Quick-Step Floors British neo-pro James Knox is doubting himself. But it’s not the prospect of his first season in the WorldTour peloton, or joining the winningest team in the top flight, or working under legendary team manager Patrick Lefevere, who has overseen the careers of countless cycling stars, that’s bothering him — it’s his failure to find domestic bliss.
“I moved out [to Girona] in 2016 with Dan Pearson before he went to Aqua Blue, got more money and moved into a nicer place,” Knox says. “Then Jake Kelly and Mike Thompson, both on Wiggins this year, moved out. There is something wrong with me; everyone has one year and then they jack it in.”
In our time with Knox we can’t see any reason the calm, mature and pragmatic Cumbrian would alienate his flatmates. Indeed, he seems well equipped to deal with the pressure cookers of home life and the WorldTour. Hardly surprising when you consider he has already been acclimatising himself to the strains he is set to face in cycling’s top flight.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to think that if I didn’t go pro after my last year as an under-23 then I had basically missed my chance,” he says.
“It’s strange because for four years as an under-23 rider you put all your time and effort in and you are sort of in the dark because you don’t really know what is happening. You are chasing this dream and then two weeks before Tour de l’Avenir I had three or four different people contact me and you suddenly think, ‘Woah, this is actually going to happen’.”
Interest in Knox spiked in the time leading up to the Tour de l’Avenir. After his second place in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23 race, he followed it up with top 10 finishes at the Tour Alsace, Tour of Croatia and Ronde d’Isard.
A second-place result on the queen stage of the Tour de l’Avenir behind Team Sky’s new signing Egan Bernal confirmed his potential as one of the best young climbers around and helped secure an eighth place finish in the general classification.
Impressing eagle-eyed scouts led to an invite to fitness tests at the renowned Bakala Academy. “Quick-Step had a scout, [Joxean Fernández] Matxin, at quite a lot of the races that I did well at,” Knox says.
“He invited me to do the tests and I had my fingers crossed but didn’t know what to expect. At the time I had a few interesting talks with other teams but in between l’Avenir and the Tour of Britain I got the call from my agent to say there was an offer [from Quick-Step] and it wasn’t something I was going to hang around with.”
This appearance at the Tour of Britain for the man from Levens was one of only a handful on home soil all year, which is rare for a young British rider yet to establish themselves in the pro ranks.
“2017 was my second year with Team Wiggins and I pretty much did an entire programme racing in Europe, which is what I was passionate about and felt I had the chance to do well in,” he says.
The 22-year-old says that this wasn’t a case of disapproving of British races and the scene itself, but rather his slight frame wasn’t suited to the races at home — especially when the end goal was to try and attract the attention of WorldTour teams.
“There is a part of me that is quite proud that I made my own way,” Knox says. “I haven’t taken the most followed route but riding for Zappi’s in 2014, racing in Italy with climbs was something that was amazing to do. Whereas, I wouldn’t get round a Tour Series, and I wasn’t going to do well rocking up to Premier Calendar races with guys who have got 10-15-year careers and are incredibly strong domestically. So your development and confidence can begin to stutter.”
His decision to sign for Belgian superteam Quick-Step displays a similar confidence that he can carve his own path as he shuns the more commonly travelled route through the British Cycling system that often ends up at Team Sky. That very route has been criticised in recent times for stunting the development of young riders who arrive with potential but then find themselves forced to leave the team to get chances to prove themselves, such as Ben Swift and Peter Kennaugh.
Oman on a mission
“A little part of me hopes that maybe I will get more opportunities here, that’s the way I see it,” Knox says. “Obviously Team Sky is an amazing team but who knows how they work. You’ll never get the opportunity to ride for both Sky and Quick Step at the same time, so there is no point worrying about it.”
The first opportunity for Knox to test his climbing legs will be at the Tour of Oman later this month before a busy racing calendar up until May takes him around some mountainous stage races at the Tour of the Basque Country and Tour of California alongside the ‘home’ roads of the Tour of Catalonia near his Girona base. Quick-Step directeur sportif Brian Holm says Knox will have “no pressure” in these races and that it’s essential to give him time to develop.
“It’s important to let the big boys take the pressure, they are paid to do it, whereas the young riders are not,” Holm says. “So it is just step by step; he needs his rest and I cannot say he is going to win the Tour de Suisse or Dauphiné or make a podium but we will just have to wait and see.”
The temptation with young climbers like Knox is to test their legs out over a three-week race at the Vuelta a España towards the end of the season. However, that’s unlikely to be the case here. “There is no point the team saying there is going to be a place in the Vuelta,” says Knox.
“Because I haven’t even done a race with them yet, so that would be a wasted promise. I’ve spoken to coaches and directeur sportifs and they first want to see how I go in races and then how I react. I might be on my last legs on day seven but if I look alright maybe they might think I can handle a Grand Tour.”
Given the way he has handled everything that cycling has thrown at him so far, we wouldn’t bet against him being on that Spanish start-line. Knox might have a few nagging anxieties about his appeal to his flatmates but in every other respect he seems a composed young man ready to take
the next step in the cycling world.