I made a deal with my dad. If I didn’t win a stage at the 2013 Tour of Britain, I was going back to college and giving up cycling. It was my last shot. No pressure!
I was also lucky because before the race, [then-team manager] Kurt Bogaerts let slip that if I win, there was a contract for me at NetApp-Endura. I thought my chance was gone when Ciolek beat me on stage two. The win [three days later] is probably the most valuable of my career because it got my foot in the door. That’s the hardest thing for every rider – after that, it’s easier to develop, do your job and make the team happy. But there’s so many guys that want to be pro, what’s separating you from another one? You have to stand out. Nobody wants a sprinter that can’t win – so I had to win.
I knew nothing about Team NetApp. I knew it was German and it was gonna keep me in the game. When I was given the opportunity, excuse my language, I said ‘yes fucking please!’
I always felt that because Ireland isn’t a power nation in cycling with a system that brings riders through like Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, I had to find my own path. And knowing what was right was the hardest thing. It was trial and error. I always feel like I’m three years behind my potential because I had some years of injury and had to discover myself.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been resilient and I wouldn’t back down. I kept pushing where I think other guys would have given up, as I’ve seen some from Ireland do. I think it was character-building and I appreciate what I have now so much that I don’t take any opportunity for granted. So I’m happy for the way it turned out because it made me who I am today.
Team NetApp was good because there were other sprinters but I got to be the number one. Sometimes I think if you go into a bigger team and you’re made to work, it’s better to go down a level and then come back up. You have to learn how to win.
It’s been a pretty quick six years but a lot has happened. The bikes, the coaches, the whole team grew massively, it seemed to be overnight [going WorldTour in 2017]. It took time for it to settle and get into a rhythm. It was like changing teams but your friends are coming with you.
Peter Sagan joined – he’s three-time world champ yet if you’re in the same race as him, he’d still give you a chance to sprint and even lead you out. He doesn’t have to do that. He’s so relaxed that he almost got more of a thrill out of helping other guys succeed – because he’s done it so many times himself. It was weird, but pretty cool. He’s a good guy.
Straight away, the respect for the jersey changed. When you’re a Pro Conti, you got pushed about and they didn’t want you at the front. There’s a bubble where you’re accepted as a sprinter and you had to really fight through that. When I got wins, I was kind of accepted more and allowed to be there. Then we got to the WorldTour, we were accepted at the front and it was just easier to go where we wanted. And even more recently, I’m winning more, you’re given more room. I don’t know what way that psychology works.
It’s been a really good journey and I’ve learned a lot. I definitely don’t think I’d be where I am now without them. But [long pause]…I’m trying to talk now without getting myself into shit! I owe a lot to them for giving me the opportunities that I’ve gotten but now I’m looking for more.
Extract from the feature originally published in Rouleur 19.8, with the headline “One Team Men”