Tuesdays with Wilcockson #6

The mentor and his apprentice

This past week has been a memorable one for British cyclists. In the space of eight days, they took seven international victories: two in Qatar, two in Spain and three in France. It was the best-ever start to a new racing season by riders from the UK. The two sprint wins by world champ Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Qatar were not totally unexpected; and sprinter Andy Fenn’s two stage wins at the Mallorca Challenge simply confirmed the great talent of Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s neo-pro. But the two solo stage wins and overall victory by Endura Racing’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke at the Tour Méditerranéen shocked everyone.

Well, not quite everyone. Locke’s mentor and onetime coach back in England, Colin Lewis, was calmly awaiting his apprentice to make this big breakthrough. Lewis, 69, who owns the bike shop in southwest England where Locke worked for several years, is one of the savviest and most knowledgeable people in the sport. He’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, with a dry sense of humor and a ready smile.

I first met Lewis on a long training ride over the hills of Brittany in the mid-1960s, when we were both racing with amateur teams and trying to make it to the big leagues. He was already a star in my eyes, having placed seventh overall in his first two-week-long stage race, the Tour of Britain Milk Race, and 25th in the Olympic road race in Tokyo. I was just starting out and had only won a few local races in southeast England before heading to France.

We had a long conversation on that training ride, much of it about the drug culture in French cycling. This was before there were drug tests in the sport, so there was no danger of being caught by anti-doping agencies. The only danger was to your body. Lewis said he was totally against any form of doping and would never race for a European pro team.

The English-born Welshman was good to his word. When he turned pro in 1967, he signed for a British domestic team with a salary only a quarter of what he could have earned in Europe. Even so, he won his national pro road title that first year and was selected to ride the Tour de France for the British national team (the Tour didn’t switch to the current format of trade teams until 1969). Despite having had no experience of European pro racing, and definitely not using drugs, Lewis rode strongly for the three weeks to finish 84th overall. He started the Tour again in 1968, but was eliminated on an early stage to Roubaix.Colin Lewis in 1969

In his eight years as a pro, Lewis was consistently one of Britain’s top-tier riders, winning 38 times, but he rarely raced in Europe. Today, when there are several British teams in the big leagues, and there’s a very different attitude to doping, Lewis would likely be one of the very best in the world. He was a rider who could have won classics and stages of the Tour. And that’s just what he’s hoping for Locke.

On retiring from pro racing in 1975, Lewis became a coach and opened his bike shop in the seaside town of Paignton. He continued to compete in masters-level racing, while coaching younger riders who joined his Mid Devon Cycling Club. Among those who went on to become pros were Jeremy Hunt (now with Team Sky in his 15th pro season) and Yanto Barker (racing with Magnus Bäckstedt’s Team UK Youth).

When Locke began road racing in 2003 at age 18, after a couple of seasons as a mountain biker, he moved from fourth to first category status in just a few months. Seeing the teenager’s talent, Lewis found him a spot on the French amateur team, U.V. Aube, in 2004. Locke did so well there that, only 18 months into his road career, he was selected for the British under-23 team for that year’s road worlds in Verona, Italy. In 2005, he moved to a nationally ranked French team, CC Étupes, and established his credentials immediately by finishing on the podium in all of his first 10 races, including a win at the GP de Rocheville, near Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur.

A couple of months later, his health suddenly deteriorated. Locke returned home and was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus. He quit cycling, and for the next three years attended the University of Bristol, graduating with a degree in product design, while working at Lewis’s bike store each summer. Finally, after graduating in mid-2007 and feeling less fatigued than he had been, Locke began training again — riding the 30km each way from his Plymouth home to the bike shop. He returned to amateur racing four years ago, at age 23, and soon started winning again.

That 2008 season ended early when he was knocked unconscious by a panicked horse during a training ride; but he’d done enough to earn a place with a small British pro team for 2009. His new team’s main sponsor went bankrupt mid-season, so he returned to working at the bike shop while racing for no pay. That’s when John Herety, the former British national coach and now manager of the well-funded Rapha-Condor-Sharp pro team, remembered Locke’s talent from the 2004 worlds and asked him to join his squad in 2010.Lewis on the Col Portillon at the ’67 Tour de France

With Rapha, Locke’s pro career finally started to move. In 2010, he won the toughest stage of Ireland’s Rás Tailteann, taking fifth overall; and last year, with a more international schedule, he placed eighth at the Tour of South Africa, fourth in the Tour of Korea, second in Spain’s Vuelta a León, and then fifth in the Tour of Britain. His highlight at his national tour last September was securing the King of the Mountains title, mainly thanks to instigating and leading a long breakaway on the fifth stage, over the hills of Dartmoor National Park on the roads where he trains.

Like his mentor Lewis, Locke prepares for racing the old-fashioned way. “I don’t train with any power meters or a heart-rate monitor,” he told local cycling photographer Simon Keitch last year. “I’m quite old school in my training. I’m quite good at knowing how to get myself into shape.”

His aggressive riding at the Tour of Britain had ProTeam managers talking, but when Herety transformed the Rapha team into a development squad this past winter, Locke chose to join Endura Racing, another UK-based UCI Continental team, which has a strong schedule of international and domestic racing. He promised to “hit the ground running.” And Locke has done just that. Following a training camp in Mallorca, he headed to the Med Tour last week, planning to use his climbing strength up to the last day’s traditional summit finish on Mont Faron.

That plan was derailed by snow in the south of France, which forced the organizers to reroute three of the four stages, including the first and last ones. This didn’t stop Locke’s plans. His team scouted the finish of the opening stage and thought a short climb 3km from the line could be a good place to attack. Locke did just that, riding a dozen riders off his wheel and gaining enough time to hold off the sprinters to win the stage.

The Europeans said it was a lucky win, but the lean Brit emphasized his true class on Sunday. When overnight snow covered the Faron, Locke adjusted his sights on the lower-elevation summit finish up the Col du Corps de Garde. And he didn’t wait for the final kick to the line; instead, he surprised the Continentals by jumping clear with 10km to go, catching and passing the day’s lone breakaway on the first steep slopes of the final climb, before establishing a 40-second lead. Locke held on to win the stage by 17 seconds over Saxo Bank’s Spanish climber Dani Navarro and Acqua & Sapone’s Italian star Stefano Garzelli — and clinched the overall title.

When asked by a British website last year what he hoped to achieve in 2012, Locke replied, “I’d love to win a UCI stage race … with the prospect of moving on to a ProTour team in the future.” Well, goal one is already achieved, and if he continues to show his strength for Endura Racing, Locke could well join a UCI ProTeam in 2013.

At just under 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds, Locke, 27, has a similar lean build to his cycling hero Michele Bartoli, the Italian who won the Mont Faron stage of the Med Tour at age 27 (in 1997) and took the overall title the following year. Bartoli won multiple classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy — just the type of races that Locke relishes.

And now that his career-interrupted has finally moved into top gear, it won’t be long before Locke gets a chance to emulate Bartoli in the hilly classics. When he does, the apprentice knows that back in a British bike shop, his mentor will still be rooting for him.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

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7 comments

  1. Jesus from Cancun

    Thanks, Mr. Wilcockson. I was wondering where this guy had come from. Very impressive, taking 2 stages and the overall has to be more than good luck.

  2. ben

    Yeah…great story (Wilcockson’s and Locke’s). If memory serves, Contador won that stage (full length of course) and the race in 2011 right? What a difference a year makes. I hope Locke continues to turn heads like Cinderella!

  3. Bill

    I enjoyed this column. It gives me hope to hear that many years ago there were people in our sport who were anti-doping. I have already recommended this site to many other friends of cycling. Thanks for your contributions to this site.

  4. Vandenberg

    I watched his breakaway in the Tour of Britain last year (thanks to the SBS highlights each day here in Australia) and was totally impressed by his riding. If I recall correctly, he figured in a few other breakaways and attacks through the tour. Was really good to watch.

  5. Wheels

    I always enjoy stories about the rise of athletes and how they are turning people’s heads. Like the bread truck driver turned NFL kick returner. Sometimes you can just spot talent before they’re discovered and you can look back and say “I remember when he was just a junior.”

    The part about him using his commute as training rings true to me. I find myself going back to the “old school training” methods. I have a powermeter, and for awhile was a slave to the numbers. Now I use it mostly as a recording tool. I still use it to gauge my intervals and look for improvement, but often the stopwatch is the most useful feature. So perhaps it’s more of a hybrid of old and new.

    Regardless, I keep thinking of the infamous Eddie Merckx quote: “Ride lots.” and find that when I can consistently meet my prescribed training hours things just start to click. There’s a constant individual learning process, that Locke has figured out, on how to bring yourself into shape. When that happens everything falls into place.

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