DUNDEE win the Champions League? Almost certainly an unattainable dream in football but an aspiration that could become a cycling reality this weekend.
The UCI Track Champions League is the competition and the Dundonian in question is Mark Stewart who heads into Friday’s and tomorrow’s double-header final at London’s Lee Valley VeloPark in fourth place in the men’s endurance event.
It’s only the second season of a tournament designed to make cycling more fan-friendly and that appeals to Stewart as well. The former British cyclist tends to appear more on the road than on the track these days, but an invitation to take part in the month-long event held in four European locations was too good to turn down, especially with his partner Emma Cumming, a New Zealand cyclist. , also taking part.
Having exceeded even his own expectations by winning the first stage in Mallorca – winning the scratch race and finishing third in elimination – Stewart would love to win the whole thing. It will be his last weekend in Europe with Emma before returning to New Zealand to enjoy a second summer Down Under and the 27-year-old is keen to add a trophy and big check to his luggage if possible.
“I hadn’t touched a track bike since the Commonwealth Games in July, so I thought I’d just work my way up the series,” he reveals. “And then you go to first and win and you’re like, ‘where do I go from here?’
“Since then, I’ve had a few painful runs, but it’s more a question of tactics than anything else. I actually felt better as the races went on, but people followed me and it was harder to drive my style. It’s part of the race.
“Now I have to find a way around it this weekend because I want to win. Initially I wanted to win it because there was a decent prize money on offer. [roughly £21,000]. There’s a romantic notion when you’re 18 that you do it for the love of the sport but when you’re 27 you have to pay the rent!
“But having immersed myself in the league and seeing the public response online and in person, I actually now think it would be really cool to have the reward of winning the Champions League.”
The quick turnaround with each round taking place just a week apart has been a refreshing change for Stewart and he hopes the Champions League is now here to stay on the schedule.
“I didn’t really know what to expect first and foremost,” he adds. “I spoke to a couple of the guys who did it last year and they were pretty positive, although people tend to say good things, don’t they?
“But it was really great fun and I’m enjoying it. It helps that the people running it – whether it’s the UCI or Discovery or whoever – are handling it really well. Communication is really efficient and they just seem to have the right people in the right places. It’s been a really nice thing to be a part of. And having Emma here too has been the best thing about it because we don’t often get that chance .
“Throughout the season we both race, so you leave the apartment and go your separate ways, so it was really nice to race together and come home together as a team. It’s quite a privilege.
“We just arrived [yesterday] from our home in Girona and because the race is so late on Friday and Saturday, you effectively have 24 hours between when you land and when you race.
“The hardest part of the Champions League is that you don’t go home until Sunday. And we’re at that point in the season where you’re usually working towards next year from a road perspective. So Monday to Thursday, it’s back to the day job, back to the grind!
This time it will be different, however, with the duo flying straight back to New Zealand from London.
“We have a Black Spoke camp in Auckland, but that’s not why I’m going back. Emma is returning to racing, so it makes sense to go there too and enjoy a few summer months.
“The team is still finalizing the race schedule as we move up to pro level next year so at the end of January I will be back racing either in Asia or Europe. So I will have six-day weeks for a while and then I’ll come right back into the race.