Lewis Askey: The Paris-Roubaix debutant unafraid of the fight

Junior Paris-Roubaix winner on Groupama-FDJ speaks to Rouleur on the eve of his first senior appearance at the Hell of the North

Lewis Askey has enjoyed a whirlwind debut spring in the WorldTour. Just 20 years old, the British rider has raced for his Groupama-FDJ team at 12 one-day races up to Paris-Roubaix, including the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche and Gent-Wevelgem. 

Askey has delivered on the promise showed when he won Junior Paris-Roubaix in 2018, working as a key domestique for Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas and finishing a narrow second himself at Classic Loire Atlantique in March. 

On the eve of his debut at the elite Paris-Roubaix, Askey explained to Rouleur why he loves the fight of the Classics, why he isn’t afraid of rubbing shoulders with the big names, why young riders are having a great spring, and why Wout van Aert doesn’t need to worry about stopping for a wee. 

Rouleur: Lewis, it’s the eve of your first Paris-Roubaix, what’s your overarching emotion?

Lewis Askey: I think I’m actually not really nervous at all, more excited for the race. I know that at the end of the day I’m still racing the same guys I’ve been racing all year, and I’ve done Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche, E3, Gent-Wevelgem. 

I think also I will be more nervous in five or six years’ time when I’ll hopefully be here as a favourite. But here’s it going to be cool because we have a team that can actually win the race that I can be a part of. It’s about the enjoyment of doing my job. 

It’s not like I’m here to win the race. Though with Roubaix you never know so I definitely won’t say no to that either. 

R: What is your role going to be? 

LA: It’s going to be making sure Stefan [Küng] and [Valentin] Madouas are in the right place at the right time. Not having any problems, not having to fight, not having to put their heads in the wind into any sectors and making sure they get to the important part of the race fresh, not stressed, and ready to race. We managed to do pretty well at Flanders. Image: Groupama FDJ

R: What are the expectations of a Roubaix debutant?

LA: In my opinion, being a debutant doesn’t make that much of a difference. I know a lot of people say you have to do a race thousands of times to get the best chance but for me Roubaix, and all the races now, you can always win. 

You saw with Biniam Girmay, he won Gent-Wevelgem at his first attempt. Even if it’s the first time certain riders will have raced Roubaix, they have still done recces, they will still have the sports director giving them all the information in the morning, people have planned it out, they have information in their ears during the race. For me, being a debutant isn’t as big a thing as people say. 

I’m a good rider to be here but I’m not the next Wout van Aert, right now. I’m not gonna come and blow people away with pure power. I hope and expect to be someone that’s winning Classics and big races in four or five years’ time, but it’s not like I’m going to come into the pro ranks and win everything.

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R: What would be a good Roubaix for you? 

A good race for me would be making sure I do my job for the team. Stay in position; I’m normally pretty good with that sort of stuff. The thing with Paris-Roubaix is that you never know. You come into a cobbled sector, there’s a big crash behind you and nobody can get past, and suddenly you’re in the race for the win. You never say never. What would be a good Roubaix? Not crashing. That’s never great on cobbles. 

R: You’ve had a strong debut season and it’s been a year for the young riders in the Classics with Girmay, and also Magnus Sheffield and Ben Turner having a great time at Ineos. Why do you think young riders are succeeding in these races this year? 

LA: I think there are a couple of things. If you’ve done your own homework and you’ve got a good DS, there shouldn’t be any surprises in a race. Everyone has the same information so even if you know the course inside out, you haven’t got masses of advantage. 

I wasn’t there, but people have said that before you had to earn your place in the peloton. Respect is the wrong word, but you couldn’t just turn up and win a race. If you wanted to go in the breakaway, for example, it was decided who would be let in. You had to be a big name to be allowed to do what you’ve gotta do with positioning. Young riders wouldn’t have had the chances before. Now if you’re on the start line of a bike race, you deserve to be there.

People fight more with famous names. A few times I’ve had to be shoulder to shoulder with someone like Peter Sagan or Julian Alaphilippe, fighting for position into a corner because I’ve got my teammate on my wheel. It’s something I’ve got to do. People still get a bit annoyed about it, but that’s just racing now, everyone deserves a place.  

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

R: Do you think there’s a particular mentality required for the Classics?

LA: If you really want to be on it [in the Classics] it takes a lot of mental energy which maybe the general public don’t appreciate. When you’re going down a descent at 90kph, you’ve got teams sprinting and people flying form one side of the road to the other, leaning on each other, screaming. It’s quite a mentally challenging thing.

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R: Do you have it? 

LA: I can go pretty deep and get pretty invested into a race. But then I need that time out, because the next day I’m trashed. In the Classics there’s no thinking of the day after. It’s not like you want to be destroyed when you finish, but you know that when you do finish, there’s no doing anything tomorrow. 

R: Can you learn that mindset?

LA: Like everything, there’s nature and nurture. You can train anything but there are people that are born with that fight. Enjoy isn’t the right word, but I don’t mind the sketchy fight of the race. Some people hate it, they can’t wait until it’s thinned down and they don’t have to fight before it scares them to death. But you can learn to be more focussed, to train yourself to be there.

I’ve always said that I tend to go well in races where I’ve crashed. For me there’s a switch; when that adrenalin starts going and I get into that fight mode, something changes in my body and it really does change how I function. If I crash or get into bother with someone - get annoyed with someone - that’s when I’m going the best. That’s something I’m born with, it’s not something I’ve learnt. 

R: Who else in the peloton has it? 

LA: Peter Sagan is definitely one. He will throw himself around to be where he wants to be. The sprinters have it. The guys that have to really fight. Or the guys without a super strong team around them, who have really got to fight to be in the right place. 

Van der Poel maybe has it but he and Wout [van Aert] have such good teams around them, and such good legs, that they don’t really need to stress or fight as much.

I remember one of the races at the start of the year, we’d just gone up a hill, it wasn’t quite full gas but we were going pretty hard. We got to the top and Wout just starts taking a wee on the plateau. Everyone else is strung out in a line, shaking their head, thinking, ‘how does he think this is OK?’ He’s on another level. I was breathing out my arse and thinking if I had a wee there I’d get dropped.

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

R: Do you prepare differently for Paris-Roubaix compared to other one-day races? 

LA: This race I’ve been making sure my health is back to 100%. One thing I’ve realised this year is that a six-and-a-half-hour bike race at nearly 300 watts average is a different ball game to a junior race of three and a half hours. It’s just not the same demand on your body as six and a half hours at that kind of pace and mental strain. I didn’t realise the difference, how much more that would take from me.

Related: Florian Vermeersch on what it takes to podium at Paris-Roubaix

R: Are you a guy who gets into tech element of this race? 

LA: I’m a bit of both. I believe that everyone here is riding with great kit. Equipment is not the difference between coming 50th and winning the race, but the kit might matter if you’re coming into the finish and the win comes down to a tyre width.

There’s a lot to be said about tried and tested stuff at a race like Roubaix. There is stuff that works and people know works, and there is stuff that doesn’t work and people know doesn’t work. It’s nice to be choose solid equipment off the shelf.

Wider tyres, lower pressures, I would never have done that before. I would always have whacked in 110psi and thought I’ll be alright. When I did the Junior Paris-Roubaix I was on clinchers and aluminium rims. It’s still just racing a bike but now I am more interested in aero stuff, tyres, rolling resistance, because I think you have to be. Cycling isn’t going to get any less technical. I like to know what I’m riding. If I know in my head that what I have is the fastest setup, then it gives me a bit of a mental boost on the bike as well.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix