CYCLIST Russell Hampton raised a few eyebrows with his decision not to race for a team this season, but the Basildon professional says choosing to ride solo was the best decision of his career.
Hampton says he is “enjoying his cycling more than ever” and is having his most consistent season to date.
And he puts that down to the freedom he is given by his backers Athlonsport Cloudnine Telecoms who he joined forces with at the start of the year.
Athlonsport, the independent bike dealership from Chelmsford, back Hampton and Hampton alone, as he takes on the might of the best domestic teams in the peloton.
But the rider says this has not impeded his progress, but made him stronger.
“I have been lucky to get good sponsors who provide me with such good equipment and let me get on with it,” said Hampton.
“I have been able to focus on these events individually and can pretty much do what I want, when I want.
“I have never questioned myself for making the move. It was quite unique at the time, but it has worked out very well for me and I would say this is the most productive season of my career.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see more and more people try it. I have spoken to a few cyclists and they are really interested in it.
“I certainly have no regrets about doing it and have had the most consistent year ever since joining.”
Hampton was speaking after producing one of his most eye-catching performances on two wheels this season, at the RTTC national 10-mile championship.
He finished fourth in East Yorkshire, having led the time-trial until the final three riders took to the road and said, despite the disappointment of missing out of the podium, he was pleased with his performance.
The pace was incredibly high, with 24 riders dipping inside 19 minutes and 86 going faster than 30mph.
“I was very happy with my time over the distance,” he said, having recorded a time of 17 minutes 58 seconds – a staggering 1m 22s off his previous best – and clocking an average of 33mph.
“It was a massive personal best for me and I suppose that is the first thing you look to improve upon when you start a race.
“There are an awful lot of people going at that speed this year and I knew I would be there or thereabouts, but I was pretty gutted to come one place outside the podium positions.”
Hampton started his time-trial long before his eventual rivals took to the start line, due to timings taken so far this year, but said as his time remained the one to beat he felt he could claim a podium.
“I started quite early on as I hadn’t recorded very good times this year but I used that to surprise a few people and I was still leading with the final three riders to come.
“To see them all finish ahead of me and be six seconds away was a shame but I have made massive gains this year and it gives me a good place to aim for next year.
“Next year I want to win it. I aimed for top five this year and did that so I need to build on that.
“This year has been better than I thought it was going to be in all honesty. It was slow to start with but I always knew that was going to be the case as some of the races I was targeting were towards the end of the season.”
Hampton secured his first podium finish of the season in July, finishing third at the Stockton Grand Prix, off the back of a disappointing weekend at the National Championships in Wales two weeks earlier.
Hampton has packed a lot into his career so far.
An extremely talented junior rider, he was part of the Great Britain Under-23 Academy squad where he was part of a World Cup win on the track in Los Angeles He has also been a member of two of Britain’s big domestic teams: Sigma Sport and Team Raleigh.
And it was while with Sigma Sport that Hampton had arguably the best stage race of his career at the 2011 Tour of Britain.
He spent four days in the King of the Mountains jersey, after making it into a breakaway early on stage two, earning Hampton lots of media exposure and eventually a move to Team Raleigh.
This year’s Tour of Britain starts on Sunday and Hampton will have to be content with watching it on the television as he cannot compete in the race as a lone rider.
But he says he has no regrets that he won’t be part of Britain’s biggest stage race.
“I have enjoyed this season more than I have enjoyed any other season before so there is no regret that I can’t race in it,” he said. “I will race against some of the guys in other events, just not in this race.”
Hampton will be keeping a close eye on the race, however, and one man in particular, his good friend and fellow Essex professional Alex Dowsett who will be riding for Spanish team Movistar.
“I know Alex is going for the GC (General Classification) and I am hoping he does will in the race as we often train together,” said Hampton.
“I find it hard to look beyond (Bradley) Wiggins for the overall standings though and I am sure Mark (Cavendish) will be going for the sprint stages.
“I know Alex really wants to do well in this race. People know what Alex is about and I am sure there will be a lot of good teams looking to take someone like him on board (when his contract runs out at the end of this season).”
More than a million people cheered on the riders at this year’s Tour de France – the third stage of which came through Essex.
“I am sure there will be more people than ever watching this race,” he said. “The Tour was a great success for bike racing in this country and this has always drawn the crowds too so I hope to see the streets full of people.”
Hampton is approaching the end of his own season now, and although looking forward to a break, he says he won’t be able to stay off the bike that long either.
“It is nice to have a little rest for a few weeks,” admitted Hampton. “But once I have had those weeks off I will be itching to get back on the bike and I know that will be the same this year too.”