When the peloton rolls out of Milan on Sunday to begin its annual 300km journey south to the Ligurian resort of Sanremo, it will not contain Erick Rowsell.
It’s hard to tell if the 24-year-old is glad or disappointed. Rowsell made his debut at La Primavera last season in one of the hardest editions of modern times. He confesses to good and bad memories. “I’ll just try and remember the good bits,” he says, ruefully.
There is little question that Rowsell is a genuine talent. A contemporary of Team Sky’s Andy Fenn at British Cycling’s Academy, and a rising star who bagged a stage of the Tour de Normandie in his opening season as a professional, his career has been interrupted by the transformation of NetApp-Endura into Bora-Argon18.
Instead of racing again this season in the Pro Continental ranks, he will return to professional cycling’s third tier as a rider for Madison Genesis. While the move will preclude him from Sunday’s Classicissima, he can maintain legitimate hopes of a return. For now, however, he might allow relief to mingle with regret.
“It was one of those races where I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. You think ‘because it’s 300km, will they ride it a bit steadier?’ But it wasn’t like that at all. They rode it at the same pace as any WorldTour race, just for another 50km longer than anything else. It was just a really hard, brutal race.”
He’s not kidding. Rowsell got through three pairs of gloves that day in a desperate bid to stave off numbness in the hands that would have dramatically reduced his control of the bike; his ability to brake and change gear, and more mundanely, but of no less importance, his ability even to take food and unwrap it, or to grab a bidon.
“In those sort of conditions, you can ride for two, three, even four hours, but when you’re doing it for six or seven hours, it’s an absolute extreme. It’s something that’s always going to stay in my memory: getting out from Milan, heading down to the coast, and hearing on race radio: ‘Don’t worry – it’s going to be sunny.’ But getting there, it wasn’t sunny at all.”
A baptism of fire might have been easier to endure. Milan-Sanremo is a different magnitude to other bike races, and certainly in the conditions that characterised last year’s edition. Fast forward 12 months and Rowsell has recently returned from a training camp on Mallorca with his new team-mates. It promises to be a fortuitous associaton, for both parties.
Roger Hammond’s experience and ambition, and the professionalism of Madison Genesis, offer a window on the varying quality and budgets of Continental teams, with squads like the An Post-CRC outfit run by Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts acknowledged by national federations and ProTeams alike as providing a proper schooling to the espoir with ambition. Few insiders will have been surprised to see Sky-exile Josh Edmondson attempt to relaunch his career with the Irish-Belgian squad.
Relaunch is the word Rowsell uses to explain his decision to race with Madison-Genesis this season, and Hammond is the man in whom he has placed his trust. “I think having him as the director of the team makes a massive difference. All the riders believe in him 100 per cent because of where he has been and what he has done. His knowledge and experience in guiding the riders has been fundamental in putting the team where they are today: one of the top teams in Britain.”
Rowsell does not regret the opportunities to ride in the biggest races in the sport, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia among them. But he is keen to return to winning ways; an unrealistic ambition for most 24-year-olds competing in Monument Classics. With Madison Genesis, he hopes to again taste victory, and to step off a treadmill that he says had made him ride merely to satisfy others.
“Probably the best way to describe it is like a washing machine going round and round from one race to another,” Rowsell says, though he is quick to absolve his former employers of responsibility. “I got stuck in a rut of being almost willing to go to races just to help someone else out, rather than putting the pressure on myself to go there and get a result.”
He will have plenty of opportunity to get results this season. Such has been the development of the calendar on British shores in recent years, the domestic pro can now enjoy a programme of international races without traveling to the Continent. Rowsell identifies RideLondon, the Tour of Britain, and the ASO’s new Tour de Yorkshire among the high profile international races he hopes to contest on home soil.
More immediately, there is the Tour de Normandie, a UCI 2.2 race, in which Rowsell has already won a stage. Milan-Sanremo is likely to seem some distance away on Sunday, but of less consequence the day after, when he rolls out again in northern France, and for the first time in the colours of Madison Genesis.
Rowsell describes himself as versatile: able to serve last season as pilot fish to Sam Bennett when the Irish sprinter won the Clásica de Almería ahead of Movistar’s Juanjo Lobato. A day earlier, he’d helped to pace Tiago Machado on the mountainous parcours of the Vuelta Murcia. The Portugese, now with Katusha, finished second that day by just three seconds to Alejandro Valverde and NetApp DS Alex Sans Vega praised Rowsell publically for “doing an amazing job”.
Rowsell will leave the washing machine-like existence of the Pro Conti domestique behind, for a season at least, and try to forget the torrential rain of last season’s Milan-Sanremo. He has won at home and abroad before, and will fight hard to rediscover winning ways this season. In Hammond, he has, to use Rowsell’s words, a manager who has seen it and done it.
Rowsell is, by his own admission, only one of a number of riders in Hammond’s team capable of winning races this season. He will seek to re-establish his place in the winner’s enclosure and move a step closer to fulfilling his considerable potential.