He is a talented, eloquent and fiercely focussed young man for whom cyclocross is his life blood.
I’ve known Sean since he was a juvenile with matchstick legs and a slightly baggy skinsuit. Now he is a foot taller than me and one of the best junior riders in the country.
I caught up with him at the opening round of the Elmy Cycles Eastern Cyclocross League to talk about his season preparation, his goals and the UK ‘cross scene.
Sean, you are a cyclocrosser above anything else. Why is cyclocross your focus and why is it important to you to focus your efforts on the winter season?
I think it’s quite important because it is the thing I enjoy doing the most, and it is the thing I feel most at home with. I have tried mountain biking and road racing but I’ve never done anything exceptional on the road or mountainbike.
I like it because you get to have two of everything!
I have tried it before, doing an mtb season leading up to the ‘cross. Last year I broke my scaphoid at the UK School Games and that took me out for the first part of the cross season. A lot of it is risk assessment, trying to stay clear of injury. To substitute the racing I train a lot, a lot of high intensity stuff to give you that racing edge without having the risk of racing.
Do you think you could do both – MTB or road in summer and then cyclocross in winter-, or would you burn out?
Well the pros do it – like Sven Nys is very competitive in MTB. I think that comes with experience. I want to make myself known as a top cyclocross rider before I start giving other things a go; get my foot in the door first then look at other things.
Is becoming a professional your ultimate goal?
Yes. Ian Field is out [on the continent] doing it for GB now. Older names likes Martin Eden were competive years ago but now it is just Field. I think there is a massive gap in the generations. Field and occasionally others like Hugo Robinson go over but there is no British presence in Europe for the men. The Americans are starting to do it, there is a much bigger US scene now. I think ‘cross is needing to be made a priority for it to grow in Britain.
GB is living off a growth of ‘cross in the US – people seem to know more about Cross Vegas than the World Champs. British cyclocross has got an American edge. Rapha have bigged it up – it is a good thing but then it limits people as well because they don’t want to go to Belgium and experience that cyclocross as well. They’re comfortable with the US type rather than the nitty gritty, get-out-in-a-muddy-field Belgian ‘cross.
Different! Races in England are no way similar to races in Belgium. In England you have the winner and then maybe a minute back will be second, then another 30sec…. In Belgium its neck and neck with sprint finishes all the way down the field. British cyclocross at junior level is more sparse. In Europe you have to be good to want to do it at a decent level, there is a lot less variation in ability.
Does racing in Europe give you an edge then? Does it improve your racing?
Yes. You learn things that you can take home to England like when to get off the bike and run, cornering differently. South shields only has a tiny section of sand but it can make or break a race. [Racing in Europe] teaches you to get little but crucial edges.
Do you plan to race in Europe again this season?
Last year I ended up in hospital after Ruddervoorde which took a big chunk out of the season and made it difficult to make it worth my time going to Belgium later in the season. The season before that I got second in Sylvester cross. I am going to try and emulate the results I got in Belgium that season this season. I’m going to try and do a lot of Flemish Cups, Super Prestige races and hopefully the World Cup if I get selected.
What are you main goals this season?
It’s still early, I need to find out whether what I’ve done over the summer has worked. My ultimate goal is to become National Champion and then get good finishes in Belgium too.
What have you been up to over the summer in terms of training?
I’ve been a bit quiet. I’ve not spent a lot of time in England. I have been to Spain a couple of times and spent lot of time in Switzerland – Spain to get miles in and Switzerland I stayed with family. I was quite reclusive and just focussed on what I was doing, no messing around.
You are very focussed for someone so young. Do you feel like you’re missing out on things?
The way I see it is that I left school last year and I learned a harsh lesson that season because I had to make the decision – do I want to be a mediocre ‘cross rider or do I want to be the best I can possibly be? I made the decision to be the best I can. I am comfortable enough in myself to miss out on things. My friends understand, there are no squabbles. I am happy doing what I am doing.
Now for two questions I ask all cyclocross interviewees –
One: What is your favourite course?
Easy! It’s Koksijde. It’s THE cyclocross course in the world.
And Two: Who is your favourite rider?
Bart Wellens. A lot of people would say Nys but for me it’s Wellens. He’s not just a rider in Belgium but a personality. He even had a TV series. Not only is he good on a bike but he’s a model human.
So there you have it. Sean Dunlea is all set to try and become a shining light of British cyclocross right across Europe. He’s determined and he is getting out there and doing it.
As the Flemish would say: Komaan he Sean, op op op!
Sean would like to thank his sponsors for their ongoing support: Trevor, Ewan and Jane at Ciclos Uno, Quest Sportswear, Neon Velo and Ventoux Ltd
Follow Sean @seanmdunlea