When Ineos Grenadiers’ Luke Plapp was forced to ride the time trial stage of last week’s UAE Tour on his road bike, it prompted intrigue and headlines across the cycling sphere.
But it’s a pan-flat, 9km course, people questioned, until hearing that, actually, the problem was that a pre-stage crash had rendered his bike unfixable before he took to the startline.
What the question really ought to have been was: “Where’s the bleach blonde dyed hair gone, Luke?”
“Now we’ve started with the blonde hair questions!” the cheerful and characteristically Australian laughs to Cycling Weekly. “There’s history and a good story behind it, if you wanna know about it.” Yes, we do, Luke.
To bring the uninitiated up to date first, the question arose because he and all his team pursuit team-mates won bronze at the Toyko Olympics with hair so white it spun heads, and visit Plapp’s Wikipedia page and you’ll be confronted with the teenage version of him also sporting blonde highlights.
We had presumed the 21-year-old was just into (questionable?) fashion looks, but then he regaled us with this history lesson.
“So, some junior Australian track teams who have gone to the Junior World Championships since 1996 have dyed their hairs blonde," he begins.
“You get told about this tradition at the first junior camp, and you rock up there like, ‘so when are we dying our hair?’ But you find out it’s not as simple as that and all the junior teams have to work out why.
“You have to research it properly, look back through the history of the junior teams, contact riders, and once you’ve got your information, you take it to the coaches who tell you if what you’ve found out is correct. If it is, and if you’ve passed, you get to dye your hair blonde.
“At the camp I was at, us boys stayed up past 4am one morning researching it, messaging previous years. The funny thing is, those boys have to make up stories, throw you off track. There’s some funny stories kicking about - it’s pretty hilarious.
“That was a few years ago and at the Olympics we wanted to be closer together, and we saw it as a way to bring the women in with us and get them to dye our hair for us.”
The blonde look has gone since Plapp has made not a permanent but more concentrated transition to the road, but not before “I think the dye killed every single hair cell in my body!" he laughs.
"The first time I don’t think my hair grew properly for 18 months. It’s gone now, but some of the Olympic boys have still got it. And I’m not talking tips, but a good amount - most of their hair is still blonde.”
Plapp will not need to artificially alter his hair colour in the future to attract attention, for he boasts promise that led to five WorldTour teams fighting for his signature aged just 20, despite having never ridden a road race outside of a national, continental or world event before signing with his new employees. What's more, he is already an Australian time trial and road race champion.
Ambitious, Plapp has previously spoken about wanting to emulate the successes of Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas in winning track gold medals at the Olympics and then Grand Tours, comparisons that make it easy to understand why he signed a three-season deal with Ineos.
“There’s no better team to go to from the track,” he says. “I’m coming in from the dark: I don’t know how the WorldTour works, but how they’ve helped me is… they’ve gone above and beyond. Things you don’t even think about that makes life easier, they do.
“Right now there’s a few riders on the team combining track and road, and Ethan [Hayter] and Filippo [Ganna] have shown how possible it is. One day I’d love to give a Grand Tour a good crack, but first I have to focus on smaller stage races, one-day races and learn the European way. I’m coming into it new and it’s going to take a while to build endurance behind myself.”
His first test was convincingly good, finishing 12th on GC at the UAE Tour despite his TT bike malfunction. Plapp, though, doesn’t want to set specific road objectives for this or next year, but ask him about the track and it’s a different answer.
“My biggest goal in my whole career is to win an Olympic gold medal on the track - that’s before any road medal,” he states. “It could be in the team pursuit or the Madison, but I want to share it with someone. That’ll be a dream come true.
“I’m aiming for Paris, Los Angeles and maybe even Brisbane in 2032. I want the track to be part of my story.”
Plapp appears to be a true track and road aficionado, but surprisingly reveals that at the beginning “I hated track, and honestly I still don’t really love it now. But in Australia, it’s the only pathway there is.
"If you want to be a pro cyclist and get paid for it, you’ve got to do the track program. You’re forced into it basically, but what it gives you is a controlled environment, international opportunities and the chance to learn loads along the way.”
The learning will go into overdrive in the coming two seasons, with Plapp scheduled to race a varied calendar not limited to where he can excel in time trials and on climbs, but also Belgian Classics and cobbles. “I wanna give everything a go,” he says.
In the short-term, his skillset will surely set him up as one of the favourites in time trials, a discipline that he is able to mine tips from Ganna, the world’s best. “I had goosebumps watching him in the Olympics team pursuit final for Italy. The way he rode that last kilometre… it was an insane human performance," Plapp remembers.
"Knowing that I’m riding with him alongside me, it makes me want to pull my finger out and pull everything together. I don’t want him to think that I am a bad rider. The respect he has in the peloton is enormous, but in reality he’s just a big, friendly giant."
Plapp has his idols, his aims and a pathway that is designed to develop him into Australia’s next biggest cycling star, but he will remain humble and grateful, the latest exhibit of that being when he was presented with his custom Pinarello bike celebrating his status at national champion.
“When I rocked up and saw it I was pretty excited," he says. "But it’s weird, hey: my first day and I’m not in the same kit as the rest of the guys and I’ve got a different coloured bike! It’s pretty special and surreal. I just love it.
“Just putting on an Ineos team kit, there isn’t much better feeling. It’s still sinking in, all the emotions. I’m racing for the biggest team in the world.”
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