Few British riders have enjoyed such a meteoric rise through the professional ranks as Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.
A stop-start career saw Tiernan-Locke head into the 2012 season as a relative unknown at Endura Racing, a team from the UCI’s third-tier Continental ranks, but a string of impressive early-season results soon attracted the attention of cycling’s top table.
A whirlwind year then saw Tiernan-Locke win the Tour of Britain, before the 27-year-old went into the World Road Race Championships as Great Britain leader, with defending champion Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome among the riders at his disposal.
And, speaking to RoadCyclingUK, Tiernan-Locke admits he wouldn’t have dared to dream of earning “a place in the top tier with the best team in the world” for the 2013 season.
“A year ago I was hopeful to get a ride on a Pro Continental team but to get a deal with the best team out there is a culmination of all my results,” says Tiernan-Locke. “It’s all paid off.
“Over the past couple of years I’ve been close to moving up to Pro Continental but a couple of things haven’t worked out.
“My age was against me because if you’re not 21, 22, 23 then it’s a bit harder, so I thought I had one more year to try and step up – but it’s a bigger step up then I ever dreamed of.”
Tiernan-Locke is currently in Majorca at Team Sky’s pre-season training camp. The squad is split into groups according to their targets and ambitions for the 2013 season and Tiernan-Locke has joined the general classification group.
This is not Tiernan-Locke’s first Team Sky training camp, however. The 27-year-old joined three of Sky’s Tour de France squad – Wiggins, Richie Porte and Kanstantsin Sivtsov – at a pre-Tour training camp in Tenerife.
The altitude training which took place on the volcanic island over the course of a number of camps was vital in Wiggins’ preparation for the Tour – and helped secure Tiernan-Locke a WorldTour contract.
“It was a little bit intimidating but the Tour de France was still some way off,” he says. “It was April, quite a long time before the Tour, so I knew I wouldn’t be getting in the way of their preparation.
“Mountains aren’t my thing. I don’t think I’ll ever be a mountain climber like the GC guys are, but it was good to see that I wasn’t out of my depth at the sort of speeds we were riding at.
“I faired pretty well in the individual tests and everyone was really happy with the numbers so that’s why they made me an offer. That was encouraging because before I went out I didn’t know if I was just going to get dropped.”
Two British riders have joined Team Sky for 2013 – and both impressed during the Tour of Britain. While Tiernan-Locke won the race, 20-year-old Josh Edmondson shone while riding for the Great Britain Academy.
The Academy has provided a ready-made conveyor belt of talent for Team Sky, with six of the 2013 squad – Edmondson, Peter Kennaugh, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift and Geraint Thomas – all passing through its doors en-route to joining the team.
But Tiernan-Locke has, in his own words, flown “off the radar”. The Plymouth-born rider began racing mountain bikes at the age of 15, and started road racing at 18, quickly becoming a first category rider and attracting the attention of French amateur teams U.V. Aube and CC Étupes.
His career was derailed when he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus and he quit the sport to study at the University of the West of England in Bristol, only returning to racing in 2008, joining the ill-fated Plowman Craven-Madison team which folded halfway through the season.
“I never rode on the track and I was never on the [British Cycling] Academy,” he says. “I came back to the sport just after the under-23 ranks, just riding Premier Calendar races, and I was never really in the frame.”
Tiernan-Locke’s chance came when Rapha Condor Sharp boss, John Herety, offered him a two-year contract and in 2011 Tiernan-Locke won a stage of the Vuelta Ciclista a León en-route to finishing second overall, before finishing fifth in the Tour of Britain and winning the King of the Mountains competition.
“I had to go above and beyond what would have been expected if I was an Academy rider.” says Tiernan-Locke. “You can’t just show promise, you have to go out and win races, and that’s what I’ve tried to do over the past couple of years.”
Winning races became a habit in 2012. Having signed for Brian Smith’s Endura Racing team, Tiernan-Locke won two long-standing fixtures on the early-season calendar, the Tour Méditerranéen and Tour du Haut Var.
“A lot of my goals for the season were at the start of the year so through the winter I tried not just to get through it, but to be in my best ever shape come the start of the season,” he says.
“But I still couldn’t believe how well I was going off the back of my winter training.”
Tiernan-Locke fractured his collarbone at the Lincoln Grand Prix in May and returned to racing at the Route du Sud two months later, finishing 22nd in what had been one of his pre-season goals. He soon returned to winning ways, however, winning the Tour Alsace, before victory in the Tour of Britain.
Tiernan-Locke’s World Championship call-up came during the Tour of Britain, but it wasn’t until 48 hours before the race that he knew he would be the protected rider having neither raced at that level, or at that distance.
But Tiernan-Locke says the 2012 worlds was far more organic than 12 months earlier, when Cavendish went into the race as favourite and with the years of preparation which formed the back-bone of what was dubbed Project Rainbow Jersey.
Still, the hilly Limberg course of the 2012 race, and the finishing climb on the Cauberg, suited Tiernan-Locke’s talents as a puncheur, and a 19th place finish in the lead group underlined his ability to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
“I didn’t go into the World Championships as outright leader,” he says. “I only found out I was going to have people helping me with about 48 hours to go before the race.
“There wasn’t loads of pressure because there was no-one else who was putting their hand up to say they were up for it as a lot of people were tired after a long season.
“It was a nice position to be in but I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t know how I’d respond to the distance. It was 267km and I’d only raced up to 210km so it was a relief to get through it.
“I didn’t quite have the legs for the finish but it was good to get around and I definitely identified areas where I could have saved some energy.”
Ten days later and cycling’s worst kept secret was out – Tiernan-Locke had signed for Team Sky – and in October he attended the team’s pre-season get-together in London: a meet-and-greet for old and new faces, and the chance to draft an early plan ahead of the 2013 campaign.
Tiernan-Locke’s main targets will come in April with the Ardennes Classics, run over the type of terrain on which he has forged his reputation.
“Even though it’s only April, that’s quite late compared to last season and it’s easy to get over enthusiastic and think I’ve got to be flying by my first race,” says Tiernan-Locke.
“But there’s a couple of months between my very first race in February and the Ardennes so I’m going to take a more relaxed approach, get some bigger base miles under my belt and April will be when I need to be going my best.
“I know I can do the distance now so hopefully I can stay healthy and get some experience racing other WorldTour events leading up to April.”
The cycling season is long, however, and Team Sky’s head of performance science Tim Kerrison, one of the key men behind Wiggins’ annus mirabilis in 2012, has raised the possibility of Tiernan-Locke riding the Vuelta a Espana.
“There are not many guys on the team who wouldn’t want to do a Grand Tour so it’s not going to be easy to get a spot, but if there was one I could ride then that’d probably be it,” says Tiernan-Locke.
“Tim has said it would be good for me to do it, so hopefully I get to ride.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s done one says you’re knackered by the end and it takes a while to get over it but you learn a lot about yourself and how you respond when you have a bad day, and your body makes some physical changes and will come good.”
Tiernan-Locke excels over short, punchy climbs, but the long, gruelling climbs of the three Grand Tours will provide a new challenge for the Plymouth-born rider. How he fares over those ascents could shape his future as a cyclist.
“I’ve not been exposed to big climbs before,” he says. “I rode the Tourmalet this year, but it was only a month or so after I’d broken my collarbone so I’d done sod-all riding and I did struggle a bit.
“Perhaps I can mould myself into a helper for GC races. I’m under no illusions. You’ve got to know your limits and I’m not hoping for any miracles. I’m not the best time trialler and I can climb on medium climbs but it’s something else climbing for an hour at threshold.
“But if I can extend my climbing to longer climbs and become an asset to GC contenders then that’d be cool.”
Tiernan-Locke is stepping into unchartered territory but he is a man with untapped potential who has joined a team with a formidable reputation for extracting every ounce of talent from a rider. What direction that takes Tiernan-Locke is to be seen.
“I want to see how I can go on the bigger climbs, that are not just hills, but I know I’m a punchy rider and maybe it’s just better to try and specialise there. I’m might not sure yet but I think I’ll find out quite a lot about myself this year.”