Luke Rowe (Team Sky) could scarcely have asked for a more gentle re-introduction to competitive action than the low-key opening stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, where the peloton ambled along desert roads towards the oasis at Lima and then had to soft-pedal into a headwind for most of the way back to the finish in Madinat Zayed.
There may have been some mild grumbles from other quarters of the peloton at the sedate pace, but Rowe, in his first race back since breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a whitewater rafting accident last August, was glad of some early respite.
"I was pretty fortunate, really. The day itself was one of the easiest you could have possibly imagined so it was lucky in that sense," Rowe told Cyclingnews at Yas Mal ahead of stage 2. "A lot of guys were saying it was too easy but I was quite grateful just to make the return. It was a pretty cruisy day. I felt alright, my feelings were quite good. For a first day back, I’ll take it."
Three and a half hours later, Rowe was still smiling after a rather more thorough examination on his second day back in the saddle. The Welshman proved that his competitive instincts remain intact when he successfully made it aboard the first echelon when the race split up with 46 kilometres to go, and he proceeded to put in a show of strength on the front as the group briefly moved clear. When the race came back together, Rowe was again to the fore, putting in a couple of notable turns on the front in support of teammate Kristoffer Halvorsen, who placed fourth in the sprint behind Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).
"It was good to spice it up a little bit. I was quite glad the wind came and made a bit of a race of it, and I think I can take quite a lot from that," Rowe said at the finish. "It's nice just to race with no pressure. I'm here just to help Halvorsen and Jonathan Castroviejo, so I didn't fully want that split to stay away because we didn't have our GC guy Castroviejo in there, unfortunately. But on a personal note it was pretty full gas racing and I felt pretty comfortable the whole day."
Looking to the Classics
It is far too soon, however, for Rowe to confirm his participation in the spring Classics. In the days immediately after his accident, which took place on a stag weekend in the Czech Republic, the prognosis seemed bleak, and the initial assessment suggested that he might be out of the peloton for up to twelve months.
While it was a decidedly bleak winter for Team Sky in the wake of Chris Froome's positive test for salbutamol during last year’s Vuelta a España, Rowe’s own off-season was rather more encouraging. As the weeks and months ticked by, the medical reports he received were increasingly upbeat in tone.
By November, Rowe was back aboard his bike, albeit tentatively. In December, he linked up with Team Sky at a training camp. Come January, he confirmed his readiness to return to action, and settled upon the Abu Dhabi Tour as the starting point for his 2018 campaign.
"I was just listening to the professionals, you've got to listen to them. They were saying at first it could have been twelve months, but I've managed to half that to six," Rowe said. "My training went pretty well in January, so I went to the team and said, 'You know what, I want to do Abu Dhabi.' It seemed a great race to start."
Rowe is careful to stress that lining out in the Middle East is no guarantee of his participation in the Spring Classics. Indeed, for the time being, his schedule extends only as far as the final day of the Abu Dhabi Tour on Sunday.
"If you try to make a plan now, you’re pissing in the wind, really, because you just don't know how you're going to be. You could make a plan that’s completely unrealistic, or you could make an easier plan and then think it's too easy. Once I’ve done a few races, we’ll assess things on the road and see where it takes me," he said.
"In terms of the Classics, I’ll just have to wait and see after this race. Of course it would be a dream come true to be at the start line at the Classics. I think it’s maybe a bit optimistic but they’re races I want to be a part of so fingers crossed."
Rowe has made firm progress on the cobbles in recent seasons. 8th place at Paris-Roubaix in 2015 was followed by 5th at the Tour of Flanders in 2016, though a crash on the descent of the Kwaremont ruined his Ronde challenge a year ago. At 27 years of age, he has time in which to develop further, though he downplayed the idea of riding the Classics this year simply to bank more experience for future campaigns. Unless he can contribute, he will not participate.
"It's true that every year you pick something up and you learn the roads a little bit more, but realistically I think it would be hard to go there and just get my head kicked in. It would be a grim few weeks," Rowe said. "If I wasn't competitive I wouldn't bother going. Unless you're 100 per cent at those races, there's no point in being there because you're going to end up climbing off at the feed, it's as simple as that."
For now, the Cardiff native is content simply to have re-joined the fray. "Right from the start, I've just wanted to let my legs do the talking," Rowe said. "Whether I get selected to ride certain races or not, well, there's plenty of races out there, so I’m not bothered exactly where I go."