


“There’s something about crit racing that just stands out for me. I find it exciting, more than anything. It’s full-on from the word go: a constant battle. In a road race, you can have two hours just turning over the pedals. Crit racing is not just a test of strength: it’s cornering, positioning, everything. I think the strength-in-depth makes the UK crit scene the best in the world,” he says.

“Having the full support of a dedicated squad is a big confidence boost. That brings a responsibility from me to dig that bit deeper. If someone’s putting their race on the line for you - in a lead out, for example, or covering moves - it makes you go that bit deeper at the end of the race for the result.”

Walker’s realism is surely worth more to Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing than feigned enthusiasm. His experience, like his tone, belies his youth. Born into a cycling family and with a host of international appearances and domestic successes on his palmares, his pedigree will be a significant asset to his new team.

Blessed with a calmness that exceeds his years, and with a confidence rebuilt after a crash that might have caused others to quit, Walker is not to be underestimated, despite his pleasant, easy-going demeanour. Crimson Performance-Orientation Marketing, with a little help from Brother UK, have unquestionably signed a worthy champion.

 

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