Cycling’s a funny sport, and one where the lines drawn between success and failure are often blurred. I say this because cycling’s also a sport where finishing in the top ten is seen as a very good result by those ‘in the know’ but can be largely ignored by anyone who doesn’t fully understand the nuances of bike racing.
All that is a rather roundabout way of saying that this year Team Sky’s Luke Rowe has really showed his credentials as a classics rider. One top ten could have been glossed over as luck, but eighth at Paris-Roubaix, ninth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and thirteenth at E3-Harelbeke suggest that this year was no fluke, and the Welshman might be about to join Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard in Sky’s cluster of British protected riders for next Spring’s round of cobbled mayhem.
When I speak to him just days after he’s finished helping Chris Froome to a podium spot at the Tour de Romandie, Rowe seems to have had enough time for his achievements this season to have settled in and has found the balance between confidence and not overstating his ambitions for the future.
“I’ve won a few races in the past, but that was a highlight despite only being an eighth place” he says modestly. “For me, Roubaix is the biggest race. Bigger than Flanders, bigger than San Remo – just my opinion – but to get eighth place in that is certainly a standout result in my career and something that I’ll remember for quite a while.”
When I put it to the Welshman that the result suggests he could legitimately go into future editions of Roubaix hoping for even better, he agrees but without letting himself get carried away.
“In another interview I actually said that if you can get a top ten why can’t I win it one day?” he offers. “Which looking back seems like a bold statement and I’m a bit ‘calm down mate, you’ve only got eighth place and now you’re talking about winning it’.
In another interview I actually said that if you can get a top ten why can’t I win it one day? Which looking back seems like a bold statement and I’m a bit ‘calm down mate, you’ve only got eighth place and now you’re talking about winning Paris-Roubaix!’
“I think it got taken out of context. It was more like ‘one day’, you know? If you’ve got eighth place there’s no point in saying I wanna finish top five next year or I wanna finish top three in my career. Aim big! You might as well say I want to win it one day.
“One day I can hopefully lead the team and we’ve obviously got some incredible riders: Geraint [Thomas] and [Ian] Stannard to name just two possible leaders. One day I’ll be knocking at the door and I’d love to lead, certainly in Roubaix, in years to come.”
While he might feel proud on a personal level, Rowe also seems slightly exasperated at the suggestions floating around in April that failure to capture either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix constituted a poor showing in the cobbled classics for Team Sky this year. On the contrary, he suggests that Sky’s spring campaign should be viewed as a resounding success more than anything.
“The thing is, Team Sky in general set the bar so high in terms of expectations of themselves, and the fans always expect so much too” he begins. “But when you look at what we won – there’s really only 5 or 6 cobbled classics and we won two of them!
“And E3’s WorldTour, anyone who’s anyone is there. Okay, Fabian [Cancellara] crashed out, but you’re racing the exact same field as Flanders, and the result [in E3] could easily have been the result in Flanders.
“No matter how well you do, there will always be people saying ‘but you didn’t win Flanders or Roubaix’ and it’s like do you know how hard it is to even finish those races? Winning’s not straightforward.
“But yeah, there’s nothing to say that we can’t get a win in years to come. Okay, I said the same last year, but we’ve gotta keep improving, keep looking at every little area. I think we’ve got a really good bunch of riders and if we can keep that close-knit group together hopefully we’ll win one next year.”
The other big buzz around Sky leading into the cobbled classics was the unveiling of Pinarello’s new cobble-specific bike, the Dogma K8-S. Some of that interest turned to jeers when Sky failed to capture either of the Monuments on offer, but Rowe insists that the bike was a big help at Roubaix.
No matter how well you do, there will always be people saying ‘but you didn’t win Flanders or Roubaix’ and it’s like do you know how hard it is to even finish those races? Winning’s not straightforward
He explains: “The faster you went the more it came into its own, so it’s possibly a lot more advantageous in Roubaix, for example, because your hitting some sectors at 40-50km/h rather than some of the cobbled climbs in Flanders that you ride up at 12-15km/h.
“Certainly in Roubaix it took away those big vibrations when you really nail a big cobble, and anything you can save there is in the tank for later on. If you save little bits of energy on the cobbles for the first 150km then it’s in the bank for later and does make a difference.”
Another race that was wholly inhospitable this year, but for weather reasons rather than the parcors per se, was Gent-Wevelgem. Only 39 riders finished and the peloton, or rather what should have been the peloton, was battered with gale force winds all afternoon.
While the race was an amazing spectacle for the fans, Rowe insists the riders felt differently. “It was unbelievable” he says. “The worst section wasn’t actually shown on TV, but after about 80km I was in the second echelon and I look up to see one of the best bike handlers in the peloton on his own in the right hand gutter. The wind catches him and he gets blown to the left, unclips his foot, starts freewheeling goes down a ditch and into the splash!
“I got blown off too. I was in the front echelon on the Casselberg and got blown completely off the road and into the ditch. And there’s nothing you can do, once you get taken, you get taken.”
Rider safety has been a big issue this season, with the early season Tour of Oman having a stage cancelled due to extreme heat, and Rowe is unequivocal in his belief that Gent-Wevelgem shouldn’t have been raced.
“Race organisers will always push for a race to go ahead because they’ve all got the sponsors’ money in there which is committed, and they need the race to go ahead for future years,” he explains, getting slightly more animated.
You see one of the best bike handlers in the peloton in the right hand gutter, the wind catches him and he gets blown to the left, down a ditch and into the splash!
“I completely understand that and I’m the first to want to race whatever the weather until is gets to the point when it’s dangerous, which that day it certainly was. That race never should have gone on.
“At every race we have an ex-pro who oversees the race. It’s something that’s happened ever since the snowy San Remo [in 2013] and Tirreno. You can’t ride your bike in the snow, so we’ve got this to protect the riders but whoever it was that day needs to look at themselves in the mirror.
“Guys were getting blown into the water. If one of them knocks themselves out, the cars are two minutes behind and none of the riders stop – I would if I saw my teammate – but there could be an unconscious rider in the water and by the time the car’s got there he’s drowned.
“Gusts were up to 100km/h and people were advised to not leave their homes, but we’re racing? Things need to be in perspective, it’s still only a bike race.”
With all the drama of classics season behind him, Rowe’s back in the UK for a few days before a week in Monaco then jetting off to an altitude training camp with Sky in Tenerife.
All this should have the Welshman in tip top condition for his next race – June’s Criterium du Dauphiné. After that he’ll race the British National Champs but as far as further racing goes he’s not really sure yet, telling us: “I’ll have to wait and see what gets thrown at me!”
Whatever it is, Rowe will surely take it in his stride. His is a reputation firmly on the rise and we’ll be interested to see whether he can capitalise on this season’s promise over the next little while and force himself into contention for a prominent role when next spring comes around. Watch this space.
Luke Rowe is an ambassador for the Wiggle Etape Cymru. Now with three great distances, the event is billed as the Dragon Ride of the North. www.humanrace.co.uk/cycling