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Mark Donovan: From getting my head kicked in at the Dauphiné to major progress at the Vuelta

Mark Donovan
Mark Donovan in action at the Vuelta a Espana in 2020 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Mark Donovan joined Team Sunweb at the start of the year after several impressive rides at the Wiggins team in 2018 and 2019. However, with lockdown taking away the first half of the season the 21-year-old was thrown into the deep end in August with back-to-back WorldTour races and then a Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a Espana - where he put in several impressive rides. Cyclingnews caught up with the former runner from the UK about his first WorldTour season and his hopes for the future. 

Cyclingnews: Before we talk about your 2020 season, can you give our readers a short introduction to how you got into cycling?

Mark Donovan: It was a bit of a strange start for me. I started out as a runner but picked up a bit of an injury in my heels so I switched to cyclo-cross for the first few years as an under-16 rider and then junior. Then I got into Zappi’s junior team in the UK and got to do some really good racing out in Europe and especially Spain, Belgium and France. I did some guest rides for teams, too, and I guess I impressed enough to get into the Wiggins team and that was perfect for a U23 rider like me. There was lots of racing in Europe and lots of races with climbs.

CN: Was Wiggins a big hero of yours as you grew up?

MD: Definitely. I never really watched much racing when I was younger and growing up. But when I started to take things a bit more seriously and was racing as a junior, that was the time when around 2012 when he was winning the Tour de France and the Olympics. It was perfect timing, really. Four or five years down the line I was joining his team.  I got to meet him a few times at races and training camps.

CN: So 2020 was your first season in the WorldTour. How did you find that experience because you raced once in February but when you came back in August after lockdown you were thrown into the deep end with a number of WorldTour races before making your Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta?

MD: It was good actually. Obviously, it’s been a bit of a strange one. I didn’t really know what to expect going into a normal season, let alone a corona season. It’s been interesting and I’ve just had to see how things go. I think it’s been a case of that throughout the year. I didn’t have any big expectations coming into the year other than just step up to WorldTour and when races started back up later in the year it was just about getting stuck in.

CN: How did you find that transition though – from racing at U23 to then all of a sudden crossing swords with some of the biggest names of the sport in WorldTour stages races and a number of the Classics? 

MD: It’s a huge step up. There’s no getting around that. I’ve been happy with how I’ve made the transition. The team has helped me a lot and they’ve been great with the younger guys. They don’t put too much pressure on us but they still give us things to work on and they remind us that we’re still competing at a high level and that it’s still a professional sport. It’s been interesting and it’s nice to feel like I’m at the right level and that I belong here.

CN: Was there a specific point when you realized that you’d ‘made it’ and that you belonged at this level?

MD: Well I came straight from lockdown and then went straight into the Dauphine, which was probably one of the hardest days that I’ve ever done. It was only five days but it was just climbing every day. I was going pretty well but compared to the guys who were there I was getting my head kicked in every day. That was a bit of an eye-opener. I was slightly worried then when I was seeing what these guys at the top were doing and I was wondering if I’d ever get to that level but then I went to the Vuelta and to be at the front, even for just one or two stages, that was really good for my confidence. That was a real positive looking to the future.

CN: At the Vuelta you finished in the top 50 overall but you finished in the top-ten on two crucial mountain stages that were won by David Gaudu. You were fourth on stage 11 and then fifth on stage 17, the final mountain stage. How pleasing and important was that for your career?

MD: I was really happy, to be honest. Coming into the race I was hoping for something like those results, even for just one or two stages so that I could show that I could be up there. Looking back, if there were two stages where I hoped to do well, it would have been those two stages because they were two of the biggest mountain stages. It wasn’t just that, it was also about getting through the whole race, to be honest. It was really hard but it was nice to know what was possible. It’s not really a question anymore and now next year I can focus more on results and racing a bit more.

CN: Before turning pro this year you had some promising results in stage races at the U23 level. You were seventh overall in the Tour Alsace, 11th in the Tour de l’Avenir, and fourth in the Baby Giro – all back in 2018. Do you see GC stage racing as your main focus for the coming years?

MD: Probably. I’m keen not to write off other types of races, especially over the first few years. It would be nice to try as many different races as possible. Obviously, I’m not going to win Paris-Roubaix or anything but the Ardennes, the weeklong races, they’re ones that I’d like to look at but for the first few years, it would be nice to not stress so much about GC ambitions. Down the line though, I think that’s where I’m heading.