Words by Tom Portsmouth | Photo by Bingoal-WB
As he prepares for his first professional races with Bingoal-WB, young Briton Tom Portsmouth highlights the difficulties that Brexit has thrown up for budding bike racers
Brexit may be “done”, but it has yet to be ironed out. Many of the glitches continue to impact Generation ‘Z’, who seem to have suffered at the hands of Brexit more than most. How brutal is it that we had no say in a future we were working so hard for? I was fourteen and unable to vote when the referendum took place in 2016. Eight years on, I still feel the ramifications of Brexit daily.
Europe is a central hub for many professions. As a cyclist, and one who wants to achieve as much as possible in road racing, I’ve travelled to Europe biweekly for eight years as no other place offers what Europe can when it comes to my sport. In short, Europe is the best place for me to learn the intricacies of my sport.
In other vocations, this is no different. Young people seeking to broaden their knowledge of music, acting, art, or to do a ski season want to learn from the best of their peers. Like learning a language, the best way to achieve this is by being immersed within the culture, soaking up the lessons from the people who have lived it for many years.
I found a statement by Dame Sarah Connolly on Desert Island Discs profound. The opera singer said; “Without some kind of situation where British musicians can spend a significant amount of time in Europe establishing their careers… where’s that next generation going to come from if they can’t get known? How can we compete if we are not known?”
Price rises and lingering Brexit issues, like the 90 days in any 180 days rule, cause intense restrictions on career prospects, reducing the time spent talking to friends, agents and managers after an event to mere minutes. The need to get back to Britain as quickly as possible after competing means that almost any kind of networking has to be forgotten – and Europe, of course, is the primary place for scouting riders due to the prestige and quality of the racing. There’s no alternative shop window. To underline that, you only need consider the battle for recognition our Asian, Australian and American counterparts have faced over the years. Distance has been their barrier to Europe, and it’s been tough for them to overcome it.
Britons, on the other hand, had carte blanche in the days before the word Brexit was conceptualised. One of my mentors confirmed this, telling me: “You guys have it hard. It was so damn easy in my day. I just drove there and stayed for as long as I liked.” Now, Britons must compute the number of days spent within the Schengen Area using The Schengen Calculator. When this tool says no to travelling, you have to listen to it, otherwise you run the real risk of deportation and being barred from future return.
Interestingly, Britons do not have parity with the European tourist visa agreements specified in the Brexit negotiations. EU citizens are allowed to make a 180-day visit to the UK with no questions asked. If parity was a reality for Britons, we could remain within the thresholds of Europe for that length of time. A séjour totalling 180 days would be sufficient for any cyclist to complete their race programme (including vital training and race reconnaissance) and, therefore, their contractual requirements for a season.
Brexit, though, puts a brake on young British people pursuing careers in Europe. Those looking for a long-term solution must try to obtain visas from country where they want to compete or live. In this respect, some countries are more easily accessible than others. In Belgium, which was long the most popular destination for aspiring racers, you must earn €92,225 a year in order to qualify without exceptional circumstances for a residence permit as an employed sportsperson. At the same time, Spain has become a popular destination for Britain’s young cyclists as they offer a Non-Lucrative Residence Visa, requiring a minimum income of €28,800, which can either be shown as foreign income, or in a lump sum – which suits retirees heading for the country’s costas.
Adding to these difficulties, non-professionals in the sport and culture sectors who are classed as full-time are unable to cover the costs of these visas by acquiring a second job. The money has to come from somewhere else. I’ve been lucky, as my parents have supported me. I owe them so much – literally! – and I often feel guilty about the added stress and anxiety this inflicts on them. I fear that the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) they’re producing – and are surely trying to hide from me – will affect their health in the coming years. That scares me.
There are other stresses too. Transfers forced by time-related deadlines are one example of this. Often, you’ve got to exit a country quickly so that you can avoid having an extra day stamped on your passport. However, doing so can boost costs over a weekend by £500, accounting for travel, petrol, food & accommodation, because of the need to travel at peak times. This is just one way that Brexit takes a toll financially, physically and emotionally.
As I said initially, Generation ‘Z’ seems to have suffered more than most. How brutal is it that a future you dreamed of as a kid, may have been influenced by older members of your family who supported Brexit? I know my Grandma voted to leave, despite me explicitly asking her to cast her vote for my future and that of her other grandchildren.
Eight years on, I’ve accepted the circumstances we are in. However, I won’t stop talking about its effects on my career, parents and friendships. I remain hopeful that we will be able to find a better future for myself and the young people who are the future of this country. We need to encourage discussion of this issue. I’ve spoken to others in my generation who want to use Europe to develop their careers. Many of them have told me that they now have no idea what they’re going to do. Their prospects have been limited, not expanded. How can that be a step forwards?