It is not unusual to see Australia's stars of the future emerge during the southern hemisphere summer of racing. This year Luke Plapp didn't so much emerge but instead smashed through with a deafening roar, outriding two top performers on the world stage on the exact territory where they excel and, subsequently, drawing the attention of a flock of WorldTour teams.
The 20-year-old is now busily scheduling meetings to decide just where he’ll start his professional road racing career after targeting gold on the track with Australia at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
This year's early-season Australian races were always part of bigger ambitions for Plapp. The Santos Festival of Cycling and the Australian Road Championships did not only fit into an endurance block of training for the riders on the Australian track endurance squad, but also provided a rare opportunity to make a mark on the road.
Plapp, who started out at the Brunswick Cycling Club in Melbourne at the age of 12, made such a big mark in the limited blocks of racing that were available following a raft of COVID-19 related cancellations that it was hard for teams not to stand up and take notice.
At the Santos Festival of Cycling, Plapp joined Richie Porte on national squad Team Garmin Australia and won stage two after launching on the final climb with such power that tour leader Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange) said, “we were there but couldn’t do anything about it.”
Teammate Porte, who last year stood on the Tour de France podium in Paris, was also full of praise: “He just showed today what a huge talent he is.”
However, that was just the beginning.
Next came the Willunga Hill stage, where he managed to again get away from Durbridge and join Porte on the climb. Plapp then proved that he was not only a talent but also a loyal and respectful team player, sitting up as the finish approached to clap his team leader, Porte, over the line as the team plan was always to keep the crown of the Willunga Hill king firmly in place.
Then, emboldened by the results in South Australia, the under-23 rider made the early switch to the elite category at the Australian Road Championships, where he promptly unseated Durbridge, the time trial winner of the last two years.
Those results mean that now, as large as the goal of Olympic gold at Tokyo looms, the Australian rider can also rest assured that the sporting dreams and opportunities continue to stretch beyond August.
“I’m really look forward to post-Tokyo and going on the road. Whether I start that straight away or have a bit of an off season and start again in 2022, I’m not sure at the moment, but it really does give me a lot of confidence and I can’t wait to give the road a real crack now,” Plapp told Cyclingnews.
He added that discussions were continuing with nine teams, but as of last week, nothing had been decided.
Once that team has been settled and the new road chapter begins we will get to see what type of potential that “real crack” could reveal.
Eye of the tiger
Plapp has always been a solid performer, but until recently, hasn’t exactly had a dream run with obstacles in the way from injuries to talented contemporary Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), whom he came up against when he finished second to the Belgian at the World Championships in the men’s junior time trial in 2018.
“Luke Plapp, at a young age, had what I call the ‘eye of the tiger’ yet it just never all came together for him at a young age, but it never stopped him from being determined and he never gave up,” Australia’s men’s endurance squad coach Tim Decker told Cyclingnews.
“He loves his bike and he just kept at it, and kept at it, until eventually it started to change, he started to believe in himself more and then all of a sudden, he gets one result which leads into another and success breeds success.”
Those results, including a gold medal at the UCI Track World Cup in Brisbane in 2019, helped Plapp first secure one big cycling target when he was last year named as the youngest member of the track team for the Tokyo Games, and his latest efforts look to launch him onto the world road stage.
However, despite the powerful performance at Australian Road Championships with the elite time trial win and a respectable 17th in the road race – that included an audacious breakaway five laps from the end that had his rivals scrambling to line up teammates to chase – the disappointment in his voice was clearly still evident days after the race.
Plapp wanted to deliver more while racing at Nationals for himself and his team, InForm TMX Make.
“I went way too hard way too early, blew up and bit off more than I could chew,” Plapp said.
“In hindsight I probably should have realised with the training I’ve done that I’d get through the 180 kilometres if I really did conserve and use my bikkies wisely, but I really didn’t have anything to waste. I wasted the legs that I had which cost me in the final. I was happy with the preparation and how I went into the race. I just shouldn’t have gone with five laps to go.”
What he was happy with, though, was the fact that Australia’s only WorldTour squad, Team BikeExchange, mounted a serious chase to bring him back, showing he was considered a serious threat. That and his time trial title, validated his last-minute decision to step up to elites despite only being 20.
Plapp now has a year under his belt at that distance, along with it the experience and understanding of the race that comes with it.
“For now I am really looking forward to next year and I know what it is going to take. I definitely have learnt a lot about the race and have learnt what to do and what not to do for next year. It took Cam 11 years of learning and trying,” said Plapp, referring to two-time winner Cameron Meyer (Team BikeExchange).
Not racing for second
"Every time you go into battle with Luke you know he is backing himself,” said Decker. He added that it was one of his great strengths, as even when Plapp came up against Evenepoel at the 2018 Junior Worlds time trial, there was no sense before the event that he was racing for second.
“We knew at the time the calibre of Remco, and probably knew that we were a little bit up against it, but it didn’t stop Luke or his self belief, he kept trying to win the event and that’s the important thing,” said Decker.
“He didn’t get Remco at that Junior World Championships but their cycling careers aren’t finished yet, and they are going to run into one another again at some stage down the track. He may not have beaten him at Junior Worlds but ... my knowledge of him tells me he will not give up until he achieves that goal and that’s not just about Remco, that’s about being the best in the World."
For now and the near future, the focus in squarely on the Olympic Games. Plapp will shift his focus back to the track with the rest of the Australian squad, where he isn't the only member of his team that managed to deliver notable results during the road racing block. Sam Welsford won the final stage at the Santos Festival of Cycling while Kelland O'Brien finished third in the elite men's time trial and a close second in the road race at the national championships.
“We are really looking forward to the track now,” said Plapp. “We are in some good form and if we can get our prep right, we can go to Tokyo and really go for that gold medal.”
The hope for both Plapp and the coach of the men's endurance squad is that by then the ink will well and truly be dry on a contract with a WorldTour team.
“It is key to have a clear mind just to be able to focus on your Olympic target. So for those WorldTour teams out there keen to sign those athletes, please lend me a hand and get it organised early,” said Decker with a chuckle.
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