This time last year, Luke Rowe was, in more ways than one, thousands of kilometres away from where he is now. The Welshman began his 2018 season at the Abu Dhabi Tour, tentatively feeling his way back into action for the first time since breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a rafting accident the previous August.
Twelve months on, Rowe lines out for Team Sky at the Volta ao Algarve with considerably more training miles banked over the winter and 13 race days already in his legs after an early-season stint in Australia. A year ago, simply pinning on a number at the cobbled Classics was a goal in itself for Rowe. This time out, his ambitions are rather loftier.
“It’s chalk and cheese,” Rowe told Cyclingnews in Almodôvar on Thursday.
“This time last year I started racing in Abu Dhabi but it was with that kind of comeback mentality. I hadn’t done a winter at all and I was missing thousands of kilometres compared to usual years. This year has been pretty plain sailing and back to normal with racing in Australia, so I’m definitely in better shape than twelve months ago.”
Rowe ultimately succeeded in lining out at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2018, and surpassed expectations by surviving much of the winnowing process at the Ronde, only to be excluded by the commissaires for riding on the pavement on the approach to the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.
“The courses change a lot year on year, taking in different sections, so it’s good to keep your foot in the door, and even if I wasn’t all guns blazing last year, it will still help going into this year’s campaign,” said Rowe, who confessed that his disqualification from the Tour of Flanders still rankles.
“I might be wrong, but as far as I’m aware, there was one rider disqualified in the whole of last season for riding on the pavement, and that was me. You only have to switch on a Classic for five minutes and you see ten riders on the pavement, so I think I was quite hard done by. But you have to put these things to the back of your mind and forget about it. There’ll always be another opportunity.”
After his early start in Australia, Rowe is following a well-trodden path to those first two Sundays in April, and Belgium’s Opening Weekend will again be a key staging post, though he places little truck in comparing data from one spring to the next.
“People live and die by their numbers but I’m not really into them. Sensations are key,” Rowe said. “I’m feeling better than ever, and next week should be a massive weekend.”
There are some six weeks between Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Roubaix, but while it is a challenge to maintain form across that stretch of time, the 28-year-old maintains that it is just as difficult to build condition at that especially hectic point in the season.
“I’ve always tried to go into the Opening Weekend as good as I can and kick on from there. There’s not much training opportunity between Opening Weekend and the rest of the Classics – it’s just racing,” said Rowe, who will then ride Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo before returning to Belgium for E3 Harelbeke.
A gap in the palmares
Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski are unlikely to repeat their cameo appearances at the cobbled Classics in 2019, but Team Sky still ought to boast strength in numbers on the pavé in April, with Gianni Moscon, Ian Stannard and Dylan van Baarle all joining Rowe in the core unit for the Flemish races.
Each of that quartet have recorded top five finishes in cobbled monuments – Rowe was fifth at the Tour of Flanders in 2016 – but the British squad has never managed to win either the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix.
“Year on year you sit here and say, ‘we’ve got a strong team, we want to win something,’ but that’s easy to say and hard to do. But still, I’ll stand here again and say that we’ve got a good team and we want to win something,” Rowe said.
“If you look at the team, we’ve succeeded in every area over the past 5-6 years. The one area where we’ve not done a lot is the cobbled Classics. It’s a gap in the palmares that myself and for sure the team want to fill.”
With no white smoke as yet in the on-going search for a replacement sponsor for Team Sky, 2019 might also prove to be the final opportunity for the team to succeed on the cobbles, even if Rowe is not quite ready to countenance the thought.
“A lot of teams are in this position year on year,” he said. “They’re still around, so I just cross my fingers that the team goes on.”