There is one thing I really want to ask Jonathan Dibben when we meet at the Tour Down Under, where he is starting his 2018 season working for Sky team-mates. Determination is a hallmark among athletes but the 23-year-old rider’s willpower is curious.
A score on Dibben’s 2017 rookie pro results sheet begs a question, and it’s not the stage six time trial victory at the Tour of California, or Hammer Series Limburg title.
Sat in a hotel lobby in Adelaide, I instead ask the aspiring Sky Classics specialist about the ‘outside time limit’ he recorded at Paris-Roubaix.
Race veterans say reaching the velodrome is an achievement in itself, so a neo-pro would certainly be forgiven for surrendering at their first attempt. Yet Dibben, in the fastest edition ever raced, persevered to enter the velodrome and complete the course 47 minutes in arrears of the winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).
“I wouldn’t class it as a finish,” he corrects, adding that the iconic showers served as little impetus. “I don’t know if anyone uses those showers anymore.”
Dibben describes 2017 as a year of two halves — up to the Tour de Suisse and after it, when he started to fatigue in what was a 10-month season following tenure at Team Wiggins, and Cannondale-Drapac as a trainee.
“Last year I was inconsistent in a word. I had a good first half and average second half,” he explains. “I certainly learned a hell of a lot. The length of your season to start with; that’s a long season.”
The GB Academy graduate is one of several fresh faces Sky has recruited in recent years. Dibben, a former world champion on the track, isn’t easily daunted. He is assured, has familiar contemporaries from his time in the national academy and is clearly enjoying it. “It’s certainly not a job. It’s pretty damn good, especially living with my girlfriend, Abby [Mae Parkinson who rides for Trek-Drops], in France now,” he says.
“People like G [Geraint Thomas] I didn’t really know at all before joining the team but by the end of a two-week training camp you feel like everyone is your mate.”
However, it’s his performances at the Spring Classics, specifically at Roubaix, which provide the most pertinent insight into Dibben’s nature. Sky tasked him with covering moves in the first 100km where the peloton averaged 50kph.
He was “cooked” when the bunch hit the first pavé sector. Remarkably, he carried on to sector nine where he punctured and then waited for the broomwagon — to get a spare wheel.
“I just stood there for 10 minutes,” he recalls. “Spectators offered me beers. I thought, I’ve not hacked the last three hours in a little group just to get in the broomwagon with 20km to go.”
Dibben isn’t an overzealous recruit. His performances in the weeks prior to Roubaix were more conservative; he did his job for the team and then abandoned.
“I had a lot better ride at the Tour of Flanders and at Ghent-Wevelgem the week before that compared to Roubaix,” he continues somewhat ironically.
“It’s that whole Classics block; talking about it now gets me excited. Last year we had the same hotel the whole block [in Kortrijk, Belgium], same team every race and it’s that real do or die. Those races if there’s even a hint of a gap you go for it,” he says.
Sky virtually sent the youngest contingent of its Classics squad, including Dibben, to Australia. The outfit is renowned for wielding established champions but less so developing talent. It’s a perception of which performance manager Rod Ellingworth is well aware.
“The early years of our team were always difficult because when you’re trying to win the Grand Tours you’ve got to have guys who can sit on the front all day,” Ellingworth says. “In that way it’s really difficult to develop riders if you were just going to go purely for a development programme.
“We’ve committed to this young group because we believe now we’ve got ideas to take it forward.”
Dibben followed his older brother into cycling. His sibling, after a couple of years racing and breaking bones in Belgium, now has a “real job” in London. Dibben, on the other hand, has bought into Sky’s long game.
“I don’t feel last year I was just slugging away in a race,” he says. “Sky have got more focus on making sure they do develop younger guys now. Gianni Moscon is a really good example. In his first year, he did whatever the team asked and then stepped up last year and was fifth in Roubaix. Now he’s earned the right to be a joint leader at the Classics coming into this year.”
Dibben was fatigued at the end of 2017, but is motivated for a new year in which he aims to support team-mates into the televised part of the Classics, and possibly even secure a ride at the Vuelta a España.
“As well as take any opportunities that come,” he adds, pointing to how Sky reset their plan at the Tour Down Under when designated sprinter Kristoffer Halvorsen crashed out.
“Look at [Chris] Lawless, he didn’t expect to come here and sprint but now he has three stages to have a go with a full team backing him. The moment those opportunities come you need to be ready for them,” Dibben says.