Tucson, Arizona, February 2016. It was a sunny morning when the air is sweet before the heat sets in, and the cactus needles fight their way into your rims.
I was pedalling along the road that leads to Mount Lemmon. It is a long 46 or so km climb; not very steep, and ideal for spring training, when a young rider passed me. I spotted his local team jersey (Transport Lacombe). Fortunately, he wasn’t riding tempo so I was able to catch up with him.
“My name is James Piccoli”, he answered. I didn’t know him. But there’s no confession to be made here, because so few people knew James Piccoli. The reality is James has been under the radar for most of his career, he is somewhat reticent when it comes to promoting himself on social media.
He signed his first pro contract with a small European team, Amore e Vita, in 2014. The following year, he returned home and signed with H&R Block. In 2016,
he raced with a local trade team, Transport Lacombe/Devinci, getting very good
results in stage races such as Killington and Green Mountain. Through all the ups and downs, James never lost sight of his goal of “making it” to the highest level one day.
In 2017, James signed with an American trade team, Premier Pacific Bank. They were invited to the Redlands Classic, a prestigious stage race on the USA Cycling circuit. After 4 stages in that race, James was 5th in the GC, the only amateur rider in the top-10. Then in June, his career was about to take a major turn.
James was on his way to do groceries when he got a call from Paul Abrahams, Directeur Sportif of Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling, a UCI American Continental team.
“I like to say 2017 is the start of my real pro career, said James in an interview with Skiplus on Saturday, transfer and rest day in between Grand Prix Cyclistes Québec and Montréal. Because I found a program that I really did well in and flourished in, and someone who wanted me to develop and took the time to take me under his wing, so to speak.
“I had sent my CV to a couple of teams, but I don’t think I sent one to this guy who introduced himself as Paul from Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling. We’ve seen you race (in California as an amateur rider), we really believe in you and want to put you in our program.”
And that’s how James ended up at the Tour of Utah, one of the biggest stage races in North America, where the team actually made him their GC contender. The rest is history. In Utah, he made a blistering attack in the final kilometer of Stage 2 only to be edged out at the finish line by Brent Bookwalter (BMC), a Tour de France veteran. That
spectacular move impressed the likes of TV analyst and former World Tour rider
After more daring attacks in the days to follow, James was to finish 10th at Utah, 9th at the Tour of Alberta. In 2018, he took the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de Beauce, the biggest result of his career that finally put him on the radar with a subsequent selection to Team Canada for the two World Tour races in Quebec and Montreal.
Racing in the World Tour
The World Tour (WT), pro cycling’s highest level, is in a world of its own. There is so much more to competing in the World Tour than being in top form, and his fans would naturally wonder how he would fare at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, his first ever WT race.
“Strategy wise, the goal of Team Canada was a) to put some riders in the early breakaway which we did, said James. We had two guys, Alex (Cataford) and Bruno (Langlois) and b) since we don’t have a pure sprinter that could really fight for the finish on that race, our goal was maybe to try and animate with a couple laps to go and break up the script. If we could force some chaos, that would put the odds in our favour for a decent result.
“It doesn’t always work and yesterday, it didn’t really come to anything but it’s just nice to be able to actually participate in this race and not just hang on, you know.”
In what has become pure Piccoli Style, James tried to create chaos in the final
laps, launching attacks on the hillier parts of the circuit, Côte de la Montagne (375 m, 10% average grade including 165 m at 13%), Côte de la Potasse/Des Glacis (420 m, 9% average) and Grande Allée (1km, 4%), with a rider from FDJ and one from Bahrein jumping in his wheel.
“It was in that flurry of attacks, attack-bring back-attack-bring back, it was in that time that Peter Kennaugh (Bora-Hansrohe) went away and stayed (in front) until like 300 m. So you just miss the one that ends up going, but it was cool to be part of the race at that time.”
James finished 7s back of winner Michael Matthews (Sunweb), but more than the excellent result was the crucial gain in experience.
“When I started the race, until I got to that point, I still wasn’t sure… There is a difference between being in a race and participating, and that is a different level. I was very happy when I felt that I had the legs and the ability to actually make an impact on the race, however small.
“(Also) it was a confirmation of what I expected. The fight for position, in other words, the fight to be at the front of the peloton is where you make the difference in these races. So I’d say the guys at the World Tour level are not necessarily that much stronger than me, at my level, but they are better at that part of the sport, the positioning and the “game” aspect of it.
“I think my fitness is there and I have the legs to be able to compete but I need to work on the skills, learning how to use my energy, learning how to use the team and all the stuff that’s hard to appreciate (for the fans) and that matters a lot. It’s more than just fitness and legs.”
James’ performance in Quebec was a game changer in his career. It opened the door to a new set of goals, bigger than ever before.
Grand Prix de Montréal
Then came the Grand Prix cycliste de Montréal, the moment James dreamed about since he was 12 years old. Racing a World Tour event in front of his family and friends.
“This is like an interesting coming full circle point because growing up, just riding with my dad, I always dreamed of being able to do the race someday.
“Every time I rode up there (Camillien-Houde), I thought maybe one day… one day I can do this with the guys I see on TV, famous guys, so for it to finally happen is very special. Very, very special.”
James might have been under the radar for a long time, but he was never short of love and support. His parents, Gene and Angie, along with his sister Lauren and girlfriend Kristen set up a James Piccoli Fan Zone in the first corner of Montée Camillien-Houde, at the exact spot where he and his dad would go to watch the race when he was younger.
In that context, the end result didn’t matter all that much for James. He was living his dream. He would ride by his noisy Fan Zone with a smile on his face, lap after lap, going as far as picking up one of his own homemade biscotti!
The shape was there, though, and the legs felt good. James stayed in the mix all day long, spending some time at the forefront of the peloton. On lap 15 things heated up under the pressure of Sunweb, Lotto and BMC. The end was near and James was ready.
We saw him working his way up towards the front on Camillien-Houde and the hearts started pounding as the Fan Club rushed to the finish line. But on lap 16, a crash on the last climb took him out of contention. He ended up 1min 58s (58th) behind winner Michael Matthews. Racing is a tough sport. You have a dream day, you’re in for a great result, and the dream is shattered in a fraction of a second.
Thing is, not really in this case. Actually not at all. James Piccoli lived the day of his life on Sunday.
And this day, no one can ever take from him.