Stevie Williams must have wondered what he needed to do to catch a break. The first years of the Welshman’s career were blighted by injury, but he provided a timely reminder of his quality last June with a fine victory on the opening stage of the Tour de Suisse and a stint in the yellow jersey.
His gifts as a climber suggested that his race might end with a high overall finish, not to mention a decent haul of UCI points, always useful for a rider in contract year. Just when everything seemed to be finally on track, however, Williams was forced out of the race, a victim of the cluster of COVID-19 cases that ripped through the peloton that week. He can smile about it now, but at the time it must have been maddening.
That transfer, too, was not without its wrinkles. After four seasons at Bahrain Victorious, Williams had agreed to move to B&B Hotels for 2023, only for the project to collapse in early December. The fate of Mark Cavendish, who had also been set to join Jerome Pineau’s squad, dominated the headlines, but the Manxman was always likely to find a home elsewhere. Many riders and staff, by contrast, ended the year without a job.
As well as that Tour de Suisse stage win, Williams’ palmarès includes overall victory at the 2021 CRO Tour and a sparkling triumph at Ronde de l’Isard as an under-23 rider ahead of a field that included João Almeida, but even a back catalogue of that calibre offered no guarantees at that late point in the transfer market.
“I’d arranged to go to B&B, that was all agreed in the summer, so it was definitely a shock and quite a stressful winter for me,” Williams said. “It was just something I’d never thought I’d have to go through. But I know it’s happened before and, more than likely, this won’t be the last time it happens in cycling.”
Rumours of B&B’s problems had begun to circulate even by the time Williams attended the squad’s pre-season planning meeting in October, but the 26-year-old continued to hope for the best as the weeks ticked by and critical details like the team’s new title sponsor remained decidedly hazy.
“Ultimately, when the news did come, that’s when a line was drawn under it,” Williams said. “It was just an awful time for a lot of staff and riders. It’s a great shame.”
Pierre Rolland, Max Richeze and Cyril Gautier are among the riders who have been forced into retirement by the demise of Pineau’s squad. In that light, Williams can count himself among the lucky ones, even if there is nothing fortuitous about the fact that Israel-Premier Tech were interested in his services. Despite the knee injury that so compromised his first seasons as a professional, Williams had shown enough to warrant his place in the peloton over the past four years.
“I was sort of given a lifeline here. At the start of December, I agreed to come here and here we are now. I’m happy just to be back racing in the peloton with a jersey on my back,” said Williams. “I’m one of the fortunate ones who was able to find a place in a good team, a solid team. But I’m really happy and proud, and I feel like I deserve to be here as well. I just wanted a new start and somewhere I could find my feet.”
Williams’ preparations for the 2023 season were interrupted by another bout of COVID-19 in late December, meaning that he lines out in Argentina more concerned with banking training miles than securing a result on the mountain stage to Alto Colorado.
“I’m here generally just to find my legs and get a good week in,” said Williams, who will move on to a training camp on his return to Europe before racing the Classic Ardèche and Drôme Classic in late February and then, ideally, Paris-Nice in March.
Despite relegation from the WorldTour at the end of 2022, Israel-Premier Tech have secured invitations to both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France this year, and Williams is likely to feature in the line-up for one race or the other. His lone Grand Tour appearance in Bahrain colours came at the pandemic-delayed Vuelta a España of 2020. All too often in those years, something came along to block his path. Now, and not before time, Williams has an open road before him.
“The first two years at Bahrain were quite tricky in terms of injuries and setbacks. I never really found momentum and rhythm,” Williams said. “But I came back and did 50-60 race days in 2021 and got a win in Croatia, and then I had a good go at Suisse last summer, so I feel like I’m back at a good level again. Now I really just want to push on from here and get back to being really competitive and consistent.”