“Everyone likes to see the spectacle of young climbers going up the road. We hope to have one of the best ones in the future,” Patrick Lefevere said at the Quick Step-Floors team presentation last week as he introduced their new signings.
Six months ago, James Knox was wondering whether to jack in professional cycling altogether; at his new squad’s first training camp of 2018, he was being talked up by the CEO and sharing a room with Classics king Philippe Gilbert no less.
The proud Cumbrian seems to be taking it all in his stride, rather appropriately for a former fell running national champion. “I caught the cycling bug just watching it on TV, not even racing,” he recalls.
At the relatively late age of 16, Knox started applying himself to racing and soon won on the Tumble in the 2011 Junior Tour of Wales; the next year, he took two stages, beating Scott Davies and Sam Oomen, both of whom have gone on to WorldTour teams too. These were early inklings of Knox’s climbing prowess – ironic, given that he hails from the village of Levens, a mecca for British time-triallists looking to better their 10-mile personal records on its speedy L1015 course.
Off the bike, Knox was no slouch either. With three As at A-Level, he was offered a place at the University of Sheffield to study biochemistry, but turned it down to chase his bike racing dream.
His route to the world’s most prolific cycling team was far from straightforward. After failing to get into the GB Academy, he left for Italy and Flavio Zappi’s development team. Zappi, a former pro who moved to Oxford after his career, bases his squad on the Adriatic coast for much of the season to give them continental racing experiences.
The vivacious Italian eschews mod-cons like power meters and energy bars and teaches his riders to be self-sufficient, with a rota of tasks around the house. He also instituted random bag searches and regular blood tests – to make sure his charges’ nutrition was on point, rather than to explicitly spot doping. “James is too smart to even think about [getting involved in] anything like that,” Zappi says.
On the bike, British youngsters found themselves in bunches of 160, competing against the biggest teams in the most prestigious Italian amateur races – such as the 2014 Giro della Valle d’Aosta, which Knox remembers well: “I got my head kicked in. I crashed five times in the first two days: I was last on day one and then outside the time limit the second day. That was my first experience of racing in Italy. I wondered ‘what am I doing? This is a hilly race, what I’m supposed to be good at. This is a different level.’”
Yet within three months, he was fourteenth at the U23 version of Il Lombardia. During two seasons with the team, he improved his descending and positioning in the bunch. Knox sees being a late starter as an advantage. “Everything was fresh and new. When some guys had already been racing for five or six years and were getting sick of it, I was mad keen for everything,” he says. Ultimately, Zappi’s school of hard knocks helped make him a hard Knox.
“He was the absolute perfect rider to coach … he just embraced everything,” Zappi says. “He would never moan about anything, whether it was eating sardines, adding an extra bit of training or walking for hours somewhere. He was a role model for everybody. And he was not just talented, but a good team-mate too.”
Knox joined Team Wiggins in 2016 and continued to improve. Despite fourth at the Ronde de l’Isard, there was no contact from any professional team that season. Chasing that hallowed contract requires patience, timing and contacts alongside talent.
“You really are completely in the dark,” Knox says. “I guess the only thing giving hope is that there were a couple of races [in 2016] where the guys surrounding me at the finish all went pro. I thought if they are doing it, if I keep going next year…”
Knox saved his best for last season. In 2017, he was rarely out of the top ten in stage races: fifth at the Ronde de l’Isard, eighth at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta and the Tour of Croatia, within 90 seconds of winner Vincenzo Nibali. At the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he was pipped on the line.
Yet still, radio silence from the sport’s top teams. Zappi, who has stayed in touch with Knox since he left the team, suggests that the youngster was “considering giving up [and] getting a proper job” last summer.
Then, it clicked. “Matxin” Fernandez, a veteran directeur sportif working as Quick Step’s scout, noticed his performances and asked him to do some testing with the team before the Tour de l’Avenir. The prospect of an offer was even more motivation for a strong result: Knox was second on the queen stage to Colombian prodigy Egan Bernal at Les Saisies and eighth overall. Quick Step soon came knocking with a two-year contract.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind, a dream come true, I couldn’t really believe it. As soon as I got the offer, that was it,” Knox says. He also had a phone call from Team Sky, but says that was as far as it went.
What are the 22-year-old’s long-term aims? “I guess the guys whose path I most want to follow are the Yates brothers and Dan Martin, who maybe don’t have the abilities of a perfect all-rounder or stage racer, but who are aggressive all year round, always after the win and consistently up there in hilly races.
“I guess the fact they’re not riding for Team Sky and I’m here at Quick Step fits that same mould. It’s hard to say, we’ll see how it goes.”
Former coach Zappi is more bullish: “James has the perfect combination of talent, personality and brains. I forecasted four years ago that he’d make it to the WorldTour, and I’m telling you: he’s going to win some stages of the Tour de France or one of the big Classics in the next two or three years, guaranteed.”