Introducing Oscar Onley: Kelso's very own Flying Scotsman
Oscar giving it beans for Team DSM ©Audrey Duval
Coming from the Cold Dark North is 18-year-old Scotsman, Oscar Onley, who was born and bred in the Scottish Borders. He began to make an impact on the UK racing scene when he made a name for himself in Youths as being one of the stronger racers within the scene. He then progressed, as many strong Scottish Junior racers do, onto Spokes RT, which has a rich history of producing talented young riders.
After a successful 2019 racing across the UK and Europe, making a name for himself within the Junior ranks, he received an offer that would be stupid to turn down. This was to race his final year as a Junior (2020) with AG2R La Mondiale Juniors alongside fellow Brit Benjamin Peatfield. Sadly, even on a big junior team like AG2R there was still a lack of racing. But throughout lockdown and 2020, Oscar’s graft and hard training paid off, with several offers from high level under-23 teams.
Oscar signed a two year deal with Team DSM Development (Continental) where he would join fellow Brit Leo Hayter who had been at the team since 2020. Not only would Oscar be moving to the Netherlands for his first year as an under-23, he would be racing at nearly the highest level in UCIs across Europe, with some coming alongside WorldTour teams, so he was undoubtedly straight into the deep end out of Juniors.
In this piece I chat with Oscar about his cycling career so far and particularly the 2021 season for him and the step up to professionals. Plus, the environment of a WorldTour development team and the current and future opportunities he has. It hasn’t been an easy ride with injuries and a lot of bad luck for his first year. However, they seem to make them tough in Scotland and Oscar is ready to go once again after recovering from a hard crash in May.
I definitely look forward to seeing Oscar once again on a start line, as well as watching him develop through the ranks of Team DSM and hopefully be riding with the big boys in years to come, whether that is with DSM or another WorldTour outfit.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, what would be your 'perfect race', from the parcours itself to the conditions and of course, how the race is ridden?
I would probably say my perfect race would have lots of mountains, say four big climbs, around an hour in length. No ridiculous gradients, just constantly biting. The French Alps would be ideal, nice and safe descents as that is definitely one of my weak areas. Sunny conditions, but not too warm, as nobody likes climbing in 30+ degrees. I'm normally best when it's a race of attrition with riders going out the back rather than lots of attacks, so a strong pace on each climb and when we arrive at the final climb everyone’s a bit cooked. Then one big attack from myself to arrive solo with enough time to get a good picture. Simple, right?
Similar to Benjamin Peatfield, who we have also chatted to, you rode for AG2R La Mondiale Juniors from the end of 2019, through 2020. How did you find riding for a French team at just 17 and what drew you to join the team?
It was a great experience. The first race I did with them in Belgium was difficult. I spoke barely any French and their English was limited, making it a challenging weekend but a successful one for us, winning the TTT. Having Ben and then Joe at some of the other camps made it easier but by that point I felt comfortable in the team around the other riders and staff- even if my French was still very limited. I remember seeing a post on Facebook where they were interested in a British rider for 2020. I knew they were going to be at Ain Bugey Valromey in France where I was racing with the Scottish team, so I thought I would try and talk to them there and introduce myself. In the end they approached me after the final stage where it was between one of their riders and myself for the white jersey. I lost by 1 second on the final stage but must’ve done enough to impress them. From there we kept in contact before they offered me a ride in Belgium the following month.
Focused, Oscar on a AG2R La Mondiale training camp. ©Gus Sev Photographie
You picked up some pretty impressive results in your junior years (2019-2020) that undoubtedly led to you being signed for Team DSM Development squad. What, for you, were the stand out results in these two years?
The one that stands out the most for me was at the Tour of Valromey in France. I placed 7th in GC and just lost out on the white jersey, but it gave me a lot of confidence as it was my first UCI race and also the first proper climbing race I had done. It also got a lot of interest from other people and has definitely played a big part in where I am today.
5th in Chrono Des Nations was also a nice result, it wasn't the strongest field but it showed that I'm capable of a good TT as well as climbing. I haven't had any big standout results, however, and so it was a big surprise to be offered a contract with Team DSM. I guess I had fairly consistent results in 2019 and they could see potential in me. Unfortunately I have no results (or road races) from 2020.
Many riders found it difficult to get onto teams for 2021, as a lack of races meant a lack of results on their palmarès. How difficult did you find it applying for teams for 2021 and what was the process of getting signed for Team DSM straight out of juniors?
I was really fortunate being with the AG2R U19 team, that I had contact with their u23 team. They obviously couldn't look at any results, but they could get a good idea about me from the u19 coaches and some of my own data from training. I was open to looking at other teams but I didn't expect anything after all the races were cancelled. In the beginning of May my coach at Scottish Cycling messaged me saying that someone from Sunweb wanted to talk to me and they were interested in me for 2021. It was a really big surprise at the time. We started talking from there, had a couple of zoom calls and I had to do some power tests for the team. Fortunately for me, my power numbers are one of my strong points. I then had a phone call to say I had a place on the team for 2021. It wasn't an easy decision though, by this point I had met a lot of people in AG2R, including the big boss, Vincent Lavenu. I had a lot of friends in the team but for my personal development, with the aim of becoming a WorldTour rider I feel like I made the right decision joining Team DSM Development.
Oscar back in 2020 on a training camp in the Alpes ©Gus Sev Photographie
Continuing with the theme of signing for Team DSM Development squad and moving straight to professional level, how were you feeling going into the 2021 season?
I didn't put any pressure on myself to get any results, as realistically it's not possible when my first two races were 1.1s. The team also didn't put any pressure on, as long as I did my job or at least tried to then they were happy. My first race was a 1.1 in Belgium, my first road race in 358 days, so I was a bit nervous- but also super excited to get back racing. As soon as the neutral ends though, you can't think about anything other than move up, stay in position, eat, drink and don't piss the WorldTour riders off.
Over recent years we have seen a huge growth in development and under-23 teams for WorldTour and Pro Continental teams. How have you found the set up at Team DSM and is it dissimilar to that of a high level professional team?
From what I can see we have almost exactly the same setup and treatment as the WorldTour team. I think the team does a really good job in narrowing the gap between u23s and the WorldTour. Sometimes it can look a bit strange when the whole team is riding together near the front with 120km to go and then you look at the results and we were nowhere, but in the long term I think this is good for our development. Not everything is based around results and you can really learn how a team works. I'm sure everyone wants to race for themselves at u23 level but that's not how a WorldTour team works, so to learn it here, in a low pressure environment, it's a lot easier to learn than in your first pro race in Belgium, for example.
Team work makes the dream work at Team DSM Development. ©GP Monsere Official
Talk us through the first few months of the year... How/where were they spent? And how has the first half of the season gone for you?
It's not been an easy start to the year, I had to miss the two training camps in Spain with the team due to covid restrictions, fortunately I managed to get out to the first race of the season in Belgium. That was an eye opener on how to work as a team and how to work around other teams. Unfortunately, it ended in a crash and a DNF. The next race was in France for GP Cholet, another UCI 1.1 and a difficult race for myself. Bunch positioning is something I struggled with as a junior, but at this level if you can't move up without wasting energy then you have no chance, as I found out. Another DNF.
We then went to Italy for my first u23 races, these went a lot better, I could do my job and had a lot more confidence. My next race in the Ardennes got cancelled. I was really gutted about this as I had made a big step up in training in the previous weeks and was looking forward to a hard climbing race. I then decided to do a pro Kermesse in Belgium which ended in a hospital with a broken collarbone!
It’s always a bit of a leap into the unknown for many first year under-23s moving up from juniors. What were you aims for this season and were there any races you had targeted?
With Covid our race calendar has been a bit unknown so I've not really had a big focus on any particular races. I think in my first year the team want me to race in all different types of races, in different roles within the races and then from there we can start to see what works, and start to focus more on specific races. One race I had targeted to be in top shape was Ronde L’Isard, originally in May. This is the perfect example of why not to focus too much on one race as this has now been moved to the final weekend in September.
Who doesn’t love a bit of Pave? ©Martine Verfaillie
For the first few months of the season you spent time with Team DSM doing a variety of races. A handful in Belgium and France, followed by a block of races in Italy. How did you find racing in these vastly different terrains and which did you prefer?
The first two races were flat 1.1 races with WorldTour teams. Not exactly the easiest start to the year, but great for learning. The two races we did in Italy suited me a lot more and I really enjoyed them. I went from being the smallest rider in the bunch in Belgium- getting shoved about everywhere- to being able to hold my own a bit more and have more of an impact on the race. If we do the two Italian races in the future then I would definitely like to have more of a focus on a nice result there.
Your home training roads are in Kelso and the surrounding area of the Scottish Borders. At the start of 2021, you moved to Limburg, Netherlands. How do the two areas compare and which do you prefer?
I don't think anything can beat your home roads, but I also really enjoy riding in the Limburg region and into the Belgian Ardennes. It's crazy the amount of cyclists in Limburg and coming from the Borders where, if you see one cyclist during a ride it can be exciting, it's quite a difference. I find it easier to do the hard training at home as I know all the roads and good spots for efforts, whereas I have to think a lot more about where to do efforts in Limburg and where to avoid other cyclists on bike paths. For general endurance rides, I would say I prefer Limburg. It's always nice to explore new areas and there's a lot of good cafes!
As we’ve seen with other riders on WorldTour development teams they have been given opportunities to guest ride for the WorldTour team. Have you had any opportunities to ride with the WorldTour lads this year and if not, when will we see you with the big boys?
Not yet but if everything goes to plan, which I'm learning this year is probably unlikely, I should be doing a couple of races with the team towards the end of the year.
Oscar helping the team out during their race block in Italy. ©ATPhotography
You’ve had a bit of bad luck recently crashing at Ruddervoorde Kermesse, which led to a broken collarbone. How is the recovery going and when will we likely see you back on a start line?
I crashed at Ruddervoorde Kermesse on 19th May. At the time of writing this, it's three weeks later and I've just finished my second ride back out on the road. If everything goes well with the recovery I should be racing 2 Districtenpijl - Ekeren-Deurne 2.1 in Belgium on the 4th July. From what I can see it may be impossible to find a flatter race on the calendar.
Unfortunately, this race got cancelled due to torrid weather... we are eagerly awaiting Oscar's proper return to racing in the near future! Watch this space.
How is the calendar looking for the rest of the season and what races do you have lined up? And of course which ones are you targeting? Just so the bookies can make notes!
I'm really excited for the rest of the season. I still feel like I've not really started my season properly yet with a lot of setbacks, but I have quite a few more races that should suit me better. The first big race for me is the Giro Val D’Aosta in the middle of July. Notoriously one of the toughest u23 races on the calendar, so it should be fun! After that there should be a few more stage races and again aiming for Ronde L’Isard towards the end of September.
We have seen the difference in style between pros recently, so when on the podium would you rather wear a casquette or a baseball cap? And why!?
I would prefer to wear a casquette, but as a team we always wear caps on the podium. Casquettes are part of the history of cycling and a part of cycling I would like to see stay.
Back in 2020, riders had to work with what races were available. ©Ellen Isherwood
Finally, some time for a few quick-fire questions.
Giro d’Italia or Tour de France?
Endurance rides or Intervals?
And of course, Disc or Rim Brake? Plus Euro or non Euro?
Disc and non-Euro, but I still ride Euro!
In a cafe at the end of a big day on the bike, in the sun with good coffee and a large piece of cake.
If you weren’t a cyclist, what career would you pursue?
No idea! I would like to have my own cafe and bike business in the future. That's gone as far as a thought though and no action!