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.
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Philippe Gilbert has done what was truly the unthinkable. In sweeping the four races of the Ardennes Week—Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege—Gilbert has taken a quartet of victories no other rider has ever achieved. Even the triple of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and L-B-L seemed too much to reasonably hope for, yet he went hope one further. How many riders can tell Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx to go suck it?
In the current issue (#3) of peloton magazine I put forward the suggestion that Gilbert is a rider cut in the mold of Rik Van Looy, the only rider to win each of the major classics. In the course of his career, Van Looy won each of the Monuments at least once, resulting in eight total wins of our greatest one-day races. What is interesting is that Gilbert’s victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold set him apart from Van Looy. The Emperor of Herentals, as he was known, never won Amstel or the Omloop Het Volk, as it was called in his day.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks only Gilbert’s third Monument, following his two wins at the Tour of Lombardy. Like Roger De Vlaeminck he has shown the ability to climb with the very best Grand Tour riders in a one-day race, and yet can sprint with Classics riders like Boonen. And that’s the trick.
Unlike his Belgian forebears Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, whose sole wins in the Monuments came in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert has shown he can win south of Paris. Only a handful of riders, including De Vlaeminck and Michele Bartoli have won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Lombardy during their careers. Of course, Merckx did that, too.
What’s most interesting about Gilbert isn’t his ability to win on any terrain, though that is certainly part of his strength and his appeal. And it isn’t the fact that he is well-poised to become the greatest one-day rider of his generation, with the potential to win a greater range of races than Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen. No, what makes Gilbert so interesting is his capacity to surprise, his sheer wily-ness.
For us, the question isn’t so much if he’ll win the Tour of Flanders, it’s which year and on which muur he’ll launch his attack. His combination of incredible strength and tactical sensibility were on full display during Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In fact, the greatest move of the race wasn’t the attack that separated Gilbert and the Schleck brothers from, well, from anything that might have mattered. The greatest move was after dumping Andy Schleck on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas; rather than try to drag brother Frank to the finish, Gilbert backed off, allowing Andy to chase back on. The effort kept Schleck the younger on the rivet and prevented him from being much of a factor in the sprint.
Had Gilbert continued, Frank wouldn’t have taken a single pull, and while it was unlikely he could have taken Gilbert in the sprint, there was no point in towing him to the finish and taking that risk. Once Andy returned to the duo, with both Schlecks present and accounted for, they were obligated to take their pulls. Tactically, Gilbert could have sat on them, yet he continued to take strong pulls to make the break work, but it was obvious from his positioning on the road that he was ever-mindful of the risk of an attack from one of the Schlecks.
With four consecutive wins, questions about the source of Gilbert’s strength threaten to spoil our enjoyment of a simple bike race. We’ve no reason to doubt he’s clean other than success and if we are to doubt a rider who wins, we are to doubt all of racing. The sport is too good for that. Let’s enjoy the day.
We’re seeing a rare rider emerge, one with the potential to win on any day. We had better keep our eyes peeled.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International