Scots cyclist Mark Stewart aims for pro career

Mark Stewart won World Cup gold in New Zealand.  Picture:  Matthew Pover
Mark Stewart won World Cup gold in New Zealand. Picture: Matthew Pover
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LAST weekend a Scottish male track cyclist won an individual World Cup gold medal for the first time since February 2012 when Chris Hoy won the sprint in London. But Mark Stewart, a 20-year-old from Dundee, really did something not seen since the days of Graeme Obree, because he is an endurance rider, not a sprinter.

It was on the other side of the world, at the Avantidrome in Cambridge, New Zealand, that Stewart took victory in the scratch race. It continued his progression this winter – with Londoner Germain Burton he won the under-23 race at the prestigious Ghent six-day last month – but a gold medal in a senior World Cup is of a very different order.

And so it is perhaps not surprising that Stewart, on his return to Manchester and still battling jet lag, was able on Thursday to recall it in such vivid detail: “It was a nervous race, one of these when everyone was watching everyone, with little moves, and a lot of time up at the fence.

“I decided early on that I wanted to be offensive rather than defensive. I can’t ride defensively – I just can’t do it. I was in every move that failed. But I felt good. I had done the team pursuit an hour before [GB were fifth] but my legs were good. So I put myself on the front. A Colombian [Brayan Stiven Sanchez] went with 15 laps to go and got away. I went after him with 10 to go. After six laps of chasing I had him in my sights, but he had the bunch in his sights.”

When Sanchez lapped the field and rejoined the bunch, able finally to take a breather and rest his legs, it made Stewart’s task that much harder. “I was 10 metres off the back and thought, it’s now or never. I dug pretty deep, latched on to the back of the bunch, then with two laps to go I managed to crawl around the Colombian. I came round him, couldn’t look back, hung on, and won. It was pretty special.”

Given the detail, and the impassioned delivery, it is tempting to think that if Stewart’s career as a cyclist doesn’t work out he could turn instead to commentary.

But let’s assume that his cycling career will work out. Stewart, a member of the British Cycling Academy, certainly does. Others do, too. Speak to some of those who have worked with him – such as Garry Beckett, a soigneur with the Cannondale-Garmin professional team who looked after Stewart and Burton at the London six-day in October – and they will tell you that it is his attitude that impresses even more than his ability. He is confident, but not arrogant. Upbeat and positive but also hard-working and committed. Of being a full-time bike rider, living with four other academy riders in a house in Manchester, he says: “I love every single second of it.”

Stewart is the younger brother of Kevin, a sprinter who trained for a period at the UCI-run World Cycling Centre in Aigle and who, inevitably, was dubbed “the next Chris Hoy”. Suffice to say that he wasn’t. But, still only 24, Kevin is now a respected coach and recently took up a post with British Cycling, looking after the under-23 sprinters.

When the 11-year-old Mark began cycling on the Caird Park outdoor track in Dundee with the Discovery Junior Cycling Club it was apparent that he would be a different kind of rider to his brother. He comes from a sporty family – he was a swimmer before taking up cycling, and his father, Stan, has competed in Ironman triathlons – and says: “I immediately realised I was different to Kevin.”

Mark does not have the same muscular build as his brother, but how much this is a symptom of their different training is difficult to say. “I always want to do the opposite of Kevin,” admits the younger Stewart, “and that’s why I wanted to do road racing.” If Hoy was Kevin’s hero, Mark’s was David Millar. “Watching the Tour de France, seeing him win a stage, I just loved that. That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to be.”

“I think what I’ve achieved is not so much [down to] talent but 100 per cent hard work,” Stewart continues. “I wasn’t that good as a youth or junior, but I know I’ve got the mindset. I’ve got confidence in myself.”

What kind of rider is he? He is not as bulky as his brother, but he’s still on the big side for a road rider, so he is unlikely to fly up mountain passes in the Alps and Pyrenees. One-day races could suit him: he has his eyes on the under-23 Tour of Flanders next year. But Stewart, in answering this question, doesn’t define himself by his strengths on particular terrain. “I like to think I’m a chancer,” he laughs. “I like to try and get in breaks and win from a small move.”

If Stewart began his development on the old Caird Park track, he honed his talent at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow. When it opened in 2013 he was one of the first on the boards. “It has made a massive impact,” he says. “Look at the youths. The last few years I rode the inter-regional youth track championships; in 2011 the top two teams were Wales and the North West.” Both regions have indoor velodromes in Newport and Manchester. “This year Scotland won. It’s because of the Glasgow velodrome, but also what it brings – the coaching and competitive environment.”

Next year Stewart will be based in Italy. It will be another step towards his goal of turning professional and, on all the evidence so far, he should take it in his stride. That attitude spills into other areas of his life. On Thursday morning he sat his driving test. “I’d booked it months ago, then it turns out it’s two days after getting back from New Zealand,” he said. “I’ve wanted to drive for months, so I couldn’t cancel it. I was a bit tired, so I took an energy gel.”

And? “I passed it.”