It’s the middle of a full day of interviews, but Team Sky talent Luke Rowe is showing no signs of flagging or sitting on the fence.
It is one thing riding like a future Classics contender, as he did this spring; it is quite another to talk the refreshing talk. This is one young rider not shrouding his opinions in media-trained nonsense or putting on indignation for effect.
“I think the riders have to take more of a stance. Say an ex-doper comes back? They get welcomed back like any other rider. Imagine you’re an ex-doper, you come back, you turn up to a race and say hello to someone. And they don’t reply. Say hello to someone else – and they don’t reply.
“You should make it so hard for them that they don’t want to come back. They move up the side of the peloton: chop ‘em up. We shouldn’t give these guys any respect. Don’t make them feel welcome, don’t talk to them, don’t give them an inch on the road. Treat them with the respect they deserve, which is minimal.”
So, on doping, what’s his definition of a clean rider? “A clean rider is a rider who takes nothing sport-enhancing. Absolutely nothing: anything sport-enhancing is a benefit over the other riders. So, take nothing.”
That includes painkillers too. “You’re still getting an advantage over other people. I think there’s no doubt, doping is on the decline. It’s different to what it was ten years ago or whatever. I don’t think people can argue with that. But there is still an issue – a massive issue.”
Luke Rowe ascends a cobbled climb at the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Talk turns to therapeutic use exemptions (TUE’s), the process by which a professional cyclist obtains approval to use a prescribed prohibited substance for the treatment of a medical condition. Should they ever be revealed if some riders are abusing it?
“If someone’s got a genuine problem, why should the whole world be entitled to know?” Rowe says. “If they are abusing it, then they’ll be caught, they’ll show extremely high values in the tests. In no other sport do people have to reveal their TUE’s. There comes a point where it’s an invasion of privacy,” Rowe says.
Rowe himself has never had a TUE. “I haven’t got asthma or anything like that, so no need.
“And they’re talking about bringing in 24-hour testing, aren’t they? Currently, it’s from six up until midnight as the legal hours,” he continues. “Now, I’ve got nothing to hide, I’m a clean rider, but it’s an invasion of privacy. Why should they be entitled to come and test me at 2am?”
What frustrates Rowe is this inconsistency of anti-doping rules across professional sport as a whole. “Imagine telling a footballer they are going to start testing you at two in the morning. He’d take you to court.”
Despite his clear indignation towards cheats, being a modern professional cyclist – especially one employed by Team Sky, perhaps – means exposure to all sorts of insults from keyboard warriors on social media.
“When you finish a race like Flanders or Roubaix, you’re absolutely buckled. Then you go on Twitter and get some donkey who knows nothing about the sport, saying something stupid. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I bite my tongue.
“You get a lot of crap, a lot of stuff about bad tactics; every now and then, the accusation of doping. You’ve got to let it go over your head.”
Working hard on the front for Team Sky at the 2014 Tour de Romandie. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
While he himself was at the fore into the finale of the Tour of Flanders, doing mammoth turns on the front for leader Geraint Thomas, he felt subsequent criticism over the way Team Sky took on the race was misjudged.
“We rode so offensively, that’s another one where we got a bit of flak. But when you’ve got that much confidence in your leader, when your leader wins a race [E3 Harelbeke] which is pretty much identical to Flanders in such superb fashion and they can’t even follow him, you can’t not take the race on, you can’t not commit.”
Nevertheless, Rowe personally probably had far more compliments than criticisms this spring, given his eye-catching performances. He has been Sky’s hidden star of the Classics: from powering the bunch up to the Cipressa at Milan-Sanremo to labouring for his team-mates and still finishing inside the top ten at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Roubaix.
So, what changed this year? “I think it was confidence. Once we did Het Nieuwsblad, Stannard won it and I finished ninth. That was the very first one, the whole team was like: ‘We won!’ And on a personal level, it was like ‘I did quite a lot of work today for other guys, and I still got ninth’. Straight away, we were on the front foot and upbeat for the whole Classics.”
The Paris-Roubaix eighth place that closed the cobbled racing season was tantalising, the clearest sign of a potential star on the rise. It begged the question: what can Luke Rowe do when he’s given more freedom?
Rowe leads Sir Bradley Wiggins at this year's Paris-Nice. Is he set to follow the Briton to cycling greatness? pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Paris-Roubaix is his favourite race “by a million miles”, and the Welshman is well aware of its whims. As a teenager, he was stood on the roadside at the point where Leif Hoste got a flag caught in his back wheel during the 2004 race (if you view the footage, you can make out the Welsh flag that Rowe is standing by, sensibly raised high and aloft).
While Rowe's focus for the next six weeks is making Sky’s Tour de France team (“a massive ask”), next year’s Classics are already on his mind.
“I could go into some of the smaller ones before Roubaix and Flanders, why not try and win them? I don’t think I’m too far off,” Rowe says. “If I can go in there as a joint leader with someone like Stannard or G [Thomas] and really focus on one of them. Then, with the team, just go and win at Flanders and Roubaix.”
This is assuming that Rowe stays at Team Sky. His contract with the British-registered squad, where he turned professional in 2012, is due to run out at the end of the season.
“As of yet, nothing’s signed. I’ve had quite a lot of interest off other teams and other people. It’s still all up in the air at the moment, to be perfectly honest. Team Sky’s a great team, I love it. I’ve a lot of really good mates which makes a difference as well, that banter at the dinner table.
“I’m talking like I’m gonna stay there,” Rowe says. “I’d like to, but nothing’s decided yet. So it could be anywhere.”
Luke Rowe is an ambassador for the Wiggle Etape Cymru. Now with three great distances, the event is billed as the Dragon Ride of the North. www.humanrace.co.uk/cycling