At the start of the Tour de Langkawi, Ryan Gibbons was one of the riders to watch as an outsider for the victory. By the time the race concluded eight days later, he had firmed as a rider to watch for the remainder of his career after taking the overall victory.
The 22-year-old Dimension Data rider joined fellow South Africans Ryan Cox, David George and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg in claiming overall honours at the race, holding the yellow jersey from stage 2 through to stage 8.
Gibbons made his professional debut with the team at the Dubai Tour, riding in a lead-out train for the first time, before top five results at the South African time trial and road race national championships. He then jetted to Malaysia for Asia's premier stage race, proving his experience and age no barrier to success.
When Gibbons sat down with Cyclingnews in the early stages of the Tour de Langkawi, there were no signs of nervousness, consternation or unease exhibited in neo-pros. Rather, an air of acknowledgement that everything should be as it was and he belonged on the top step of the podium in yellow.
A pressure-free off-season in his hometown of Johannesburg, following a season with Dimension Data's Continental team leading to a stint as a stagiaire last year, all contributed a feel of familiarly to start the 2017 season for Gibbons.
"Obviously, they were the one who gave me an opportunity with the Continental team. They invested in me, had faith in me and realistically, I am not too sure I would have gotten a team elsewhere in all honesty," Gibbons told Cyclingnews. "Even if I had, I would have shown loyalty to them because they invested in me and have always believed in me, it is a great set up."
It was Gibbons' parents who introduced him to cycling through mountain biking. A young Gibbons would compete in the same 'Gran Fondo' events as his parents, but while they ride the 'marathon', he would compete on a shorter distance course. Bitten by the cycling bug, it wasn't long before he "travelled the whole of South Africa racing" and made the realisation that a career in cycling would need to revolve around the road.
"I went to Europe as a second-year junior and raced in Belgium for about three months, and I got some podiums," recounted Gibbons, who will base himself in Lucca. "I went to a Nations Cup and got a top 20 on a stage, and I thought, 'I am going to give this a go.' I would say, really knowing that this is what I want to do is from 17, 18 but cycling was always on the cards from 12."
Following in Cav's slipstream
During the late 2000s, Robbie Hunter was the leading South African rider in the peloton, and the country even had a team in the ProTour via Barloworld. While Hunter left a lasting impression, it was Mark Cavendish who wooed Gibbons and opened his eyes to the Tour de France.
"I remember in 2008 I was in grade eight and that was when he was rising to stardom at the Tour, and I always thought, 'Wow, what a man. That is who I want to be.' To be able to ride in the same era as him, let along race with him and again be on the same team as him, it is mind blowing," Gibbons said. "He was always the man, and I really have respect and admire many other current and past riders, but he was definitely a huge icon and someone I wanted to be. To be on a team with him is surreal. It is mind blowing."
Like the serial winner Cavendish, Gibbons explains his race mentality is "first or last", and Dimension Data directeur sportif Oli Cookson believes there are several similarities between the duo.
"They don't like losing. Both are very articulate young men and very intelligent and perceptive. They listen, they watch, and they learn. Cav is incredible, and Ryan has a lot to come if he can take some of the attributes from Cav," Cookson told Cyclingnews. "They did some races together last year, and Cav wanted Ryan on the team because he saw how he moved through the bunch. Both are impressive young men and Ryan's going to go a long way I think."
'I want to win everything, no matter what it is'
Cavendish is also renowned for his mental edge and ability to get into his rivals heads, a skill Gibbons wants to work on. But first, his focus is winning races and becoming more professional in his approach to racing.
"I have always had a blasé approach to sprinting. Thinking, I will try and find a good wheel, knowing I am fast. His approach is definitely, 'This is what we are going to do, and if you do it right it will pay off'", said Gibbons of Cavendish. "It has changed my mindset knowing that going in with a game plan and sticking to it should pay off."
With his physical characteristics pointing to a career as a sprinter, Gibbons has also displayed his ability to remain composed over a week to race for the GC and challenge over long, hilly days in the saddle. During Cyclingnews' conversation with Gibbons, the phrases 'hungry' and 'competitive' populated the majority of Gibbons answers and were delivered with conviction.
"I can definitely be faster than I currently am now, I worked on being more of an all rounder and doing a little bit of time trial. So for now, I am not as quick as I could be," said Gibbons, who admitted that as a young guy he, "carries some puppy fat."
"If I focus purely on that, I could be a bunch sprinter. But I am also too competitive. I think I would like to be a bit of an all-rounder like a classic rider. Someone who might not be the quickest, quickest but someone who can win a bunch sprint every now and then but can also give the classics a go and short prologues. Just try and win as much as I can."
And of course, the rainbow jersey and Tour de France are goals for Gibbons, who acknowledges both aims are possibly years away. So for now, Gibbons simply wants to win, and win often.
"Everything I do, maybe you don’t see it but I want to win everything, no matter what it is."