Twelve months ago Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was never even in consideration for the Great Britain team that piloted Mark Cavendish to victory at the world championships in Copenhagen, but one year on, the quietly-spoken Plymouth native leads his country at the Worlds in Valkenburg.
Tiernan-Locke rocketed from relative obscurity in February of this year with a series of stunning early-season performances, including victory at the Tour Méditterranéen and the Tour du Haut Var. Even at that early stage, and even though he plies his trade at Continental level with Endura Racing, Tiernan-Locke was already being touted as a potential leader for the Valkenburg Worlds.
“I wouldn’t have thought I’d have been here, even this year,” Tiernan-Locke on the eve of the race. “I’ve had some good results and this is another step up again. The team’s taken a leap of faith in me because I’m a bit unproven but I wouldn’t have said I’d have been here a year ago, no way.”
After riding to overall victory at the Tour of Britain last week, the punchy climber rubber-stamped his selection for the national team and, it seems, guaranteed himself the role of leader. Bradley Wiggins – who may yet have Tiernan-Locke as a trade teammate at Sky next season – endorsed the 27-year-old’s status within the squad.
“Everyone’s saying he can win the race, we all think he can win the race so we’re doing as much as possible to help him win the race,” Wiggins said, before joking: “So there’s no pressure on him at all.”
The man himself was a little more circumspect, and he enters the race aiming simply to stay in contact with the front group in the closing stages. “The smaller the group the better, obviously,” Tiernan-Locke said. “In terms of composition, there’ll be a lot of guys who’ve just come out of the Vuelta, who are fast and can climb, so just to make that would be good.”
Tiernan-Locke’s inexperience at the highest level was highlighted when he admitted that he has never ridden on the Cauberg, and the British team’s late arrival in the Netherlands this week meant that he was unable even to reconnoitre the course beforehand, a far cry from the marginal gains philosophy that backboned Cavendish’s “Project Rainbow” in Copenhagen.
“I’ve never been up those climbs, never,” he confessed. “We didn’t hit the circuit because there was racing on, but it’s just a rolling area isn’t it? The Cauberg’s not a big climb but you’re doing it eleven times so I’m sure it’s going to be tough.”
Tiernan-Locke’s unexpected rise has been one of the most fascinating storylines of the 2012, ever since he put the likes of Philippe Gilbert to the sword at the Tour du Haut-Var in February. He made a belated return to racing in 2009 after a bout of the Epstein-Barr virus interrupted his amateur career and saw him take a three-year hiatus, but has made a particularly dramatic leap forward during this campaign.
“It’s been thanks to my whole approach for the past two years, not just this year,” he said. “The confidence has grown, and I’ve looked to tried to look at everything I possibly can and optimise everything, and obviously one of those things was training.”