Q&A: L’Abitibi winner Riley Sheehan follows father’s footsteps

In his debut, Riley Sheehan, 17, won one of the biggest races for junior riders, Tour de l’Abitibi, July 17-23 in Quebec. Those who’ve followed cycling long enough might recognize his surname — he’s Clark Sheehan’s son. Sheehan the elder raced professionally through the 1990s, primarily on domestic teams, such as Saturn, with one season, 1996, on U.S. Postal Service. But before he won a stage at Tour Du Pont or Redlands, and long before he became a father, he raced Tour de l’Abitibi.

After Riley Sheehan’s overall victory in Quebec, we called the Coloradan to talk about the race, his ambitions, and how fatherly advice has helped his nascent cycling career.

VeloNews: You made a decisive break on the first day of l’Abitibi. How did the race play out?

Riley Sheehan: Coming into the first stage, our team was all together, we had a meeting before, and we were all pretty confident that any of us from our six-man team could have a chance of winning this overall race. It was just a matter of who was able to get in what moves and how the time trial went.

So we came into the day racing forward, racing aggressive, following moves, getting in moves. Nothing was really sticking until after a bonus sprint. I was just chasing down the bonus sprint because there were some guys I knew were going for that bonus sprint.

I was just following wheels and got in a break with a Canadian [Kurt Penno], and we were both super-motivated. We said, ‘Hey let’s roll it to the line.’ That was about 50K in. Right before we got to the final circuits it was just the two of us, and we got up to a minute-45 lead. There was another breakaway that was able to go off the front. It was four guys and they were able to catch us before the final circuits, basically a little crit course. They caught us right as we got in there. It was kind of everyone looking at each other. There were two Canadian national team riders, and one just led out the sprinter, who was in the break with me originally. He [Penno] ended up taking the win. I was third in the group after being in the break all day.

VN: So for the remaining stages it was all-in for your team to defend your GC position?

RS: It was kind of a relief that our team didn’t have to defend from stage 1. We didn’t have to take control until after the time trial [stage 3]. I think the Canadian [Penno] was the criterium national champion. So we were pretty confident coming into the time trial that we could get some spots on GC. That’s what happened. I ended up taking a bunch of time out of the Canadian, so he was basically out of contention for GC. I actually finished second in the time trial there, with my teammate Matteo Jorgenson going third. From there, GC was just set-in. For the rest of the race my team just did the most amazing job, just controlling the race from kilometer one.

VN: And then it was nice that your teammate and fellow Boulder kid Denzel Stephenson won the final stage.

RS: That was amazing because Denzel was always up there in the sprints at the finish. It was a super cool cherry on top because I train with him a bunch. And seeing him ride then take that win on the final stage and having the relief of winning GC was just awesome.

VN: What is l’Abitibi and what does this race mean for a junior rider like you?

RS: L’Abitibi is part of the Junior Nations Cup — they are big races mainly around Europe, like Paris-Roubaix for juniors for example, Tour du Pais de Vaud in Switzerland. They’re big races for juniors, which the national teams go to. They have a points system, which determines who goes to world championships. It’s a super important race to be part of the Nations Cup. It’s somewhat of a qualifier for the world championships. They’re the biggest junior races in the world. The composite [national] teams that show up are so strong.

VN: And you’re hoping to make the U.S. team for worlds in Norway?

RS: I really hope so. I think I have a good chance of going.

VN: So right now you’re at track national championships. Are you racing track primarily to improve for road racing, or are you pursuing this discipline too?

RS: It’s a little bit of both I have to say. The track goes over to the road in so many aspects. I’ve been part of these track camps hosted by USAC throughout the year, doing team pursuit. Hopefully we can go fast enough and qualify for junior track worlds. That would be another icing on the cake for this season.

VN: Your father Clark is an ex-professional. How has that influenced your riding an racing as a developing rider?

RS: It’s been awesome. He’s done a bunch of the races I’ve been doing. I’ve been having the same experiences he had. He raced l’Abitibi when he was my age. It’s great having him know what the races are like. He has so much advice from racing. I’m so fortunate to have this.

VN: What’s the most helpful piece of advice he’s given you?

RS: I’d say it’s just all the little things he’s told me, all the little tips and tricks, how to race smart in a bike race, when you go for a breakaway, all the little things have just added up.

VN: Looking ahead, do you see yourself racing collegiate or focusing on cycling full-time in the next few years?

RS: I really started thinking of it this last month. Ideally I’d really like to go full-time into bike racing, but I also want to get a good education. My goal is definitely to see how far I can get in bike racing.

VN: If you do end up racing professionally some day, what’s the dream race that you’ve always wanted to do?

RS: I’ve always loved the classics, so maybe Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. They’re just the most hardcore races.

VN: Any final thoughts on your victory in l’Abitibi?

RS: The help I’ve gotten from my coach, [ex-pro] Andrew Bajadali has been amazing with all his past racing experience and him passing over his advice to me. He has helped me with all the preparation for races like l’Abitibi.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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