Rob Britton’s long journey from Prairie kid with little promise to one of the continent’s top climbers and stage racers
“W hen we raced locally, we beat the hell out of him,” said Kevin Cunningham. The general manager of the Symmetrics squad, which dominated western Canadian cycling in the mid-2000s, was speaking about Rob Britton and a familiar pattern at that time. “There’d be a break of eight guys. We’d have five in there. He’d be one of the other guys. Then it would dwindle down to three of our guys and him. The poor guy would just get attacked to the point there was nothing left in him.” This routine didn’t stop even after Symmetrics folded. Late in the 2011 national championship road race, Britton was in the break with Zach Bell, Will Routley and Svein Tuft, all former Symmetrics riders then on Spidertech. They swept the podium. “Yeah, we screwed him over real good,” Bell said recently.
In early August 2017, Britton had a more international squad working against him. On Stage 6 of the Tour of Utah, the bmc Racing team had put Brett Brookwalter up the road. Britton was in yellow having nailed Stage 3’s uphill time trial, but Brookwalter had become the virtual race leader with less than 40 km to go. Unlike the gang-ups Britton had faced seven to 10 years ago, this one was different. He had the full support of a strong team, Rally Cycling. He was no longer the whipping boy of Canadian cycling, but a leader whose strength had forced a Worldtour team to try some Hail Mary tactics.
Britton, a 33-year-old rider who excels at high-altitude climbs, grew up in Regina. In Grade 7, after a floor hockey game, he overheard a teacher and some other students planning a night mountain bike ride on the trails of White Butte. He invited himself along. While the others had “real” mountain bikes, Britton showed up with a department store bike, no light and no riding fitness. “They were waiting for me all the time,” he said. “I was just dying. But I was hooked after that.” Then, he saved up and bought his teacher’s bike, a rigid aluminum Trek 900. Sask Cup races followed, in which his results were poor. “There’s no ‘phenom’ or ‘showing potential success’ story or any of that,” Britton said. “There were so many people along the way who were pretty adamant that I pick a different sport or get a real job.” Still, he did improve. In 2002, he won the junior provincial mountain bike championships and won the overall ranking in the combined provincial road and mountain bike series in 2004. Near the end of that year, he moved to Victoria, where he started a job in construction on cruise ships.
Throughout the next five years, Britton slogged away on teams such as Coastal, Giga-bike/la-z-boy and Trek Red Truck. He had some successes, including a stage and overall win at the Tour of Walla Walla in 2008. The guys from Symmetrics would beat up on him because he was one of the strongest riders on the local scene. Kevin Cunningham noticed Britton’s dedication to the sport. “Rob was a guy I absolutely wanted to sign,” he said. “We used to drive him home from races from time to time. If we had had a bigger budget and more space, he would have been on the team. My worry was that if we had signed him, we might have held his career back a bit.” With a squad that included Svein Tuft, Christian Meier and Cam Evans, Cunningham figured Britton likely wouldn’t have been selected for bigger races had he been on the team.
For 2010, Britton got on the continental-level Bissell Pro Cycling. For that season and the one that followed, he took part in some of the top races in North America, including the Tour of California, Tour of Utah and usa Pro Challenge. He came close to signing with Spidertech, the Canadian pro continental team, at the end of 2011, but the deal didn’t go through, which stung. “Then, I definitely had an axe to grind with Spidertech,” he said. “I’d go out of my way to try
to beat them. I guess I had a spiteful nature.” He now says that reaction was simply the kind of stupid thing you do when you’re young. But that spite, that desire to stick it to those who stuck it to him, is one of the reasons he’s persevered in the sport. “I have a really long list of people I want to beat. Until I check those names off the list, I’ll be riding,” he said recently before tempering his words. “That was part of it for the longest time. I was an angry kid and just wanted to prove everyone wrong. I never had anything handed to me, ever. There was a lot of spite that fuelled a lot of it.”
It was down to a development team, H&R Block, in 2012. Again, near the end of that year, he was getting encouraging signs from Spidertech, but things fell apart as the team’s management realized it couldn’t continue running the organization into 2013. Britton was close to giving up on cycling, but an offer from U.k.-based Team Raleigh came through. He got to experience British and Continental racing, and a race director he felt was crazy. He needed a new team.
Marsh Cooper, who had raced against Britton in B.C., connected his fellow Canadian with Mike Creed. The U.S. rider was retiring and was preparing to direct Team Smartstop, based in Winston-salem, N.C. Creed and Britton met at the Tour of Alberta in 2013. “He was the first rider I signed,” Creed said. “Rob has the ability to be at the Worldtour. He’s seen guys who have gotten chances and he hasn’t. I’m sure it drove him nuts that he had to go to a crazy British team.”
Former Symmetrics and Spidertech rider Zach Bell also joined Smartstop. Instead of beating up on Britton, Bell, as team road captain, was now helping him. “Rob would get fourth or fifth in races, so I thought he was fourth-or-fifth quality,” Bell said. “But when I started racing with him, I realized he’s often the strongest guy in the race, but he ends up solving all his own problems all of the time. Rob was used to having to catch a break and then try to win on the final climb. What he needed was a dependable guy who was going to sell out for him. That ended up being me for the first year. I’d say, ‘If you need anything, anything, solved before that last 10 km, you tell me. Even if it feels easy for you, I solve your problems for you.’”
While Bell helped Britton learn how to rely on the team, Creed showed Britton how to get the most out of his own skills. “Rob is an altitude-climbing monster. He should have won a couple of stages at Utah, but played it wrong,” Creed said. During the 2015 edition of the race, on Stage 6 to the Snowbird ski resort, Britton was in a breakaway that included Worldtour and pro continental riders. “He had so much good form,” Creed said, “he was just shooting bullets like a cowboy.” But from the team car, Creed was trying to get his rider to take it easy, make some of the other riders in the break do the work. When they got to the final climb, Britton didn’t have enough energy left to contend for the win. That evening, Creed told Britton that he had to stay calm, trust in his abilities and wait for the right moment. Creed said that Britton applied that advice. Later in the season, it’s what led Britton to third-place overall at the usa Pro Challenge. That result, as well as his win at Tour of the Gila, made for breakout season. At the Interbike Awards Gala, he was named the North American revelation rider of the year. His performances are also impressive considering the team was struggling with financial and management problems as riders and staff weren’t getting the money they had been promised.
For the 2016 season, Britton landed on one of the most stable and high-performing squads in North America. Rally Cycling, known previously as Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, took him on. He continued to do well at North American stage races. He also fit in well with the team. General manager Jake Erker and his staff
have fostered a very co-operative culture on Rally. Riders will sell out for their fellow riders because they know the favour will be returned. It’s an atmosphere Erker helped to build on Symmetrics when he rode for the Canadian squad. At the 2016 Tour de Beauce, Britton guided Sepp Kuss on the Mont-mégantic stage. Britton helped the young rider to the stage win, pulling for him and telling him when to attack. In 2017, Britton was key in the team’s successes at the Tour of California, helping teammate Evan Huffman to a stage win and second place in the overall mountains and points classification.
Kuss, Huffman and the rest of the Rally squad worked for Britton at Utah in 2017. On the stage in which Brookwalter became the virtual leader on the road, Britton wasn’t too worried. bmc’s tactics – sending guys up the road to have others bridge across – showed that they were afraid of him, that they didn’t think they could take him on the final climb. Rally chased hard through the valley and even had some help from Caja Rural - Seguros rga, thanks to Britton’s former Smartstop teammate Chris Butler. Britton rode well on the final 10-km climb to Snowbird with grades ranging from eight to 10 per cent. He had yellow into the final stage.
On the last day of Utah, Britton actually became nervous. Before the circuit around Salt Lake City, he worried about what a loss would mean to the team. “I’ve lost a lot of bike races,” he said. “To lose another would have been simple enough. But others had worked so hard for me. Everyone had worked so hard, from riders to staff. I didn’t want to let anyone down.” When he did seal the win, his most overwhelming feeling was relief.
While it was the hard work of the team that helped Britton to his biggest victory, his own work ethic has made him into the top North American rider he is now. “Every year I’ve known him,” Creed said, “Rob has trained harder and harder. He’s been tougher and tougher on himself. That’s why he keeps improving. He’s the model of a professional cyclist.” Cunningham, Bell and many others have said the same thing: there isn’t really anyone who can outwork Britton.
After years as a strong continental squad, Rally Cycling has pro continental status. Technically, an invite to Grand Tour is a possibility, but is unlikely in the short term. Still, more European races seem to be in store for Britton, who’s signed on until the end of 2020, and his teammates. “I’ve never really had that great of an experience over there. That’s motivation in itself. It frustrates the hell out of me that I haven’t had a good ride in Europe. I don’t like when I can’t put it together,” he said. “I guess, over the next couple of years, I’ll try to figure that puzzle out.”
opposite Rob Britton in the Canada 150 jersey on Stage 2 of the 2017 Tour of Alberta
top left Britton recovers at the end of Stage 7 at the 2017 Tour of Utah
Britton stands atop the podium after winning the 2017 Tour of Utah
below Britton, in the most courageous rider jersey, leads the group in the 2017 Tour of California
above On the podium and getting soaked during the 2015 USA Pro Cycling Challenge
above B.C. championships with Trek Red Truck in 2009
left In 2015 at the Tour of California during Stage 3