Rider Interview: We spoke to James Knox two years ago when he was a young neo-pro in his first month with the all powerful Quick-Step team. Since then James has flourished into a Grand Tour GC man with a near ‘Top Ten’ place in the 2019 Vuelta a España. We caught up at the Deceuninck – Quick-Step Spanish training camp.
James Knox building a fine palmarès
In January 2018, James Knox was 22 years-old and about to step up to the WorldTour with, probably, the most successful team in the peloton. I remember a nervous young guy, who was excited to be sharing a room with Classic winning ex-World champion, Philippe Gilbert and I think I was the only journalist there to interview him. Two years on and there was a line waiting for a word and James was a confident rider with a growing palmarès behind him. Here what he had to say:
PEZ: What was the high points of your year?
James Knox: Stage 17 in the Vuelta a España, the crosswind day. I think that was the high point of my career. The sheer exertion of a day like that, combined with how it all panned out. Almost the entire team being on the front and just driving the race from the start all the way to the finish. I think everyone was so exhausted. The entire field was so exhausted but it’s a sort of special relation when you finish the race like that with success and yeah, you can celebrate.
PEZ: What about the low points, the Giro or the Vuelta?
No. the Giro was okay. Okay, maybe it didn’t go to plan, but that’s cycling. It’s something I came to terms with, I guess probably sat in hospital the night of stage 19 was a bit miserable, mainly because I wasn’t expecting to be in such a good position, but then you when you’re there, you’re like, holy shit this is getting like close to the end now this is going to be pretty special if it finishes off and then you know, I crashed and you have to deal with that.
PEZ: The whole thing with Philippe Gilbert helping you, that must have been something else?
2018 training camp
PEZ: The first time I interviewed you, two years ago, you were sharing a room with Philippe Gilbert. You were excited and saying: “I’m sharing a room with Gilbert!” And then last year there he is riding for you. That is something special.
Yeah, I know. It’s really crazy now looking back at it, but at the time… It was it was a miserable day. Unfortunately it wasn’t really something I could appreciate the time because I was in just a real survival mode, just wanting to get to the end and I guess I took for granted the effort of Phil and Stevie and everyone else in the team at the time. But then crossing the line, all emotions were quite overwhelming. And seeing everything that they had done to get me to the line was special.
A special day
PEZ: What is the plan for 2020, Giro, Tour Vuelta?
Yeah, the plan is to do a pretty similar build up and go for the Giro, and then hopefully everything goes to plan there. And then go again for la Vuelta. So, two Grand Tours and we’ll see how it goes. Obviously things can change, and I understand that already from the previous year. So that’s the plan, honestly, it’s a pretty good calendar for me, I get a lot of opportunities and seem to be on a really similar wavelength to the management of the team as to what is good for me.
Stage 2 of the 2019 Vuelta a España
PEZ: You have a contract till the end of 2021, that must make you feel confident?
Yeah, to get the extra two years on the contract is really satisfying. When I think about how nervous I was, I was probably thinking about; “I got this pro contract, but you know, I’m going to have to prove it in those two years and that I deserve to be here.” Now I feel I’ve proven it a bit and hopefully can maintain that.
PEZ: They say getting that second contract can be harder than getting the first one.
Yeah, maybe. It’s hard to say, as there are guys out there who enter the pro ranks and never deliver. That’s it. You get that one shot and they don’t take it.
On the attack
PEZ: I was looking at your stats, and you’ve improved every year. So next year, how are you going to do that? As you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve.
You’re right. You know, I’m not a big star and I’ve not ever been really used to success in the sport. But when I started road racing as a 16 year old, I guess the thing that really gives me the most like pride and motivation is that, step by step there have been improvements that I’ve been able to see and it’s happened in such a clear way. I remember when I moved into the under23’s, in the first year, I was finishing top 20 in races, then it was getting top 10’s and then it was getting top five, and then it was getting on the podiums. Then I turned professional and it was to survive in the first half season, making baby steps towards results in the second half. Second year coming out and getting some nice results, more consistency throughout the season. So yeah, I mean, it’s going be incredibly difficult to keep that going for next year. I know I’m not going to be disappointed if it doesn’t pan out. I guess that my main hope is to try and keep improving. So winning a race or getting some top fives on GC in a WorldTour. I’m not overly stressed what it is. If it doesn’t go the plan is with the plan. But I keep sort of pushing towards that.
James in 2016
PEZ: In 2016 you were 1,433rd in the PCS rankings, and at the end of 2019 you were 131st, not a bad jump. You had good result, not just the Giro and Vuelta.
It was it was a good year, it was consistent and the more I think about it, the start of this season and in the heat in Australia I wasn’t really ready to go well, but it put me into good shape. I came back and train hard and yeah, at UAE I was really surprised at my level there and that was the first big: “Holly shit! I’m with the big guys now.” I hadn’t really felt like that before. Then I when I went to Catalonia, it didn’t work out in my favour, but I had really good legs there. Got in the break on a couple of days. On the stage to la Molina I was 18th and then I got into the break the next day, so I gave it the roll of the dice as well. We had Enric Mas as well, so we were juggling. He was in a better position than I was, so I went up the road. It didn’t pan out for me but if I’d had a better legs I could have hopefully followed Soler and the guys on the stage, and then I was in the break again on the last day. And in fact, personally, that was also a nice progression to me, because I went to a stage race I didn’t just sit in and scrape like a top 20, I went and raced it, got in there and rode with the best guys on the on the hard stages and got in the break on a couple of other days and really felt like it was in the race and got involved.
PEZ: Have you been back home to Cumbria much?
Yeah, I went home for Christmas. We finished a training camp in December. We did a really tough block of training here and then I went home and then I had five six days without the bike. I had probably been training too hard. Rattling some big hours and I had a pretty good feeling on the bike.
Climbing in Valencia
PEZ: What training were you doing in December?
Just hours. I enjoy riding my bike. So for me my pleasure is to go out and ride. You know, many people ask “why are you didn’t so much?” But if you enjoy it, if you’ve got nothing else to do in the day, and you want to go and ride for five, six hours. It’s my job also. I didn’t necessarily get carried away, but we’re just racking up the hours slowly and then we did a couple of big weeks here. So by the time we got to the end of this camp I was pretty close. Went home and I also wanted to enjoy time home, so I got to see as much friends and family as possible. It was awesome. I was going to say my plan was to do some really nice walks, but then it rained and we just get a couple little trudges around in the rain and actually played squash my old man. I missed that.
PEZ: What about the hilly Classics? Looking back; you were second in Liège in the under 23’s.
It’s a tough one. I we did talk about it. It’s tricky as I’m riding the Giro. So if you wasn’t riding the Giro… I guess, you get to a point in your career where you’re that good you can sort of say you want to build your season towards the Ardennes, take a break and then come back again for the Dauphiné and the Nationals and then the Tour. That’s like the classic program isn’t it, that’s the most prestigious programme, but especially in this team, it’s a luxury to say I can go to the Giro and have some freedom and I would never complain, but to juggle both those ambitions is not possible now, but I’m happy with that.
PEZ: At the Giro you will be with Remco Evenepoel, how do you think that will work? He’s never ridden a Grand Tour and you have ridden two.
Neither of us are too worried about it. I just talked to Remco about riding the Giro, because It’s been announced, but it’s too far away to even talk about and also in a race like that we both know that the road will just decide everything.
PEZ: Do you look back at when you won the junior Tour of Wales and see how you have come on?
I didn’t win it, I won a couple of stages. I was third behind Scott Davis and Sam Oomen. So it was a pretty vintage edition. Yeah, it’s a long time ago. Yeah, things have changed a lot, come a long way since then. I guess in many ways, that was my big start, that got me a ride on Zappi’s, which was hugely important at the time. And in terms of my development and in terms of the junior guys in the UK, the junior Tour of Wales was the big race and that was the one for us. So, by pure coincidence, I always arrived in the best shape. I didn’t really know what it meant to train, so I would just like ride on the weekend. I will still never ride on the turbo. So as a 16/17 year old I had no time to ride on a turbo, so a good ride on the weekends and it was too dark after school and my mum and dad wouldn’t let me and I was focusing on studying and stuff. And then by the time it got sunnier in summer, I could ride after school and then we would take a nice summer vacation and take the bikes and ride, and ride in France a lot. Just enjoying riding bikes. I did, what in retrospect, what was really like a two week boot camp of training, getting fully prepped but was just me riding my bike and enjoying it and doing some good rides and then we would come back to the UK and I’d have two or three local races and come out swinging for the junior Tour of Wales.
PEZ: Do you ever wonder about the guys who you were racing against then, who were maybe not forced into training, but were training properly in a structured way, and now don’t even ride a bike? Where as you just enjoyed it.
You forget how important things like are. I sort of experience that for myself, because I was a good runner when I was younger and without really realising it, I took it very seriously, probably more seriously than you should be doing as a 12/13/14 year-old. I just caught the winning bug, basically I didn’t want to lose. Then when you start losing and those guys who have never beaten you before, they start beating you, it’s not easy when that happens. As much as I enjoy running and I was passionate about it, I wanted to try something new and fell into cycling and then completely start afresh, then found a love of just riding the bike. That evolved into racing. But the right guys sometimes fall by the wayside because of pushy parents or doing roller sessions like; two minutes on – two minutes off after school in the dark in a shed from when you’re 13 year’s old. Even the guys who are part of a national system for the 14/15 year-olds who are on proper training programmes with coaches and stuff, I don’t think it is necessarily productive sometimes. And it’s getting worse, guys have got power metres and need a coach to tell them how to ride, instead of the social side of the club run. I think now a lot of it’s been lost. It wasn’t my introduction to the sport, we just rode as a family and got to like it.
PEZ: Young kids now don’t go on a club run and don’t learn the basics.
I look at my own things, the way I was brought into the sport. I never cared about what bikes I was riding, or the kit I was wearing, as a family we were just getting out and enjoying being outside. We weren’t racing. I remember sitting with my brother and if we wanted to do a ride on holiday, It’s not so long ago, I guess it’s changed now, but we would get the map out and we would sit down and we would write on a piece of paper, name by name of the villages where you wanted to go. That’s what part of the fun was for me as I learned to ride the bike. And that’s been lost a little bit. When I think of it like that, it’s true things have changed in 10 years.
Finishing stage 2 of the Tour of Valencia 2020
PEZ: What about the Olympics?
I’d love to go, and go there knowing that I’d be doing everything I could to help someone else. The course would suit me, but we’ll see what happens if I ride a good Giro. I’m not riding the Tour, so it would be easier, so we’ll see.
Two years can make a difference
# Good luck to James and hope he doesn’t crash as mush in 2020. #