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Life as a neo-pro at Team Sky

Luke Rowe has just returned from his second Team Sky training camp in Majorca, riding alongside Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins ahead of his debut season as a professional cyclist. But where did it all start for the 21-year-old? On the back of a tandem in south Wales.

Luke Rowe (right) with his new team-mates, world champion Mark Cavendish and British champion Bradley Wiggins

A product of the British Cycling Academy, Rowe is the latest rider to emerge from Cardiff, following in the footsteps of Geraint Thomas from the Maindy Flyers to one of the pro peloton’s superteams.

“Both my parents cycled, and both my grandparents cycled, so that’s how I got into it,” Rowe, whose father coaches two-time Paralympic gold medallist Simon Richardson, told RoadCyclingUK.

“I started when I was eight and my brother was 10. We were too young to go out on the roads and my dad took me out on one tandem and my brother went out on the other with my mum, and we just went bombing round the lanes of south Wales.”

On Christmas Day that year Rowe and his brother, Matt, also now a professional cyclist, each unwrapped a purple Peugeot and took to two wheels by their own accord, revelling in the pedal culture that has developed in that pocket of Great Britain.

“Down in south Wales, there’s real big groups going out; you just go out, ride your bike all day and come back,” he said. “That’s the way the kids approach it and that’s the way I rode when I was a kid.

“I think we’ve got a similar mentality to the Mancs. They just get up in the morning and go out on their bikes and just enjoy riding. They don’t get too into it and just take a relaxed approach.”

That relaxed approach has now made way for what Rowe calls his 9-5 – and he insists the sacrifices that come with it will pay dividends in the future.

“We’re all human,” he said, “and we all enjoy a good night. I’m not going to deny that every now and again I go out on the town and have a good night, but there are times when you’ve got to knuckle down.

“On New Year’s Eve all my mates were going out but I had a big day’s training on January 1 so I didn’t. It’s times like that which could make the difference in the future.”

By his own admission, Rowe flew through the ranks, claiming victories both on the track and the road as a junior. He took his first national madison title with Adam Blythe, now riding for BMC Racing, in 2007 and went on to record further victories with Mark Christian and Peter Kennaugh in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

The Welshman’s breakthrough win on the road came in 2009, with overall victory in the ZLM Tour and Rowe became the first rider in history to win the race twice with a repeat victory in April 2011. Rowe’s move to Sky was confirmed five months later, with the British team fighting off three other WorldTour teams for his signature.

“Every time I stepped up through the categories – from under-16, to junior, to amateur – I was real successful and started winning straight away,” he said. “I won the ZLM Tour within four months of being an amateur. I’ve always made the jump pretty quick – but I don’t know if it’s going to be the same this time.

He continued: “The thing with this sport is the better you get, the less you win. I’ve got to the top end of amateur, where I had guys working for me, and now I’m back at the bottom.

“I’ve gone from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. It’s like any job; you’ve got to start at the bottom and work your way up. That’s the difference but it’s just the way the sport works – I’m just happy I can do it.”

But if Rowe starts his neo-pro season as a small fish in Sky’s star-filled ocean then there’s no shortage of pressure placed upon his shoulders by the conveyor belt of British talent that has gone before him.

“If you look at every British rider now, there’s no British rider on a pro team who isn’t doing well,” he said. “If you looked at a list of all the British riders at Sky, they’re all winning races and are at the top of their game.

“There are not many who are out there as your average domestique. They’re all pretty special so other nations are looking and saying: ‘That British guy’s just turned professional, he must be good because everyone else is’.

“Ben Swift turned pro and now he’s winning WorldTour races. Alex Dowsett stepped up and won three pro races in his first year. It used to be that when you first turned pro it’d take four or five years to win a race, now guys are turning pro and winning three races in their first year, so there’s even more pressure because the Brits are doing so well.”

Not least world road race champion Cavendish, and Rowe will share the Manx Missile’s long-time coach and mentor, Rod Ellingworth. The 39-year-old Ellingworth, the mastermind behind Project Rainbow Jersey, has set Rowe an early-season race programme that will see him start his professional career with Challenge Majorca, a series of five one-day races, and build towards the Ardennes Classics.

Rowe will use his debut season to adjust to life in the pro peloton – the real difference between the amateur and pro ranks is the rate of climbing, he says – playing a supportive role before seeking out individual victories if the opportunity arises.

The Ardennes Classics – the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, all won by Philippe Gilbert in 2011 – will, however, see Rowe tackle the sort of terrain in which he has previously thrived, finishing third in the junior Omloop Het Volk in 2007, before registering a top-five finish in the under-23 Tour of Flanders in 2010.

“The cobbled Classics are always good to watch. I’ve ridden them as an amateur and I’ve gone pretty well so in the future I want to build into a cobbled Classics rider,” said Rowe, whose inspiration when growing up was Michele Bartoli, winner of three of cycling’s one-day Monuments. “He rode with so much aggression and no fear.”

However, Rowe is under no illusions as to his role as a neo-pro through the 2012 season. There is a lot to be learnt in the pro peloton but Rowe instantly feels at home at Team Sky.

“At first Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins were two of the biggest icons in cycling so it was a bit daunting,” he said. “These guys have been my heroes for years and now I’m standing next to them but after a couple of training camps it’s not Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, it’s just Brad and Cav. They’re such down to Earth guys.

“I roomed with Cav at the first camp in Majorca and there was a lot to be learnt from him. We were talking about races and he was telling me what races were hard. For example, Cav was telling me how hard Criterium International is and how brutal one of the days is.

“Getting little bits of knowledge from the best cyclist in the world is pretty special.”

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