A few weeks ago saw the last of the Spring Classics with ‘La Doyenne’ – Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest and arguably toughest of them all with barely a metre of flat road in it’s 258 kilometres.
Before that, the U23 version of the race took place over 166 kilometres but taking in many of its famous big brother’s climbs, such as La Redoute.
Second on the day was 21 year-old Briton, James Knox (Wiggins) – pipped on the line in the velodrome finish by Lotto-Soudal U23 team Belgian rider, Bjorg Lambrecht.
Just after his wonderful ride when James spoke to us, his name popped up again on Stage Two of the Tour of Croatia; top 10 right among the big hitters in a mountain top finish – just 26 seconds behind home stage winner Kristijan Durasek (UAE), and finished the race in 8th place on GC, and since we interviewed him he rode the prestigious UCI 2.2U Ronde de l’Isard where he had stage placings of fourth, fifth and second and placed fifth overall.
Our colleague from the Six Days, soigneur Martyn Frank put us in touch with James and here’s what he had to say to VeloVeritas.
Basics first please, James – your age, where from, how did you get into the bike?
“I’m 21, from Levens near Kendal in Cumbria… a proud Cumbrian as well, ha!
“Used to be decent runner, mainly fell running and cross country, whilst my brother was a cyclist.
“My dad enjoyed cycling so I’d always done a bit of it, we’d take the bikes on holiday and I even won a couple of times in my age group at the national hill climb champs.
“My brother got seriously into it and eventually I decided one day that if I didn’t start now it would be too late…I think I was 16 at the time.
“My brother doesn’t ride anymore but those early training rides I’d do with him are still toughest training rides I ever did, there’s nothing quite like an older brother making his little bro suffer for a few hours is there?”
Nice job at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, congratulations, talk us through your ride, please – any ‘what ifs’?
“It was a bit of a turbulent ride to be honest; I crashed quite hard 30km into the race and banged my head pretty bad. I had to change onto my spare bike and chase for about half an hour to get back into the bunch, I thought my race was over for quite a while, couldn’t see the peloton for what felt like forever.
“After I got back into the bunch I was basically resigned to the fact I’d ruined my race, I’d been chasing a lot and wasted a lot of energy, so presumed I was really going to pay for it at the end, so from there I just ate the food I had and sat in…
“I got over La Redoute and my team mate Mike Thompson was there to take my wet weather kit and did a massive turn dropping me off first wheel at the base of la Roche Aux Faucons after I’d been sat at the back most of the day after the crash.
“I managed to put in a little dig over the top of la Roche Aux Faucons and took three lads with me, it was the right combination and there wasn’t really an opportunity for a proper chase from behind. We worked well together getting over the Côte San Nicholas and Côte Ans then onto the velodrome – it all got a bit messy for the finish there.
“I was sat second wheel through the bell and then the chasing bunch swamped onto the lap ahead of us, I instinctively went for it and caught the group and rode past them on the concrete on the inside.
“The other lads stuck behind me nowhere to go, I sprinted past the group, but the winner Bjorg came up on my inside and rolled me on the line; it’s been haunting me ever since, so close to taking the win…”
Does the LBL parcours include those hills we’re all so familiar with from the Elite race?
“We start in Bastogne and do a loop, but from there I think we follow roughly the same route back to Liege, most of the iconic climbs are in there, the pros did an extra cobbles climb last year before the Cote de Ans which we don’t, and we turn right at the top then an extra 5k to the velodrome and they finish there as far as I’m aware.
“That’s pretty much a rough guess; I don’t know the pro race inside out.”
Your form has been building, hasn’t it – you rode well in the Circuit des Ardennes…
“Yeah it’s been coming steadily, Circuit Ardennes was a great test before Liege and set me up nicely, I didn’t quite have the legs there to go with the final moves but it seems to have paid off for Liege which was my big target for the early season.”
How was Coppi e Bartali against those gung ho Italian Pro Conti teams.
“I loved Coppi Bartali, the first couple of days are on the roads I trained on everyday for a couple of seasons with the Zappi’s team, so it was very special to be back there.
“It’s obviously a tough race, I punctured out of the front group on day two and had a hard time days three and four.
“It’s a high level of racing with Team Sky and a couple more World Tour teams there so was never really expecting a result.”
You had nice rides last year in the Ronde de l’Isard and Course de la Paix.
“Cheers, yeah, I had a nice little purple patch for those races last year.
“It was nice to step up another level after my two years with Zappi and give me the confidence being amongst riders moving to World Tour teams for the following year.
“I came particularly close in Ronde de l’isard to some top results but I fluffed it, basically.”
What’s your favourite kind of race?
“Think the hilly classics have something special, just a hard one day where everyone lays it on the line for the win.
“I’ve done the U23 versions of Giro Di Lombardia and of course Liege and they are epic days racing.
“Obviously the mountains are great, but can be a bit grim at times though if we’re being honest.
“At the end of the day the best races are the ones you’re going well at, in the thick of the action.”
How was your time with Zappi?
“Most of my result at Liege is thanks to Flavio (Flavio Zappi runs his eponymous team out of his bike shop and cycling cafe in Oxford, ed.), and as luck would have it he was there with his boys, I went over after the race and he didn’t know how’d I’d done – so it was a special moment seeing his face when I told him.
“When I joined his team I was just a kid who did bike races and I left the team a cyclist.
“It was tough at times (well, most of the time) but I learned a lot and was given the opportunity to ride top European races that I literally would have found nowhere else, stepping out of the junior ranks at the level I was.”
How did you get the Wiggins ride?
“I was approached on the back of results I had with Zappi’s; like I said we did some decent races and I scraped a few results in some of the ones that suited me.”
All the Media stuff about Brad recently can’t have helped your concentration?
“Obviously it’s been mentioned amongst the team but I can honestly say it has not affected our (me and my teammates) concentration.
“We’re a group of young lads trying to make it in the sport, whilst enjoying it along the way, I think we’re far more caught up in that to worry about it and all the team management are supporting us to follow that dream.”
You must be disappointed there’s no Tour of Yorkshire for the team?
“Obviously it’s a big blow for the team and I wish we were doing it.
“The team give riders like myself an opportunity to ride big races to progress to big teams, last year we had four guys move onto World Tour or pro conti teams and it seems a shame that we might miss opportunities to do the same.”
Who coaches you – what’s the ethos?
“I don’t have a coach in the general sense of the word. I got a lot of help from David Millar in Girona during the winter; he set me a general structure and gave me good advice on what I needed to do.
“I enjoy being flexible and not stressing about numbers.
“It’s probably something I could work on as I move forward in the sport, but for now I’m happy doing my own thing and not being scared to hurt myself every now and then.”
What are the goals for 2017?
“I don’t have one main goal. There are a number of races I can do well in so my focus is to turn up to these in good shape to get amongst it.
“Liege being one of many races like that, but definitely the U23 internationals and nations cup are the main opportunities for this.”
And long term?
“Most importantly to enjoy it, but then realistically to be a world tour rider, anything after that is a bonus.”
With thanks to Martyn for organising our interview and to James, wishing him every success for the rest of season 2017.