All it took was a pandemic to forget about Brexit. As vaccines began to get distributed and people began to allow themselves to imagine life post-lockdown, January 1 2021 passed just like any other day – spent inside.
Britain’s exit from the European Union came and went with less fanfare than expected, Covid-19 a more immediate threat to ‘normal life’, and anyway, Brexit had become more drawn out than a 247km-long Tour de France transition stage.
The 2020 cycling season was truncated, but a small miracle was achieved in fitting three Grand Tours and numerous one-day Classics into the latter half of the year. Reassuringly, the 2021 calendar should look a lot more normal.
That is the case for most pro riders, but there are a few who, having got used to racing through a pandemic, now have their chance to compete threatened by the end of their freedom of movement between the UK and the European bloc.
British nationals are now restricted to only 90 days of travel every 180 days within the EU. For professional cyclists, that barely covers the pre-season training camps, let alone enough time to be able to race through the spring up to the Giro d’Italia in May.
Harry Tanfield: ‘It cost me a f*** load’
“Yeah it’s been a f***ing nightmare,” Harry Tanfield told Cycling Weekly, eloquently summing up how most people have felt over the past 12 months. The 26-year-old found a WorldTour contract at the eleventh hour, as Qhubeka-Assos rose from the ashes of Team NTT. It turns out finding a team would be the easy part. “Rather not go through all that [visa] s**t again. Cost me a f**k load.”
Tanfield’s visa is ready to pick up (he can afford to leave his English-to-Spanish swearing dictionary at the embassy) having successfully applied for Spain’s non-lucrative visa, allowing non-EU citizens to live in Spain provided they are able to support themselves financially. Think of a leathery retiree living in Benidorm, except they are able to ride a TT bike at over 50km/h.
A very short season
Around this time last year, Matt Holmes was announcing himself at WorldTour level by beating Richie Porte in his own back yard at the Tour Down Under. This year, he’s already missed a Lotto-Soudal training camp due to the double-whammy of travel restrictions, and the import duty caused by Brexit has already cost him a lot of money.
“I’ve had a knee injury the last month so not in any fit state to race at the moment, but if we can’t sort out some rule changes I will have a very short season,” Holmes says.
“It’s a really bad state of affairs anyway and just makes it even less likely that any WorldTour team will be interested in British riders because it’s just too much of a headache.”
Like Tanfield, Fred Wright is currently at the UAE Tour opening his WorldTour season. While many western influencers have fled to the Middle East to continue peddling child-sized clothes made for adults and diet drinks that make you poop yourself, Wright is sharing petitions on his social media – specifically, one campaigning for the government to negotiate a visa-free permit, giving British pros the ability to freely race in Europe going forward.
‘I might not be where I am now’
British WorldTour riders including Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) were among those that said they’d signed the petition.
Riders can apply to the governments of European countries for visas that would allow them to stay longer than 90 days but these are not always granted.
Wright is currently competing in the UAE Tour this week, but said the coronavirus quarantine restrictions make it even tougher to get home.
Wright said: “It was a pretty stressful journey but I managed to eventually get to the team training camp in Spain and have been away from home ever since.
“It’s been quite a while away from home…with UK Covid restrictions it’s not possible for me to travel back home because I’ll have to quarantine for too long and not be able to come back for the next race. UAE is on the red list of countries and we can’t get elite sport exemption from quarantine when returning to the UK unfortunately.
“With most European countries there isn’t this problem. It looks like for this early part of the season I’m committed to staying away for a while. The trouble with doing this is now that Brexit has limited the time I can spend in the EU I may come into some problems if I’m not careful.”
Wright remains optimistic, however, and says if it wasn’t for Covid, just dealing with the Brexit complications would be doable.
“Without Covid it would be more simple, I could just travel home between races. The Brexit and Covid combo is what’s really messing up the plans of British riders and also staff. It’s frustrating, there are now just a few more steps and paperwork we have to go through in order to do our jobs, hopefully when Covid eases off eventually it will become clearer and easier.”
Sharing his support for the petition, Pidcock tweeted: “I might not be where I am now had I not been able to stay in Europe for long periods to race and train. Brexit makes it harder for others to have the same opportunities in an already incredibly difficult time.”
‘I do think it will affect people’s careers’
But it’s not just about the WorldTour.
Another rider struggling to break through the red tape and seemingly endless list of visa requirements is Joe Sutton, a former rider for Vitus Pro Cycling.
Sutton, 23, was able to find a spot on a French club team for 2021 after the sudden closure of British Continental outfit Vitus.
But the Kent-based rider is finding it near-impossible to start his season, as due to a combination of Covid regulations and Brexit changes, Sutton can only be granted a total of 90 days in France.
As an amateur rider, Sutton will be given bikes, team kit and accommodation by his new squad, but will not be paid a salary, which means he can only race on the continent under a tourist visa.
Sutton told Cycling Weekly: “Sadly it comes down to money a little bit because if you don’t meet the criteria, then you’re less likely to get that granted visa. And some people might then have to fall back on to their 90 days period, which is going to make them much less attractive to teams. The team isn’t going to really want to commit and buy them bikes and kit and hold a space for them in a team house for a 90-day rolling period, especially if you have to go out in January.
“I do think it will affect people’s careers.”
Sutton was also critical of national governing body British Cycling, who he feels haven’t done enough to support young riders trying to make their way in cycling, instead favouring their roster of Olympics athletes and giving them support.
In the hopes of still being able to race, Sutton has turned to his local Member of Parliament for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst – a Brexiteer MP – who has been in contact with the French Ambassador to the UK and the Minister of the European Neighbourhood and the Americas in the hopes of securing a long-stay visa.
But currently for Sutton, he is forced to wait for a guaranteed block of racing, less likely to be cancelled due to Covid, so he can get the most out of his 90 days in France.
He added: “I’m not just going to France for fun, becoming a professional cyclist is my dream and passion, and has been since the age of four years old. To make this a reality it has to be my job.
“Obtaining a place on a top-level French racing team is hard and testament to my reputation and dedication. I am struggling with the visa requirements as a result of the Brexit deal not covering sport and Covid at the same time. I have a great opportunity in front of me, but it feels out of reach.”
Ribble-Weldtite’s Olly Moors, who has lived and raced in Belgium for the past five years but is currently marooned in the UK, has also pointed out it would be safer from a Covid-19 point of view, being able to stay put where riders need to be, rather than shuttling back and forth so as not to limit the number of days of their allotted 90 they use up.
Moors called up the Belgian authorities where he lives asking for help, but they were none the wiser. “I called up my local town hall and Belgium, asking about Brexit and they said look ‘sorry, we don’t actually know what’s happening’.”
“If you guys want to help the future of British cycling this is essentially what’s going to happen,” Moors says of the necessity of a visa-free permit. “Adam and Simon Yates, they raced in France, they lived there. It’s all well and good watching them on the TV now going ‘look at those stars, they’re British’. We’re proud of them, being British, but it also came from them being able to live abroad.”
There was some good news last week though for British professional riders looking to race abroad. Following discussion with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) British Cycling deemed riders on UCI Continental teams to qualify for elite status, which can allow travel across borders and exemptions to use facilities in the UK during the Covid pandemic.
However, amateur athletes, like young riders on Rayner Foundation are not as yet included in this list.
In a statement BC said : “Under the current guidelines from DCMS we are unfortunately unable to provide elite status letters to junior riders, aside from those on an elite development pathway with the Great Britain Cycling Team. We know that this will be frustrating to riders and parents, however we hope to be able to support these riders to resume competition overseas in the near future.”
DCMS had yet to respond to a request for comment on visas at the time of going to press.