Team Sky’s Christian Knees, a member of Bradley Wiggins’ victorious Tour de France team, cuts a tall and rangy figure amid the hordes visiting the vast Eurobike cycle show in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Gaunt, but of surprisingly solid appearance for a professional cyclist, he is one of a trio of ‘local’ riders from cycling’s elite WorldTour flown in at the request of sponsors.
Lotto-Belisol’s Andre Greipel was guest of honour for Ridley on the show’s opening day; Bernie Eisel will later take his place on the vast yellow enclosure that marks out Pinarello’s presence at the world’s biggest bike show. Knees is here as a guest of Kask, helmet supplier to Team Sky.
He is serious, but polite, and while his replies are occasionally confused by shifting tenses, there is no doubt that he understands the questions, despite conversing in a second language. Like many in his profession, he appears to possess a keen intelligence, which combines with his nation’s reputation for directness to create some illuminating responses.
Pressure, for example, is something the observer assumes is felt only by those who will contest victory. But Knees, a domestique whose efforts on the flat were as valuable to Wiggins as those of Richie Porte and Michael Rogers in the mountains, reveals his own anxious desire for selection after learning soon after the Classics that Wiggins felt comfortable riding on his wheel. He speaks of the “immense pressure” he felt to bring the best from himself and earn selection, his place on the Tour team confirmed just ten days before the start of the race.
Knees was German national road race champion in 2010: until July, the highlight of his career. With six Tours de France already under his belt, he was under no illusion at the scale of the challenge faced by Team Sky in July, and of the effort he would be required to make on behalf of his leader (“It looked easy from the outside but it was really hard work. No-one sees the first 50k of the race”). He drew no comfort from well wishers who cheerily informed him of a flat stage to come. Controlling the race on the flat is harder than in the mountains, he reveals: breakaways on a mountainous stage are likely to ride slowly over the first climb, and disintegrate later in the stage; a 15-strong break on the flat, however, can present “real trouble” to a team of pursuers nine strong.
He is modest about his duties in the Tour (a team as strong as Sky would have other riders capable of performing the same role, he admits) but confident in his abilities. Knees acknowledges the complements he has received since his return to Germany, but says he has yet to fully appreciate the strength of his performance in the Tour and the significance of his team’s achievement. Sky have enjoyed a “dream season”, he says; a conclusion with which few would disagree.
“The early success only made us stronger,” he reveals. “We knew what we were doing this for. When Brad wins Paris-Nice, Romandie, you are going with much more confidence to the next races; you are training much harder because you know you have someone in the team who could maybe win the Tour and this brings the most out of you.”
The bustle in the vast Friedrichshafen messe, and the enormous presence of brands like Cube and Focus, indicate that cycling is in rude health in Knees’ homeland. Is there a parallel with the UK? Knees says cycling in Germany followed a similar boost in popularity after the 1997 Tour de France victory of countryman Jan Ullrich. Team Sky has given him international support, he adds, from German fans cheering a countryman to British fans cheering a rider for a British team.
“The moment in Paris was much too short,” he recalls of Team Sky’s curtailed victory celebrations, cut short by the small matter of the Olympic Games and the need of some team-mates to begin preparation immediately after the conclusion of the Tour. On Dave Brailsford’s stated ambition to create a dominant Grand Tour team, Knees is philosophical. Winning three Grand Tours in a year would be “quite difficult” he concedes, but insists that the team’s performance at the Tour proves it is possible. “It could be just the beginning,” he says of Wiggins’ Tour triumph. “I hope so.”