Interview: Milan-San Remo debutant Scott Thwaites out to prove his worth at the Classics
England's Commonwealth Games bronze medallist to make his Milan-San Remo debut on Saturday
Scott Thwaites has served a long apprenticeship to get to the top tier of professional cycling - but, having joined WorldTour outfit Team Dimension Data this season, the Wharfedale rider is under no illusions as to how much he still has to learn.
The 27-year-old Yorkshireman will tick off another career first on Saturday - his first Milan-San Remo start, following hot on the heels of his first top-ten place at a WorldTour Classic and last year’s Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a Espana.
It’s the perfect reward for Thwaites' winter move to Dimension Data, which ended a four-year stay with the UCI ProContinental team originally known as NetApp-Endura and, in Thwaites’ final year, Bora-Argon 18 (now Bora-hansgrohe).
Prior to that Thwaites spent three years on the British domestic circuit with Endura, before their merger with NetApp, but moved on in search of new opportunities at the Classics.
The Commonwealth Games bronze medallist has already proved his capabilities with tenth place at Strade Bianche and this weekend's La Primavera debut will allow Thwaites to finally test himself in a race he believes he is well-suited to ride.
“This type of racing is much more suited to my characteristics," Thwaites told RCUK. “It’s not necessarily for the win, but helping out the team leader.
“Unfortunately, for the last four years, my previous team hadn’t seen that and never gave me a chance to ride Milan-San Remo which was a shame.
“I’ve found a new team now who believe in how useful I can be on the short-ish climbs in the Classics and one-day races. They’ve put me in this race, which is nice, because obviously in your career you want to ride as many of the biggest races as possible."
The Classics appear to be Thwaites’ calling in pro cycling, with his tenth place at Strade Bianche evidence of that, and further backed up by his medal-winning performance in the war of attrition that was the 2014 Commonwealth Games road race.
But the 27-year-old is keen to play down his results to date, pointing to the number of Classics riders who peak much later in their careers.
“It’s a difficult question to answer at the moment, because I’m still pretty young as Classics riders go at 27," he explained.
“It’s all about building up your strength and your knowledge of the courses, which is why you see riders like Fabian Cancellara winning races right up to the end of their careers and then Greg Van Avermaet and these sort of guys start winning in their 30s. But I can definitely continue making steps forward.
“Each year I’ve ridden the Classics, and I’ve been able to push further and further on. Getting in the top 20 [at the Tour of Flanders] last season was a good place to be; it showed I can make the selection and be there in the final. The next step for me now is not just making that selection but being able to race purposefully and really fight, rather than just being there."
Thwaites joins a star-studded Milan-San Remo line-up for Dimension Data on Saturday, with Norwegian powerhouse Edvald Boasson Hagen, former winner Mark Cavendish and escape artist Steve Cummings all in the line-up.
Thwaites will work for Boasson Hagen, but he hopes the opportunity to lead the team will also present itself on the Flandrien cobbles to come.
“The races with the smaller climbs suit me best," he said. “I really like riding them and my characteristics are perhaps better suited to those short climbs than having to really put out the power on the flats.
“I’d definitely say Flanders and those sort of climbs – of course they’re used in many races throughout the year as well. Strade Bianche was similar – though it was white roads rather than cobbles – as it had those short climbs."
Thwaites’ performance at Strade Bianche highlighted just what he can achieve in pro cycling – a top-ten spot on the white gravel not telling the full story of the work he had to put in chasing back to the front group.
Tenth place earned him 50 UCI WorldTour points – vital for the team as they bid to avoid finishing in bottom place in the WorldTour rankings, as was the case in 2016.
But it also gave him a huge amount of confidence for the weeks to come – proving, he believes, the benefits he is reaping from his 2016 Vuelta debut.
“I had some bad luck [at Strade Bianche], so I was on the back foot and had to use up a lot of energy," said Thwaites. "But I managed to get back towards the front of the race and my strength allowed me to pick up a few of the riders that I’d lost contact with earlier in the race.
“That was a nice feeling to do that, and it left me thinking if I hadn’t had bad luck earlier in the race, perhaps I’d have had more energy to push even further forward.
“The strength I got from the Vuelta a Espana, riding a Grand Tour, is going to help me in the longer Classics.
“Riding day after day teaches you to find the strength you perhaps wouldn’t have before, when you tail off in races. It’s mainly just the extra power."
Thwaites is refusing to look too far ahead to this year’s Grand Tours, however, and instead is focused keenly on the Classics, riding for Boasson Hagen and learning from directeur sportif Roger Hammond – one of only two Brits to finish on the Paris-Roubaix podium.
“The Classics are important," Thwaites said. “They are my speciality and what I want to do in the future, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“[Roger] was definitely someone I looked up to. There are similarities to our careers. Roger did a lot of cyclo-cross, as did I, and there are also similarities in our style. Roger was a very wise rider, tactically good, and knew how to use what he had.
“I’d like to learn from that, and he also has great knowledge on riding – when to put the power down, things like that. His knowledge of the courses, but also just his experience is invaluable for us riders.
“His mentality too. He knows what’s important and you know where you stand. He gives good direction and he doesn’t fill your head with a load of stuff you don’t need."
It all bodes very well for Thwaites – so far, so good with Dimension Data; a renewed belief; Roger Hammond behind the scenes; team-mates like Edvald Boasson Hagan and Mark Cavendish on the bike; and the chance to show what he’s all about in the Classics. 2017 could be a big year for one of the latest British riders to scale the UCI WorldTour.