Jonathan Tiernan-Locke: illness, doping rumours and his road to the top

Guilt by Youtube: Is that where cycling is heading? Is that how the most beautiful sport in the world will judge athlete performance? Perhaps one day in the future CAS panels will gather in a Lausanne court to click through endless clips of race footage in order to determine whether a rider has doped. Need an expert? Well forget educated haematologists and doctors because I hear Liggett and Sherwen give excellent testimony.

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Team Endura) may not be in front of CAS but as far as some are concerned he’s already appeared before the dock and faced sentencing.

He’s already been labelled as ‘unbelievable’ by journalists and fellow pro riders, they scoff at his winning rides in the Tour of the Mediterranean and Tour du Haut Var. It’s the same nudge, nudge, wink, wink mentality and judgemental rumour mill that hangs over every professional who breaks through.

“I’ve heard the rumours, and the suspicion,” Locke tells Cyclingnews. “I’ve heard it all. I don’t know what to say other than I’ll do whatever it takes to show people, so I’ll be doing weekly, or bi-weekly blood tests. Like I said, whatever it takes.”

Before his win in the Mediterranean, Locke was an unknown name on the global stage. A shallow foot print made in junior mountain biking in the UK was quickly washed away before a leap onto the road scene at the age of 18.

A brief stint at racing in France was destroyed by a bout of Epstein-Barr virus before Locke turned his back on the sport. Until then he’d ridden for UV Aube in France and been selected from the British Worlds team in 2004.

But receiving the diagnosis was a hugely bitter moment. At the time – around 2005 – he was not part of the British academy and had pushed and begged his way into a spot on a small French team. He was abroad, alone and surviving on little funds.

“I had great form when I first arrived and was winning races,” Locke says.

“Then one day I started coming down with a cold. That turned into flu and then it became the worst strain of flu I’d ever had. It just got worse. Then my immune system broke down I had a skin disease. I was literally falling apart.”

His team pushed him to continue racing, but the symptoms were so severe that Locke demanded blood tests – something the team had been reluctant to sanction at first.

Once diagnosed Locke’s position became crystal. Before the virus he’d been winning and the success had made him immune to both his desolate locality and the severe nature of living abroad without support.

After a desperate month he returned to the UK, giving up the sport entirely. He became a rider lost: dropped from the sphere of competitive racing, an athlete unable to cut it at the top, and who despite all their promise, one who failed to make it in the big leagues.
“I turned my back on the sport. I went to university and thought about another career. I put on two stone, drank, partied and didn’t touch my bike. Keeping active for me was walking home from the pub totally pissed.”

For three years Locke didn’t even look at a bike. Then, in 2008, towards the end of his studies a friend offered him a part time position in a local bike shop. The majority of his university funds had financed his rampant partying, and so the proposition of cash and paying back student fees was too much to turn down.

His stint at the bike shop coincided with the Tour de France and each day the shop would show the day’s action on television. Both colleagues and customers would stand around and watch as the action played out each day and cries of ‘great stage’, ‘what an attack’ would flow as they dissipated from the television screen and back to their regular business.

But Locke would remain, rooted in front of the screen as his mind fluctuated and flickered between the recent memory of Sastre on Alpe d’Huez and his own short-lived career. On one stage Locke watched as a former teammate from France rode away in a break and for the Brit, enough was enough. Something was stirring inside and with his virus beaten he decided to take action.

He bought a bike and over the 2008 winter and into the New Year he began to ride again.

“They were just local races to start with but then I started racing more and winning, so it was clear that I still had talent. I got my weight down and soon I was racing Premier Calendar races,” he says.

In 2009 the Plowman Craven team called and offered him a way back.

“I thought I was back on the ladder. We did the Mallorca Challenge I was going well there but quite quickly I saw there was problem with payment nothing was coming through. The team ended and I almost stopped cycling again.”

He returned to the UK again, empty in pocket and without a future in cycling until John Herety at Rapha Condor called him. Herety knew Locke from the junior mountain bike days, and unlike Plowman, the team in black and white offered a respectable programme and a consistent wage. The race schedule involved a lot of criteriums – not Locke’s ideal terrain - but at the Tour of Britain he was given an opportunity and duly shone. He finished 5th overall and collected the mountains prize.

Only the Endura team came calling at the end of the season but it was a step in the right direction, with greater stage races on the cards and of course a chance to return to France.

During the winter the team specifically worked on bringing Locke up to speed, improving his training and keeping him focused.

Two months into the 2012 season and he’s already being talked about as a one-day rival to Gilbert in the Ardennes and a number of WorldTour teams are said to be courting him.

You might think this would be a fairytale scenario for the 27-year-old. The world’s cycling media upon him, the podium visits and competition scalps that include Gilbert, Dan Martin and Stefano Garzelli.

But underneath the frequency of applause there are the whispers. They start out small and it takes just one, but the fact that there was no testing at Med and that as part of a Continental team Locke is not subject to the biological passport testing, all add to the speculation.

It adds up to nothing and everything all at the same time, fuelling rumours and speculation until the point where you’re told to watch Locke’s ride on Youtube in order to determine his guilt or innocence. It’s a desperately appalling state of affairs when such a mindset is used to determine a career or worth of a performance and there’s of course no way of Locke proving anything either from an online clip.

“I can’t let things like that get to me. There were comments made but I think a lot of it is sour grapes but it does still piss me off,” Locke says, before admitting that if he’s guilty of anything it’s the same gossips stirring and rumour mongering at play with his own career.

“In the past I’ve been guilty of that. Laughing at performances but I don’t know what’s fact or not but when it happens to you… it will make me look at other riders differently in the future and if I’ve learnt something it's that I wouldn’t be as critical as other people.”

“Whether they’re weekly or biweekly, I don’t know yet. I just want to remove any doubt.”

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.