On the eve of the Tour Down Under, all eyes are on Luke Plapp. As he sits, surrounded by caravans in Jayco’s Adelaide dealership, proudly wearing his green and gold national champion stripes, you’d struggle to find a more quintessentially Australian man in a more quintessentially Australian setting. I’m half expecting a kangaroo to hop past the window outside or for Plapp to pop on a cork hat. The 23-year-old is smiling, relaxed and chatty: “I feel like I’ve come home,” he says with a grin.
Surrounded by the baking sun that scorches the Adelaide hills, Plapp is in his home country in a literal sense, but he’s referencing the fact he feels like he’s where he belongs with his new team for 2024, Jayco-Alula. The Australian rider’s transfer came unexpectedly a few months ago – he broke his contract with the Ineos Grenadiers early in order to make the switch after a lacklustre season with the British team.
“Moving teams was what’s best for me,” Plapp explains. “We’re leading into an Olympic year, and that’s honestly the reason why I ride my bike, because I want to be an Olympian. That was the main reason Jayco was the best place for me – you can get stuck in a mould at Ineos and be pigeonholed into a certain rider. I really feel like Jayco was interested in getting the most out of me.
“The last couple of years [with Ineos], I've been thrown into a few too many races or ones that don't suit me. I think that you go home a little bit less motivated from that, or you're not sure what you're actually training for.
Having a clear plan was key for Plapp when he sat down with Jayco-Alula team bosses at the start of this winter. If he’s not going to a race to try and win for himself, Plapp wants a clear role in helping a team-mate – be that Caleb Ewan as he aims for victory at Milan-Sanremo or Simon Yates as he rides for the general classification at Grand Tours. As he speaks, Plapp’s drive to help his new team this year is palpable – he’s riding for people he sees as his friends, not just colleagues.
“I love the guys, I’ve got so much trust in my team-mates. The Tour Down Under is only the first proper race we're doing together as a team and it feels like we're all best mates,” Plapp says. “We sit down at the dinner table or on the bus and it's just great fun.”
The rapport that Plapp and his team-mates have transfers on the bike, too – the Australian National Road Championships saw Jayco-Alula take a clean sweep of the podium after Plapp and Chris Harper rode away from the peloton to win the race by almost six minutes. Naturally, their teammate Kelland O’Brien picked up the sprint behind for third place. The team couldn’t have asked for a more promising start to kick off their 2024 campaign.
“We had a lot of belief before the Nationals. I was really, really confident that I was the strongest on the start line. I worked a lot towards the TT because it was an Olympic selection event and I knew how well that training was going to translate into the road,” Plapp says. “The last few years I’ve been racing at Nationals against Jayco, but this year I could go out there and ride, I wasn't playing mind games with Jayco and wondering what they were going to do. It really freed me up and allowed me to go and race.”
The success at Nationals came at the end of a big training block spent in Plapp’s hometown of Bright, Victoria. While many WorldTour professionals were chasing power numbers on the climbs of Calpe or Girona, Plapp was living in a Jayco caravan on a piece of farmland he’s recently bought, soaking up every minute of being in what he describes as “the greatest place on earth.”
“It's no secret how much of a proud Aussie I am. I just don't think there's any place like Australia so I try to make the most out of it when I’m home.” Plapp explains. “I bought the farm two years ago now and it's just a bit of land with some rivers in it. I love my time up there when I'm in the off-season. I like camping and I just do my own thing there. In my opinion, it's the best training in the world. I sent Gerry [Ryan, Jayco-Alula’s team owner and chairman] a message and said: Is it possible if we could get a caravan so I could be able to live here and train here over the summer? And he made that possible. I loved it.
“I ride, I get back, I mow the lawns, I'm stuck away from the world and get to do my own thing and really concentrate on what I want. On recovery days, I can go hiking up the mountains or go for a swim or go fishing. I don't think about the bike and once I finish training, I’m so switched off. I can go gardening and I’ve got some sheep on the property.”
Plapp adds that he also raced his local stage race, Tour of the Bright, in December which he won convincingly. He might be about to start Australia’s only WorldTour event, but Plapp confidently asserts that the unranked Tour of the Bright is still “Australia’s greatest stage race,” crediting it as a key part of his off season preparations. Living in a caravan on his farm might be an unorthodox type of training camp, but Plapp’s form at Nationals is proof enough that his homecoming is working wonders for the Australian rider’s form.
It’s not just motorhomes that Plapp’s new team are providing him, either. He speaks of the work going into the team’s time trial set-up – a discipline that the 23-year-old has flourished in over the years. Simon Yates’ performances against the clock this year have shown that Jayco-Alula’s focus on optimising their time trial set-up has been fruitful so far. With the 2024 Olympics just a few months away, Plapp explains that searching for every gain is crucial.
“There is a massive focus on time trials. It’s such a passion for me, I'm really interested in reading up on it and going into the windtunnel looking for gains. Giant and Marco Pinotti, our Technical Specialist, are really enjoying that I’m pushing the team on this side of things,” Plapp says. “We can also learn a lot from the track team and what they’re doing with skinsuits and equipment.”
Being part of the Australian team pursuit team on the track has previously been a key part of Plapp’s season, but he admits that he’ll be placing full focus on the road events this year at the Paris Olympics. For a rider so motivated to win medals for his country, the team pursuit is one of the most controllable events in the entire sport, so focusing on the road where many factors can go wrong is undeniably a risk for Plapp.
“I want to focus on one thing and do as well as I can,” he says. “It was great having the Tokyo Olympic experience, that taught me a lot. Training for Paris makes me excited to get up in the morning. I aspire to be an Olympic champion, that's why I really ride a bike and want to be an athlete, whether it happens in Paris this year, LA or Brisbane. It’s a long way off, but Brisbane is where I want to finish my career. I plan my life around riding an Olympic cycle.”
Part of the attraction of races like the Olympics to Plapp is the opportunity to represent his beloved Australia on a global stage. He explains that national pride is strong within the Australian national team, something he believes is visible on the bike as well as off it.
“When we go to a World Championships or Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games, we can ride so much deeper for each other and for our mates when we're in the green and gold,” Plapp explains. “It's something that I’ve really noticed, how dedicated we are and committed we are to help our team-mates win. I think other countries are a little bit more selfish when it comes to Championship events, but with us there's no alter egos.”
Plapp is certainly thinking long term when he mentions the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, but it appears that Jayco-Alula have plans on sticking on that journey with the Australian champion, so far offering him a contract until 2027. Having such support and belief from those around him is something that Plapp sees as imperative to achieving the lofty goals he has in the sport.
“The long contract allows me to really have some targets, rather than chasing results just to get a contract or show value. I really feel like we know as a team what we're capable of doing but you don't have the pressure of needing to perform here and then perform there,” Plapp says. “I'm just here to win and not worry about other things, it’s all about performance.”
As he sits on a foldout camping chair flashing a wide smile, the energy and confidence that Plapp has when speaking about the years ahead is an indication of his happiness with Jayco-Alula. It’s a good thing too, because he’s going to need a solid support system around him to handle the pressures of what’s to come. First on the agenda is Tour Down Under, which Plapp enters as Australian champion and as a favourite to win. If one thing is clear from our conversation, though, nothing motivates the 23-year-old more than doing his country proud.
“I find it really easy to perform well in Australia, the physical side of things isn't hard. Now being in Jayco you have that added pressure of your home sponsors and it being your home race, we don't want to disappoint,” Plapp says. “But I'm in really good shape. We are here to win and anything else will probably be a disappointment.”
As the temperatures soar in Australia and the peloton prepares to roll deep into the Adelaide hills, where koalas hang in the trees and kangaroos roam freely, this is Luke Plapp territory. For him, there really is no place like home.
“I love these roads. I love Adelaide, it looks like it's going to be really hot this week, which is awesome. Everyday I look at it and it's getting hotter. I'm like, perfect, the hotter the better,” Plapp smiles. “I'm super confident with how we're going. Caleb's flying, he's moving well, which is super exciting. We're here to win every single stage and GC.”