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'I never thought, let's be a leader. It's just who I am': Luke Rowe profile

26 Nov 2020

Team Ineos’s road captain talks about his new contract, his podcast and why he looked in the mirror and saw only a support act

WordsJames Witts Photography: Sean Hardy

Luke Rowe is not meant to be in the spotlight. As road captain for Team Ineos, his job is to control the race; to manipulate the outcome from the shadows so someone else can take the glory. But it doesn’t always go to plan.

On Stage 17 of the 2019 Tour de France, an otherwise uneventful stage became newsworthy when Rowe and Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin were disqualified from the Tour after Martin blocked Rowe at the bottom of an Alpine climb and Rowe responded by riding up beside the German and punching him – patting him, really – in the face.

‘It’s something I regret but people bash you in the peloton all the time,’ Rowe tells Cyclist as we settle down to talk in a hotel near Ghent at the end of February, in the days before what would have been the start of the 2020 Spring Classics season.

‘Most don’t know what’s it like riding in the peloton for 21 days. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do the best job I possibly can, to ensure my teammates are in the right position at the right time. That’s my priority. Ultimately, I’ll look back with fondness because the most important thing happened: the team won.’

Luke Rowe is the consummate team player; a super-domestique who has played a pivotal role in Sky and Ineos’s last five Tour de France victories and looks set to continue helping the team's cause at the very least up until the end of 2023 – Rowe recently signed a new four-year contract. In a sport whose sponsorship-heavy business model creates instability, Rowe will probably outlast some teams.

‘It’s a compliment but they know what they’re getting and I know what I’m getting,’ Rowe says, leaning back on a sofa just as the Bee Gees’ ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ begins over the speaker. Apposite timing. ‘It’s trust, it’s loyalty,’ he adds. So does that mean he has never contemplated a move away from the British team?

‘All of us, at some point or another, think about what it would be like to race for a different team, different nationalities, different cultures. And there was interest last season, which I found out about through my agent, Andrew McQuaid. Then the team found out… and extended my contract. We’ve signed up young guns like Egan [Bernal] on longer contracts. And now me. By the time the contract is up it will be 12 years with the same team.’

Rowe doesn’t reveal which team was interested in securing his services, so we hazard a guess and suggest QuickStep. Rowe laughs it off: ‘If they want a Classics superstar, they’re not going to sign me. Ultimately my true value as a rider is at the service of others.’

No wins, no problem

Cyclist last interviewed Rowe back in 2014 at his compact red brick new build in South Wales – ‘I don’t live there now’ – where he told us he had two dreams: to support a victorious Tour rider and win a Classic. The former is ticked off; the latter is seemingly no longer even a dream.

It once seemed possible. In 2015 he enjoyed what many saw as his breakthrough Classics campaign, finishing ninth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – behind winning teammate Ian Stannard – and eighth at Paris-Roubaix, ahead of the retiring Bradley Wiggins (18th). In 2016 he finished fifth at the Tour of Flanders. Since then, like his team, the Classics have become an increasingly distant target.

‘I’ve had mechanicals, crashes, punctures and generally we’ve underperformed as a group,’ Rowe admits. ‘We have many riders who can finish five to 15, but getting onto the podium has proved difficult. But we try, and I haven’t totally given up hope of winning. Look at Matty Hayman. He was a rider of similar size and surprised everyone by winning Roubaix [in 2016 at the age of 37].’

Arguably that’s Rowe indulging his romantic side. Normally he’s regarded as a pragmatist, a man who has graduated mentally from the juniors, where ego-boosting trophies and medals were commonplace, to winning only twice since 2012: Stage 1 of that year’s Tour of Britain and Stage 2 of Australia’s Herald Sun Tour in 2017.

‘Like all cyclists, prior to turning pro you win. As an under-23, as a junior, you win. I used to go balls to the wall in hilly races, bunch sprints… then when you turn professional it’s another level and you must raise your game.

'I thought I could win, then after a few years you look in the mirror and say, “Am I going to be a winner?” For me, the answer was no. So you ask, how can I make a career out of this? And the answer is to support others.’

That doesn’t mean Rowe is happy to accept a more subservient role. Instead he has taken on the mantle of road captain, making decisions for the team in the heat of the race.

‘I never thought, let’s be a leader – it’s just who I am. And let’s not mix it up with other sports like football, rugby or ice hockey where you have a captain and it’s a badge of honour. In cycling, it’s simply a name given to someone who can communicate and read a race.

‘You’re in the peloton and, of course, see things first-hand. You learn the traits, both physically and facially, of a rider if they’re having a bad day or not. You might have to switch the way the team is used in order to extract the most from them. Essentially I’m the middle man. Someone who can predict how the following kilometres will go.’

Rowe credits his strategic expertise from racing with ‘guys like Bernie [Eisel] and Mat [Hayman] when I stepped up to pro’. But ultimately, he says, the directeurs sportif are the ones who predominantly call the shots. ‘It’s why, after I’ve finished racing, I’d consider a role as a DS. To see if I can put my own twist on things and have a positive influence on a team.

‘At our team, we have some of the best in the world,’ he continues. ‘Some are the best at Classics, some are the best at Grand Tours. If they’re to switch roles, they might not be the best, and that highlights what a specific job a DS is. It’s all about knowing the roads, knowing how riders think over stages, and making calls. They’re the bosses. They say jump, you say, “How high?”’

Remembering Nico

Ineos’s palmarès suggests the team’s Grand Tour sporting directors know a thing or two more than their Classics contemporaries. Until recently, the GT setup included Frenchman Nico Portal. Tragically, the Tuesday after our interview in Belgium the 40-year-old died of a heart attack at his Andorran home.

Rowe had raced under Portal in all seven of the Grand Tours he’d started at the time of our conversation. In his podcast Watts Occurring (of which more shortly), Rowe recently recalled the influence Portal had on his career.

‘My first Grand Tour, the Vuelta in 2013, I stopped and didn’t finish. I was down in the dumps. Nico was in the second DS car that day, picked me up and put his arm around me. You often remember people in your bad times and he cheered me right up.’

Rowe also credits Portal with being a tactical genius, but away from the race was where his star shone brightest. ‘I idolised the way he was as a father. His kids would come to Paris [after the Tour]. We’d all get drunk, have a good time but he’d only have a few and be dancing into the early hours with his son or daughter. They were always his main priority. To me, that epitomises him as a person.’

Aside from Portal, another near-constant in Rowe's Grand Tour career has been Chris Froome. ‘Obviously one of the questions is, can Froomey make it back to where he was?’ says Rowe. ‘And I believe he can. What I’ve seen him do, all the work he’s put in, he’s an inspiration. He’s a pitbull. He’s polite, softly spoken, you could say his interviews are mundane, but behind closed doors he’s a hell of a character. He’s also a hell of a fighter.’

Rowe knows all about fighting back from injury. In 2017 he was white water rafting on his brother’s stag do in Prague when he jumped into the water.

‘It was too shallow,’ he recalls. ‘I bottomed out.’ More precisely, he shattered his lower leg, ankle and foot. ‘The hospital stopped counting at 25 breaks. But as Froomey has, I tried to stay positive. It was the hardest time of my career and at the back of my mind I’m thinking, will I make it back? But positivity often gets you through.’

Words and actions

Beyond the cut and thrust of the peloton, Rowe is keen to give something back to the sport that has given him so much. It’s why he and Thomas led a South Wales rideout just after Christmas with a group of local clubs including Maindy Flyers, the junior team that nurtured Thomas, Rowe and teammate Owain Doull’s fledgling careers.

‘I remember one of the kids was freezing on a descent, so I gave him my rain jacket. It was like a bin bag on him. He tried to give it back to me at the bottom but I said to keep it. I could see how much it meant to him. I went to watch the Tour as a kid. Someone threw a bottle, I picked it up and it went on my shelf for years. If you can give back to someone who has stood outside the bus or give them even 10 seconds, especially when it’s a kid, that can inspire.’

Rowe has also teamed up with Thomas to produce his podcast, Watts Occurring, which they started last July.

‘I listen to an ice hockey one called Spittin’ Chiclets. It’s awesome, so I said to G, “Let’s try it.” Our first one went out at the Tour. George [Solomon], our media guy, nipped to a shop, bought a mic and we took it from there. No editing – just rough and ready. If you like it, great; if not, f*** off,’ he laughs.

Cycling understandably comes under the spotlight – Ineos in particular, with CEO Fran Millar and owner Jim Ratcliffe recent interviewees. But they’ve also dabbled with rugby, interviewing Wales winger George North, and ice hockey pops up now and again.

Rowe is a huge fan of local team Cardiff Devils, who were top of the league before the coronavirus forced the Elite Ice Hockey League to cancel the season. They’ll be back, as will Rowe.

‘I’ve been going down there since I was a kid as my grandparents were fans. It’s great to remove yourself from the cycling bubble. I go with mates from school, and when I’m not at home I’ll live-stream it on their website. There are many players from the US, Canada and Scandinavia, but there’s an import cap or all 22 players would be from abroad. I tend to follow the GB players because they don’t move around as much. Joey Martin is the GOAT.’

Greatest Of All Time is a moniker that many would argue sums up Team Ineos too, although Rowe admits that it is getting harder to stay on top, and rates Jumbo-Visma as the biggest threat as and when the 2020 Tour happens.

‘At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t matter who we’re racing. Why we’ve been successful is that we focus on ourselves, we focus on what we can control and forget about the rest. We have a proven track record in that race. If we turn up and perform, we can win that race again.’

Whether it’s in 2020 or beyond remains to be seen.

Highs and Rowes

The best bits of Luke’s pro career and beyond

1990: Born on 10th March in Cardiff  
2009: After two years of promising form as a junior, Rowe claims the ZLM Tour Dutch U23 race, his first win  
2010: Another solid under-23 season is capped by victory at the Grand Prix Di Poggiana one-day race in Italy  
2011: Again wins the ZLM Tour, and places fifth in the Tour de Normandie stage race  
2012: Turns pro for Team Sky, and caps a solid year with a stage win at the Tour of Britain  
2013: No wins, but places ninth on GC at the Tour of Qatar – the third-placed young rider  
2014: After abandoning the race in 2013, claims his first Grand Tour finish at the Vuelta, although more than four hours down  
2015: His strongest spring season to date sees Rowe finish ninth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and eighth at Paris-Roubaix  
2016: Takes a career-best fifth at the Tour of Flanders, and a second straight Tour team win with Team Sky, and Chris Froome overall  
2017: Claims the only Classics podium of his career to date with third place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne  
2018: Part of the Tour-winning Team Sky lineup for a fourth straight year, helping fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas to individual success  
2019: Places sixth at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, but denied a fifth straight Tour finish after being disqualified for fighting on Stage 17  
2020: Offsets a disrupted race season by securing his Team Ineos future with a new four-year contract.

This artlcle was first published in the June 2020 issue of Cyclist magazine