Luke Plapp is your quintessential Aussie bloke.
Tall, bronzed, blonde and gregarious, his chief loves are cricket and footy. Growing up, if it weren’t for the prospect of a free muffin and hot chocolate before school, Australia’s two-time and freshly minted road champion may never have turned to cycling.
I know of but don’t know a lot about the second year Ineos Grenadiers rider when we sit down on a rectangular ottoman near a conference room turned teams’ dining hall during the Tour Down Under.
It's just before dinner but Plapp, or “Plappy”, as he is affectionately known among peers, or Luke, or Lucas, I’m not sure which it is, the internet says both, he’s not in a rush to eat.
Between us are two phones recording our conversation – mine and that of Ineos Grenadiers press officer Jean Smyth, who is standing across from us at a respectful distance, leaning up against a wall, but still within earshot. Whilst this is more so than not common practice now, it’s not necessary.
Plapp as he journeys along the well-trodden path from Australia’s blue riband track program to the WorldTour, is trying his hand at a bit of everything and seeing where he fits in road racing. But when it comes to the business of the sport, the media game, he is rehearsed and his intellect, and commercial savvy is obvious. Plapp is natural and confident in mixed zones and one-on-one acutely aware of his audience, which he caters to in answers. Outside of the sport, he’s also invested in property, specifically six acres of land in Bright – a popular town in Victoria’s High Country.
Plapp has had a busy couple of months since turning 22 on Christmas Day and the start of the WorldTour season in Adelaide.
You could say that Christmas for Plapp is actually the next day. He religiously attends the Boxing Day Test at the MCG in Melbourne, where Plapp grew up in the inner-west suburb of Maribyrnong, with his best mate.
Plapp went last year despite spending Christmas in Tasmania with his girlfriend, the pro cyclist Georgia Baker.
Cycling was not Plapp's first sporting love (Zac Williams/SWPix)
“I haven’t missed a Boxing Day Test in probably like, woah, over 10 years,” Plapp says. “We go there every year and that’s my thing; always go to Boxing Day at the ‘G.
“I was at Georgia’s this year for Chrissy, for all of December basically. But then Georgia’s like, ‘Oh, when are you going to fly home?’ I was like, ‘Well either Christmas night or Boxing morning. Either way 10am, I’m at the ‘G.’”
Cricket and AFL footy (Plapp supports Carlton) are second to none in Melbourne especially, and Plapp has such fervour for both codes that I ask why he is a cyclist and not on a green oval somewhere.
“I only came to cycling a bit later just because I wasn’t good enough for cricket or footy to be honest with you,” Plapp says. “I really live and breathe cricket and footy.”
When it comes to cycling, the emerging talent is no slouch.
After the festivities Plapp in January defended his title at the Australian National Road Championships with a fine solo victory and placed fourth in the time trial titles, following a mechanical, before starting Down Under.
He doesn’t hail from an elite sports background but his father rides recreationally. Growing up Plapp would wake at 5am to join him.
“Dad did it with his mates, just riding around, and I thought I can get a hot chocolate and a muffin before school if I show up to the café when he finishes his ride,” Plapp recalls.
“So, I used to meet him at the café 20 minutes down the road and then I started tagging along with him when I got older and joining his friends. It evolved from there.”
From muffins to medals
There were two other men that influenced Plapp’s foray into cycling. First was the former Australian track endurance coach Tim Decker, who allowed Plapp to realise his primary ambition.
“I wasn’t good enough for cricket or footy, but the Olympics was always my dream, and I didn’t know what sport that was,” Plapp recalls.
“I wanted to represent my country and it’s similar to why I’m so proud to be national champion. I have a lot of Aussie pride and to wear those colours or to represent your country is really special, and that’s sort of the goal. When people ask you what races or goals you want to do it all centres around Worlds, or Olympics or Commies [Commonwealth Games].”
Plapp was overlooked by state-based academies and credits Decker for opening the door to the national squad and a career in the velodrome, and now the road.
“He saw something in me when no one else did,” Plapp says.
“He plucked me from the local racing and took me under his wing and got me over in Adelaide training with him and his group. [It] eventually evolved [into] a scholarship with the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and from there everything happened super quickly. He put me on scholarship in 2018 and in March 2020 I got an Olympic spot.”
Plapp was part of Australia’s team pursuit squad, which won bronze at the Tokyo Games and at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Representing Australia was one his main ambitions (Zac Williams/SWPix)
The track has given him an instant family that has made his transition to the road and WorldTour not necessarily easier but certainly less daunting.
Plapp, who turned pro with Ineos Grenadiers following a stint as a stagiaire with the evolving British powerhouse in 2021, didn’t compete on the road a lot as a junior against peers including generational talent like current world champion Remco Evenepoel.
“The first road race I ever did in Europe was the junior worlds road race and Remco beat us by about two-and-a-half minutes,” Plapp recalls. “And the next race I did was my stagiaire and he lapped us that race too.
“So, in my first two races in Europe I just got smashed by Remco.”
Richie Porte was the other man who Plapp credits his notably swift trajectory to. The pair competed together for the national team at the Tour Down Under when it ran as a domestic event for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. There, the recently retired Porte, in the twilight of his career supported someone at the beginning of theirs.
“He was really pivotal in getting me to the team,” Plapp recalls. “He gave me a real run down of every team and what this team could do for me. And … he allowed me to get the results that got the WorldTour teams’ notice here at the local Tour Down Under.”
Plapp joined the same trade team as Porte, keen to compete alongside his compatriot and be at a stable that understood and could further aid his trajectory, with racing road and track at the Paris Olympics next year an enticing prospect.
“It has been nice knowing there are guys like you going through the same thing,” Plapp says. “Ethan [Hayter] is a couple of years ahead of it but you can see where he has come from and now, he’s one of the best in the world and that’s really encouraging to see you can make that transition,” Plapp says.
“You can go back even further and look at G [Geraint Thomas] or Cav [Mark Cavendish] and those type of guys. It was a big reason why I chose the team.
“They know exactly the type of rider I was and try to aspire to be and know how to turn you into that. They’ve got the history of it.”
In a time where young riders are winning big races at an age predecessors had proverbial training wheels on, subject to the barking orders of now virtually extinct peloton patrons, Plapp’s slow and steady approach to the road is notable.
Last season was all about firsts, from the adjustment of moving from Australia to Spain to pursue a road career, to lining up for his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España.
“The weather was actually the hardest part to adapt to. I was just like wow, this is cold,” he says, recalling one of his first training rides in Europe at the beginning of last season.
“I settled into Girona I was like it’s not too bad and then it started raining and I was like I’ll go check out Andorra because I was set up there. It was minus 12 during the day for like the whole week I was there. You open your program and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got four hours to do today.’
“I messaged my coach, and I was like…”
I interject: “It’s minus 12.”
“Genuinely,” Plapp exclaims, “I was like does that mean we should ride, are we meant to ride? It’s minus 12!
“He was like, ‘Yeah, everyone else is riding, just leave at midday when the sun is out, and the ice has melted.’
“I said, ‘It’s still minus 12.’”
Plapp that day went home mid-ride to have a bath, warm-up, and go out again, but that wasn’t an option at the Vuelta where he and a score of other track endurance riders embarking on road careers changed physically and mentally through suffering.
“We can all see each other slowly adapting to the road, coming from such a high, explosive, not much of a training base or age, to now trying to step up and suffer through the Vuelta together,” he says.
“I think the first week there were about 15 Aussies in the grupetto, just all ex-track riders trying to work out how this Grand Tour stuff works.
“The Vuelta was ridiculous. The most brutal thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was so tired.
“I can’t put into words what my body went through. I’ve got a new appreciation of hurt.”
The three weeks of racing also aided Plapp’s fundamental development.
“I learnt more skills which I think people underestimate. Coming from Oz it’s so much different over here just riding in a peloton, we don’t have a peloton of 180 riders,” he says.
Plapp has ruled out competing in support of Thomas at the Giro d’Italia this season, it didn’t fit with his program, but he is open to lining up for another Grand Tour. One-day races appeal, but the cold weather that usually comes with them not so much.
“I just really want to find out what type of rider I am. Of course, I’d love to win but I don’t know what that looks like yet, where that looks like or how that will come about,” he says.
Plapp said the Vuelta was the "most brutal" thing he'd had to do (Getty Images)
In the short-term the former national time trial champion is targeting the upcoming UAE Tour in which he got a taste of being at the pointy end last season.
“UAE was a lot different to what I expected. I was caffeined up, super ready to go racing, and then realised we just roll around for four hours and have a sprint,” he recalls.
Plapp may get chances to ride for the win at Ineos Grenadiers too, with a new generation of riders also ushering in a different outlook than the ‘all for one’ motto senior teammates have in the past famously committed to.
“I think we learn a lot from them the way they do it, but I also think they love the culture and environment us young pups are bringing,” Plapp says. “They love it and laugh a lot more and it’s a different vibe in the team, which is enjoyable for everyone.
“We’re now going to every race trying to win and there’s something in that. I think everyone is a bit more motivated or trying to share the common goal and fight every day rather than maybe in the past you’re looking at the bigger picture and not the stages.”
As we wind up after 20 minutes or so Smyth walks over, but I remember one more thing to ask: “Is it Luke or Lucas?”
“Both. It’s officially Lucas but normally Luke,” says Plapp.
Smyth chimes in: “It’s Lucas when his mum calls.”
Cover image by Getty Images