Our Q&A series with the stars of the future kicks off with Axeon-Hagens Berman's British criterium champion
Aged just 21, former British Cycling Academy rider Chris Lawless is the latest Brit hoping to make a mark at Axel Merckx’s talent factory – the Axeon-Hagens Berman team.
Alumni of Merckx’s American-based team include fellow Brits Alex Dowsett (Movistar) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky), while Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac), Nate Brown (Cannondale-Drapac), Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac), Ben King (Dimension Data), Ian Boswell (Team Sky) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) are also among those to have progressed to the WorldTour stage too.
And Lawless, the British criterium champion, has already given further indication of his talent by winning this year’s ZLM Tour one-day race, adding to a string of victories on the domestic scene.
Counting Team Wiggins and JLT-Condor among his former teams – two squads with their own proud records of developing future stars – ambitious Wigan-born Lawless is certainly on an upward trajectory to the top.
So where better to start our new series featuring some of the rising stars of British cycling than with the 21-year-old? We caught up with Lawless to get the inside track on his career to date and ambitions for the future.
Chris Lawless: I first got into cycling when I used to go and watch the Revolution Series. I’d been to a few, but when I was 12 I started going down to the club at the velodrome – Eastlands Velo were my first club, and then SportCity once I got a bit older.
Current team: Axeon Hagens-Berman
Former teams: Wiggins, JLT-Condor
Major results: National junior road race champion (2013), New Zealand Cycle Classic stage win (2016), National criterium champion (2016), ZLM Tour winner (2017)
I’ve been riding my bike for as long as I can remember though. My friends and I having races around the estate on BMXs and mountain bikes – they’re my earliest memories of actually racing.
My first road bike would have been a Giant road bike – just a cheap aluminium frame – and that’s what I started racing on. After that, I got my first track bike a few months later.
How did you get on to the British Cycling Academy?
I went through the British Cycling programme from when I was 14. In my second year as an under-16 I got on the talent team and from the talent team I went straight onto the Podium Programme.
From there, I got on the Academy in 2014, and was still part of the Academy in 2015 when I was riding for Wiggins. I left in 2016 to start to focus more on the road, when I rode for JLT-Condor.
Why did you choose to focus on the road?
The thing for me was that the biggest thing you can do on the track is the Olympics, and there was no chance that I was ever going to the Olympics. That’s just down to my age already, and not being good enough.
It’s so hard to get onto that team, and it’s never really something that crossed my mind – I just knew it wouldn’t be possible. That’s why I focussed on the road.
I still love riding the track – if I were good enough at one point, I’d love to go back. But I started cycling because I wanted to go pro on the road. That was my dream and at my age you’ve really need to focus on trying to do that, if that’s what you want.
It would be pretty hard to try and turn pro on the road, while riding the track at the same time.
You’re now at Axeon-Hagens Berman, how did that move come about?
Originally I signed for One Pro Cycling, and when we found out One were going to be a domestic team again [as opposed to UCI ProContinental], we all decided – me, my agent and the guys at ONE Pro – it wouldn’t be the best place for me to progress and try to turn pro.
I think, basically, as I was on the phone to Gary [McQuaid, Lawless’ agent] to find out if there was a place at Axeon, they were trying to phone him to try and sign me because they’d heard about the news.
It worked out quite well really – Axeon were a big help taking me on so late because they were only expecting to start with 15 riders this season and made that extra space for me.
Axeon-Hagens Berman is widely regarded as one of the best teams in the world for young riders. How have you found it so far?
They are a really good team and have been really supportive so far. Everyone there has your best interests at heart and wants to help you move up to that next level. That’s all they’re about – helping you to turn pro.
It’s not like being at a domestic team, for all ages, where they have the pressure of trying to get results in. All of your training, and all the results you’re targeting, are focused on you turning pro.
Don’t take anything away from the British scene – it is hard to win races, they are some of the hardest races to win because of the way they are raced, flat out from the start, with no real control – but the problem is, even if you win a lot of races in Britain, it’s still going to be hard to turn pro.
Your time at Axeon follows spells with two other teams with great track records for younger riders, Wiggins and JLT-Condor. What are the key things you’ve learned from each?
I’ve picked up different bits of experience from each team. Obviously, when I was riding with Wiggins, Brad was full of experience. Watching him racing and watching what he does, you pick up little things without realising it.
The same can be said about Ed [Clancy at JLT-Condor] last year. Riding with those guys, you learn so much. That’s made me mature both on and off the bike, which has helped me this year to get the results I have.
Alongside Brad and Ed, you’ve also had Russ Downing as a team-mate and John Herety and Axel Merckx as team managers. How big an impact have they had on you?
I don’t think you know at the time, but afterwards you realise just how good they actually are. Especially when you look at other teams who don’t necessarily have that same experience.
You look at other teams and you think they have strong riders, why aren’t they getting the results that we’re getting? And a lot of the time it’s just down to that experience that comes from the managing staff and older riders like Brad, Ed, Russ etc.
Who were your cycling inspirations growing up?
Brad was actually one of my inspirations, and Mark Cavendish. They were both really successful as I was getting into the sport.
It was strange at first to ride with Brad as a result. Everyone was a bit taken aback when he first came to a race, but after just an hour or so he was just one of the lads and you didn’t think much of it – he was just another team-mate. He was down to earth.
Who else has had a big impact on your career?
Ever since I started on the Academy, Keith Lambert [British Cycling’s senior Academy men’s endurance coach) has been quite a big part of my performance.
Even if it’s little things, like another opinion when trying to decide between two teams. On the rare occasions I have a bit of flexibility in my race programme, I’ll call him up and see what he thinks.
I still speak to Keith quite a bit. Of course he’s heavily involved with British Cycling, and is the DS and manager for a lot of the [under-23] Nations Cup races too.
There’s also Tim Kennaugh. He’s my coach, and has been a big help since my time with JLT-Condor. Since I’ve been with Tim, I’ve seen massive, massive improvements in my riding.
You were crowned junior national road race champion in 2013, aged 17, was that the point where you career really started to move forward?
Not really. As a junior I was still doing it for fun. I was still playing rugby league throughout my school life and I was not clearly focussed on cycling.
A lot of juniors make the big mistake of taking things too seriously – at that age, I think you still need to have fun.All through my school life I was doing every sport I could. I played for a local football team – I wasn’t any good, but any sport available at school I would do.
Cycling and rugby league were the two I enjoyed most – I never actually played rugby for a club team, just through my school team as I got into it a bit late, but they were the two I most enjoyed. I think the only reason I didn’t join a club was that I was racing at weekends, so I’d never have been able to play.
When was your breakthrough as a rider then?
On my first two years on the Academy, I managed to do quite a few of the Nations Cups. In my second year, I managed to get sixth at GP Cerami and that opened my eyes to what I could potentially do.
It showed me that it was hard work but the possibility of getting results was not unachievable. There was quite a lot of luck involved in that race and it was a case of getting into the right break, but it showed me that once I do get older and stronger I can better results.
In terms of results, was last year also a breakthrough season?
Last year, I was hoping for better results internationally actually. I did quite a bit on the British scene but I was hoping to do better elsewhere.
Chris Lawless’ wins in 2016
New Zealand Cycle Classic – stage one
Tour Series – rounds one and seven
Tour Series – JLT-Condor overall winners
Otley GP; London Nocturne; National criterium champion; East Yorkshire Classic; Sheffield Hallam GP; Leicester Castle Classic
I started the season in New Zealand and the Australia, and the only race I really got a result in was the New Zealand Cycle Classic, when I won the opening stage.
I was hoping for a bit more at the Herald Sun Tour really, and then in the UCI races later in the season but my season ended in August due to a shoulder injury.
I had a crash the day before a race, separated my shoulder, and that put me out of two UCI races we were doing in France and Belgium and then the Tour of Britain.
I think, if anything, the start of this year has been a bit of a breakthrough for me, because of the consistency I have had.
The start of this year has also included victory at the ZLM Tour, following the likes of [former winners] Fabian Cancellara and Luke Rowe. Is that a sign of where you’re heading as a rider?
I think it’s still hard to tell where I’m heading. I’m never going to be a Grand Tour contender. That’s out of the question. Never going to happen. But I think over the course of the next few years or so, I’ll mature a bit and it will start to show what I’m best at.
I think definitely the ZLM Tour is the biggest race I’ve won so far. The Nations Cup races are the hardest races you can do as a 23-year-old, against a purely under-23 field anyway.
Given your success on the domestic scene in 2016 – being crowned national crit champion, winning at the Tour Series and winning the London Nocturne – clearly criterium racing plays to your strengths. Was it hard to move away from that?
It wasn’t really a difficult decision. I just stopped enjoying some of the races to a point.
It’s just not the sort of racing I enjoy. I started riding my bike because I wanted to do road racing, I grew up watching the Tour and the Classics and I knew that riding races on the British scene wasn’t going to get me into those sort of races.
I think I got a bit fed up with those sort of races – I could have possibly got more results last year had I not been frustrated, because I started doing stupid things like attacking from a group a long way out when, if I had just sat there, I could have maybe won the sprint.
If you ask John Herety, he will tell you the same thing because he used to get annoyed at me for that.
How do you view yourself as a rider at this point in your career?
I know I’ve got a quick finish. So, for me to get the best results that I can and to put myself in front of the WorldTour teams, I’ve got to play to that strength and try to pick up as many results as I can and I think the best way is using my sprint.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
The main goal for this year is to try and be WorldTour at the end of the year. Hopefully in five years time I’ll be on a WorldTour team, I’ll have found my feet in the peloton and gained experience from a few years riding at that level. That will be when I’d hope to start being ready to win races. But, of course, it’s early days – I might get to that level and find I’m a good domestique and end up being a domestique for my whole career. You never know what’s going to happen but the dream is to win big races, like stages of the Tour or Classics.
Finally, if you could pick one race to win in future, what would it be?
Flanders would be an amazing race to win. That’s a race I’ve always looked towards. If I could choose one race to win, it would definitely be between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
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