He won plaudits from teammates and commentators alike on his WorldTour debut, but James Knox was just pleased his bow at the elite level didn’t go horribly wrong and uncover his faults as a cyclist.
The 22-year-old British rider recorded a very creditable 64th finish in the Abu Dhabi Tour’s General Classification on Sunday – better than half of the 132-man field at the third UCI WorldTour race of the 2018 season.
He enjoyed a best finish of 49th on the final stage ascent of Jebel Hafeet – 5mins 25secs behind stage and overall winner Alejandro Valverde – which helped him finish 13th in the young rider category.
A stunning second place in the Under-23 category at 2017’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race was enough to convince Quick-Step Floors CEO Patrick Lefevere to sign him from UCI Continental Team Wiggins last September – having been on the Belgian team’s radar all year.
But before making his bow on the big stage in the Emirates, Knox admitted he was anxious not to make any mistakes on his debut.
“Before coming here one of the things I would have been anxious about was how I rode for the team at the front of the race,” the Cumbria native told Sport360.
“It’s not something I’ve had to do before and I’m quite small so I’m not that powerful. I guess I didn’t really want to get told on the radio ‘James, you need to be down the front now’.
“And not being able to do that, which was my worst nightmare. Being at the elite level but feeling like I’m not cutting it.
“I’ve been able to do what’s being asked of me, everyone seems to be happy with what I’ve done so it’s a huge relief and hopefully something to build on. I’ve got a lot of good races coming up and this has been a great place to start.”
Knox didn’t just make up the numbers for a strong Quick-Step side selected for Abu Dhabi. He started putting in some mammoth turns on the front, drawing attention with domestique performances that helped Elia Viviani to one stage win.
“I’m loving it at the minute,” he said.
“It’s my first race so I’m still settling in to the team but so far they’ve been happy with what I’ve been doing. We won the second stage so that was an amazing feeling, to be part of a winning team and to feel a part of it.
“I know I wasn’t the last man for Elia or anything special but I did a bit of work during the stage and the team savours the victories which is really nice. They win a lot but don’t take it for granted. We all had a little celebration after and it was really special.”
After Viviani – the 2016 Olympic Games omnium champion – won Stage 2 on Thursday from Yas Mall to Yas Beach, the Italian heaped praise on Knox in his post-race interviews.
Knox helped pull the second echelon group back up to the first group on a chaotic day of racing heavily affected by crosswinds. His work gave Viviani hopes of victory, moving to the front of the race to prevent further attacks in the final 20km.
And Knox admitted Viviani and the rest of the team – including Fabio Sabatini and Julian Alaphilippe – have welcomed him with open arms.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” he added.
“You have the idea some of the top guys might be a little stand-offish or not have much respect for the young guys, but that’s not the case at all. The bigger the name on the team the more time they’ve had and happier they are to show me the ropes.
“They’ve got so much experience and are so established themselves they’re happy to help out the young lads. They’ve all taken me in and taught me a lot already.”
On Viviani in-particular, he said: “We’re completely different riders so he’s not had to sit me down and show me the ropes, but every stage, win or lose, he’s given me a pat on the back, which shows the class of the guy.
“He appreciates everything the guys do for him on the team. He loses a stage and he doesn’t start blaming anyone. The team did a good job for him on the first three stages and he’s appreciative of that. I can’t fault him.”
The future for British cycling certainly looks bright – with Knox and Chris Lawless’ (Team Sky) rise to the World Tour this year bringing the number of Brits at the top level for 2018 to 19.
They are the eighth-most represented nation in the WorldTour peloton and Knox has talked up the new generation following in the footsteps of Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish.
“There’s already a lot of established GB riders,” said Knox.
“We’ve got myself, James Shaw, Scott Davies, Tao (Geoghegan Hart) all in our first few years as WorldTour riders. Maybe give us five or six years and we’ll be solid, established pros and getting up there in races.
“It’s still early days, and there are plenty of young guys coming up behind us. It’s exciting for British cycling and hopefully the future’s good.”
Knox is now a resident of Girona, having moved to Spain’s Catalonia region in 2016. And even though he states people who describe him as the next great British cycling hope are “getting carried away”, there are rumours from Spain that he recently broke a climbing record held by 2012 Tour de France winners and five-time Olympic gold medallist Wiggins.
“Maybe people are getting carried away as they’ve seen me on the TV and riding for Quick-Step but I’m not setting the world on fire,” said Knox, addressing the question of being the next British star.
“But it’s not a burden. Guys like Tao and Scott Davies, we’re all the same age. Tao’s been on the WorldTour for a year already and has achieved quite a lot more so has proven to be a level ahead.
“Me and Scott are up and coming, we came from Team Wiggins, and hopefully in a few years we’ll be following the route of the Yates brothers (Adam and Simon), Froome and (Ben) Swift, being the next generation.”
Wilco Kelderman will not be aiming to peak for another six months but admits he’s encouraged by his early season form as he captured second place at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The Dutchman’s main goal for the 2018 season will be success at the Vuelta a Espana at the end of August. But he finished inside the top 50 on each of the five stages in the Emirates, securing second overall behind Movistar veteran Alejandro Valverde.
The Team Sunweb rider has previous Grand Tour form – including finishing fourth at the Vuelta last year, 24 seconds shy of a podium place.
He was also seventh at the Giro d’Italia in 2014, but admits competing at the Vuelta this year is his main aim.
“The Vuelta is more important for me,” said the 26-year-old. “There are opportunities for other riders for the other Grand Tours that the team has. I’m feeling good and looking forward to the Vuelta.”
Although there are six months before the Vuelta, Kelderman is pleased with his form as he heads to Tirreno–Adriatico from March 7–13 and the Volta a Catalunya from March 19–25.
“Every race is important. Not just the Vuelta,” added the 2015 Dutch time trial champion.
“Tirreno-Adriatico and Catalunya are also very important for me. They are big races coming up where I need to be good.
“I’m pleased with where I’m at, at this stage of the season. I had a really good winter and trained hard. There were no issues and for the first race it’s pretty good.”
He was close to victory on Stage 5 but admitted Spanish icon Valverde and Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez, who finished second, were just too good.
“I wanted to win, I tried and I was going for it, but they were just too strong,” added Kelderman, who did at least finish above Lopez in the GC, 17 seconds behind Valverde.
The fourth edition of the Abu Dhabi Tour and the first extended to five stages proved worthy of the sensational field of top riders who assembled at race headquarters at Yas Marina last week.
Below are some numbers from the WorldTour race in the Middle East.
1 – the finishing position of Alejandro Valverde on General Classification. On the final podium the Spanish rider of Movistar Team proudly wore the Red Jersey powered by Al Maryah Island
2 – the number of 360° cameras used by Velon during the Abu Dhabi Tour. It has been a premier for a WorldTour event
3 – the value of the commemorative stamp – in Dirhams – issued by Emirates Post and featuring the Abu Dhabi Tour advertising campaign
4 – editions of the Abu Dhabi Tour so far
5 – stages, totalling 681.6km of racing
16:00: 11” – the total time raced by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) according to Tag Heuer, Abu Dhabi Tour official timekeeper
19 – TV production cameras: nine at the finish, four at the start, one in each of the two helicopters, four on the motorbikes during the race
24 – the kt of the golden plate of Golden Grit, the new Abu Dhabi Tour trophy
26 – riders from Italy, the best represented country, then 12 from Germany and Spain and 10 from Russia
29 – the gap in seconds to Valverde to the winner of best young rider Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team), who wore the White Jersey sponsored by Abu Dhabi Sports Channel
32 – the countries represented by 140 athletes at the start
42.582km/h – average speed of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Tour
46 – the points accumulated by Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors), winner of the Green Jersey sponsored by Emirates Post
52.682km/h – the average speed of the Abu Dhabi Tour’s fastest stage ever, the time trial won by the Australian Rohan Dennis from BMC Racing Team
65.2km/h – the speed of Alexander Kristoff in full flight in Stage 1’s bunch sprint. Caleb Ewan maxed out at 63.8km/h, Elia Viviani at 63.2km/h as measured by Velon
73 – Mercedes vehicles involved in the race, all supplied by the Emirates Motor Company
76 – the dossard number of Nikolay Trusov (Gazprom – Rusvelo), winner of the Black Jersey sponsored by Etihad Airways
83 – media outlets accredited, for a total of 125 journalists and 48 photographers
116 – vehicles in total including cars, vans and team cars provided by Hertz
132 – riders at the finish
193 – countries providing TV coverage. One more compared to 2017, and +14 compared to the first edition in 2015 (169)
524 – the number of participants over the three stages of the Abu Dhabi Tour Challenge at Jebel Hafeet and Yas Marina Circuit on 2, 11 and 20th February
735W – Alejandro Valverde’s peak power in watts during the decisive attack on the ascent of Jebel Hafeet on Stage 5, as measured by Velon
976 – the number of water bottles, specially designed by children for the Abu Dhabi Tour and exhibited in the kids areas at Stage 1, 3 and 5, and as part of the Water Bottles Art Exhibition
1,461 – students from nine different schools attending the hour-long class of the Educational project powered by Abu Dhabi Tour in collaboration with Adek during February.
2,050km – approx covered by the Advertising Caravan all across Abu Dhabi before and during the race
2,122 – total accreditations printed
3,107 – articles published online about the Abu Dhabi Tour from 21 to 25 February
3,500 – people who watched the Abu Dhabi Tour at Nation Towers, the race’s official Fan Zone
18,000 – kg of team equipment delivered from 17 different nations on a total of 1,014 different flights – thanks to our partner, Etihad
47,000 – Abu Dhabi Tour Facebook fans, +34.3% compared to February 2017
317,000 – page views per day for abudhabitour.com +9.3% compared to the last edition