Luke Rowe might just be the hardest working man in cycling.
A relentless campaign that this season took in a Grand Tour, three Monument Classics, two early-season ‘fly-away’ races and ended at the world championships in Richmond has not blunted the Welshman’s enthusiasm.
From the Antipodes to North America, freezing Flanders to the Pyrenees, typically in the role of road captain, there seems little that the 25-year-old isn’t prepared to do.
“It was pretty intense, but from the start of the year, I knew what I wanted to do, and the level at which I wanted to do it,” he says. “A lot of it is in the head – it’s mental. I already know my programme for next year, for example, and if you get it right in your head, I think that’s the biggest thing.
“I just got such a buzz out of it all; going to the Classics, and being in the preparation for the Tour, at a big camp in Tenerife. For me, it didn’t even seem that hard mentally – physically, of course, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done – but mentally, it wasn’t too bad. I was there with guys who are not just team-mates, but actual good mates. I loved every minute of it.”
Truly, Rowe is a man for all seasons, and in as much seems to be following the path ridden by countryman and team-mate Geraint Thomas, once considered a Classics specialist and now being spoken of as a Grand Tour contender.
Rowe says he will never be a man for the high mountains and still considers victory at a Monument Classic his greatest goal, but his versatility is clearly a considerable asset to Team Sky. There are two further qualities however that the team must value: a cast iron constitution that allows him to absorb such a massive workload and his ability to call the shots on the road.
Road captains are almost by definition experienced riders, who by dint of years on the road gain a sixth sense for the way in which a race might develop. They also carry a certain authority among their team-mates simply for having survived so long at the top level.
Rowe’s ascension to this pivotal, if often unseen role is unusual for a 25-year-old, especially one with just four seasons in the WorldTour. On the frequent occasions in which a DS loses radio contact with his riders, it is the road captain who calls the shots. Is it a question of character?
“It’s being prepared to fail,” Rowe says. “At the end of the day, as road captain, if you make a big call, and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to start riding here’, or ‘We’re going to try in the crosswinds here’, essentially, you can make the wrong call; the wrong decision.
“If that happens, you’ve got to put your hand up and take responsibility. It takes a big set of balls to do it. You’re sticking your neck out, essentially, aren’t you? But I’ve done it quite a bit this year, done it in some big races, and enjoy doing it.”
He credits former team-mates Bernie Eisel and Mathew Hayman for his education in this regard; riders whom, he says, helped him continually in his debut season with Sky, both on and off the bike.
The aforementioned trio, Sky riders past and present, are all good examples of the dichotomy at the heart of the British team’s public perception. Observe this much vaunted scientific machine at close quarters, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that these aggregators of marginal gains are, in essence, a bunch of blokes racing bikes.
At this year’s Tour of Qatar, for example, thousands of miles from the team’s message makers, the mood was relaxed to say the least, Wiggins included. Rowe grafted in the desert with the same enthusiasm he exhibits on the cobbles and spent a couple of days in the white jersey of best young rider, eventually finishing second to Peter Sagan.
“All we are is 28 guys and a load of staff travelling the world racing bicycles. It’s that simple. You can overcomplicate that,” Rowe says. “I go to a race, turn up, do my best, commit 100 per cent, and go home. You can’t ask more than that and the team really appreciate that.
“Anyone who thinks it’s all ‘marginal gains’ is barking up the wrong tree. Certainly if I wasn’t enjoying the sport, I’d pack it in tomorrow. The only reason I’m doing this is because I enjoy it. Okay, the money’s good, but if I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d pack it in. I absolutely love it.”
He has further enjoyment to look forward to next season: a three-pronged attack that will take in the Northern Classics, a place in the Tour squad (tbc, as with all Tour squads), and finally the World Championships in Qatar, where Rowe believes Mark Cavendish has more than an outside chance of victory.
Versatility and hard graft look set to remain the key themes of Rowe’s campaigns, but there is another thread that runs throughout our conversation: friendship. It matters to Rowe that he enjoys the company of his colleagues off the bike. He has raced with some of this team-mates since the age of ten or 11, while Sky’s latest recruits are the generation that will succeed him.
“I met the new guys at the camp, the team get-together, and I can see us becoming good mates. It’s really important to bond and gel straight away. The closer the team is, the better you are when it really comes to crunch time in a race, when the weather’s bad and the odds are against you. When you’re riding with a bunch of mates, you tend to pull together a bit more and the end result is that you’re a more successful team.”
Rowe’s analysis may lack the sophistication of the team’s abiding philosophy, the aforementioned ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, but is somehow more robust. He is the living proof that a scientific approach and cycling’s more traditional values – graft, determination, and digging in for your team-mates – can coexist. All it takes is mental strength, or, as the Welshman might put it, “a big set of balls”. Team Sky’s management can have few complaints.
Luke Rowe is partner of Rowe & King Coaching and an ambassador for the Dragon Ride. The 2016 Dragon Ride takes place on Sunday June 5 in South Wales. Visit www.dragonride.co.uk for more information.
Luke Rowe might just be the hardest working man in cycling.