Riders to Watch in 2023 – Oscar Onley

Riders to Watch in 2023 – Oscar OnleyImage Credit: Giro Valle d'Aosta

At the tail end of the season, we were treated to a young Scot called Oscar Onley going toe-to-toe with the current Tour de France champion. To see a 19-year-old ride with no fear against the yellow jersey was brilliant to see, especially as they come from my home, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Scottish champion to cheer on. Okay, he came up a tiny bit short in the battle with Vingegaard, but his ride in the CRO race makes me very excited for what’s to come, especially as he’s keen on learning from his mistakes.

“I wish I didn’t lead out the sprint! I knew that’s what I did wrong on stage 2 and told myself to stay calmer to try and go for the win. The problem came when Rolland attacked and no one else wanted to take up the chase. I had to gamble to make sure we caught him, so I at least had the chance to win. Looking back, I could’ve won that stage if I had played it better in the final km. I knew it was probably my last chance to try and get a win this year and to come that close again is a little frustrating, but it was a really nice experience, and I can take a lot of confidence from those battles.”

To end the season going so close to beating the Tour de France champion is a million miles away from the beginning of 2022. This was Oscar’s second season in the under 23 ranks, riding for the DSM Development team, no one would have predicted what a success it was going to be.

“I didn’t have any specific goals at the start of the year, I told myself I wanted to win a race but after my first year in U23 this felt quite a long way off. My main focus was improving the weaknesses I found during my first year.”

2021 wasn’t an easy year for Oscar, his first at under 23 level, he struggled to make front groups and land a good result, but from the very start of 2022 things changed. His result of 26th in the Youngster Coast Challenge might not look too good on paper but it signalled a change in Oscar.

“It was crosswinds all day and I made the front split every time and was in the top 5 going into all the key sections. It gave me a lot of confidence as that was something I really struggled with last year, so it was nice to see that progression.”

Oscar’s biggest race in the opening half of the season was the Baby Giro, where he lined up against the very best under 23 riders in the world, it’s always a huge race for those youngsters wanting to show they have what it takes to make the step up to pro level. Oscar finished in 9th, 9:04 behind Leo Hayter and just over 4 minutes off the podium.

“I was quite satisfied with my result there. It was my first time really competing for GC in the big mountains. I was still a long way off the podium, but I came away with more confidence and felt I made a big step up after that race.”

With the top 10 result in the bag, Oscar then approached another big under 23 race on Italian soil, Valle d’Aosta, but the second stage didn’t go to plan, and he dropped out the GC race.

Initially I was really annoyed, I felt good on the first stage amongst the main GC guys, but I suffered in the heat the following day. From that point the focus was on winning a stage and I had to take confidence from my performance on the first day, but I had a lot of doubts whether I could compete for the win in the final 2 stages after suffering so much the days before.”

The final two stages featured some big climbs, they were days to really test the climbing legs. Stage 4 was won by Reuben Thompson, from the GC group, and Oscar finished in 4th, which was a confidence boost before the final stage. Oscar and the team had a decision to make, risk it all by going in the break or try to win from the GC group?

“Our DS was convinced that this stage was going to go to the break, when it formed, I saw it was a pretty strong group and almost immediately knew that we had a good chance to stay away.

I had a lot of confidence from the previous stage where I was 4th and everyone else around me was in the GC so I knew on paper I was probably the strongest but of course it’s not always that easy. I knew the final climb and just tried to ride my own pace, I didn’t respond to the early attacks but bridged up to the front riders until the final 5km where I put in one attack on the steepest section and managed to get away from the last rider from the break. From there it was just a TT to the finish.”

A race that didn’t start well ended with a stage win and the points jersey; it ended up being an excellent week for Oscar. What he didn’t realise at the time was that this was only the beginning, he was about to hit a purple patch of form, one that would see him challenging the very best cyclists in the world.

“Yeah, I had a lot of confidence after that race as I was close to the top climbers on the hardest stages, but I also wanted to prove myself in the upcoming races by riding a more consistent race for the GC.”

The Tour of Britain was always going to be a special race for Oscar, the second stage went past his house. Thanks to the UCI rule that allows devo riders to race with their professional team, Oscar started the race in the “big” DSM team, going up against riders of the class of Tom Pidcock and Dylan Teuns, it was going to be a week where he could test himself against the best and get an idea of how far he was away from them.

The first stage ended at the Glenshee Ski Centre, but due to a vicious headwind it ended in a relatively big sprint, with Oscar coming home in 8th place. The fourth stage was the one for the GC men to try and make a difference, it featured the climb of Carlton Bank, which is 1.9km at 10.2%. As expected, the climb blew the race apart and there were only three men left at the top. Pidcock was there, Teuns was there too, and then there was this plucky 19-year-old from Scotland swinging with the big boys! Okay, they ended up getting caught and the race was cut short due to the death of the Queen, which meant that Oscar only finished 24th on GC, but that didn’t tell the full story of the race. For me, it was the moment Oscar arrived at the top level.

cyclingmole Image credit: sw pix

“It was a bit of a surreal moment as it was the first time, I’d made such a small selection in a pro race but at the time they were just other riders that I’m working with and trying to beat. The results don’t reflect how good I felt that week, but the race didn’t suit me so well with each stage coming down to some sort of bunch sprint.”

Then came the CRO race, as previously discussed, where he went very close to beating Jonas Vingegaard. At the end of the week Oscar walked away with two 2nd places, 3rd on GC and the white jersey.

“It was a really good week of gaining experience riding for GC. I didn’t feel any pressure or nerves the whole week whilst sitting up there on GC, so I guess I proved to myself that I’m ready to compete for the win in pro races. I also found some things I need to work on for the future, mainly around positioning in the final of the more technical stages but hopefully that will come with more experience.”

One of things that impresses me about Oscar is his focus on improving and learning from his mistakes, both are hugely important in every walk of life, not just cycling.

“I think I’ve learnt to trust the process and stay calm, there were times last year where I questioned if it was possible to even be at the front of races in the final, but the team were always patient with me and convinced me it would come. I’m also learning to become more of a leader within the team which is an important skill if I want to focus on GC in the future. I think it also comes with confidence so at this moment it’s quite easy, but I also have to learn it when things aren’t going so well.”

Also, part of the process in the near future is learning what type of climber Oscar will become. The Tour of Britain and CRO race showed that he’s already very strong on short, punchy climbs but what about the big mountains?

“I’m not 100% sure what kind of rider I am yet but the GC is something myself and the team want to focus on in the coming years. I’m sure I’ll find out soon whether it’s those punchier climbs or the longer ones that will suit me going forward.”

As things currently stand Oscar will again ride for the DSM Development team in 2023, but after such a strong end to the year it wouldn’t surprise me to see him fast tracked to the full team before long, despite only being 20.

“We’re currently exploring different options and I’ve had good discussions with the team. The main thing is working on my weaknesses and gaining more experiences in different situations, whether that’s in pro races or devo races.

I’m really excited for 2023. Obviously, I’d love to get a pro win, but I think the most important thing for me is to keep working on my weaknesses and learning from the bigger riders on the team and taking that into all the races I do.”

Cycling fans, I give you my next rider to watch in 2023, Oscar Onley.