Should James Knox happen to scroll past this article, you might see a wry smile emerge on his face at another reminder that he’s a professional cyclist living his dream, but any dreams beyond that he’ll probably want to shut down. Like many pros seemingly on the cusp of reaching the level where they’ll go on to compete for major victories, it’s an attitude of humility and unspoken determination that’s got him here.
Until last year’s Vuelta a España, the 24-year-old Brit had largely flown under the radar compared to similarly talented WorldTour riders of the same nationality. That all changed with an 11th place finish in his second-ever three-week stage race and puts the Cumbrian in the bracket of being one of the next great Grand Tour hopes for Britain.
With Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas’ retirements increasingly coming into view over the horizon and the Yates twins the next generation of riders who can maintain serious Grand Tour aspirations, after that comes Knox. He finds himself grouped with EF Pro Cycling’s Hugh Carthy and Ineos’ Tao Geoghegan Hart for riders who, come the turn of the next decade, are the most likely to have added to Britain’s Grand Tour victory tally.
Knox is a serious guy and expresses himself well, taking his time with each question during our interview before imparting some carefully considered wisdom. This is no longer the 22-year-old who admits he was “s**t-scared” the first time he met Patrick Lefevere and the “star riders” of his new Deceuninck – Quick-Step team at the end of 2017, in Calpe, Spain, which is where our meeting takes place more than two years later at the squad’s 2020 team presentation.
Instead, a continued conviction in making small, if significant, steps each year will now see him face a challenge to step up and become one of those “star riders” he once feared if he is to continue the trajectory of his career so far.
“Making improvements every year is the big thing and 2019 was another step forward,” Knox tells Cycling Weekly when asked to reflect on his past season after some time away from the road. “I had some nice results from the start, got two or three top 10s on GC, a couple of good stage results here and there and then to finish off with the Vuelta was…still surprising I guess, I was never expecting anything like that.”
Whether or not his good results have come as a surprise, Knox says there isn’t necessarily a “hard” part of being a professional cyclist, and that normalising the life of a professional athlete has been the key to his success so far.
“I think that the trick for me personally just been making everything as easy as possible, putting yourself in an environment where it becomes normal to be a professional athlete,” Knox says, having made the necessary changes to his diet, improving his training and relocating to mainland Europe where the weather and other pros to ride with makes his career choice seem like a less weird, lonely endeavour.
“I’ve tried to make everything as easy as possible and then from there on in I don’t think it is too hard. You just have to get up in the morning, get on your bike and do the work.”
He has confidence in the method, and with six new Brits joining the men’s WorldTour this season his advice for the neo-pros is very much the same.
“You just have to get on with it, expect to get your head kicked in,” Knox says. “But stay mentally tough…that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? I guess I was lucky I had that attitude from the start, but you know I always expected it to be hard, I wasn’t expecting success straight away. Slowly things come, you’ve just got to stay focused, knuckle down and do the work. Don’t be afraid to train hard and over time things get easier.”
Knox previously told this magazine of the stress of “being in the dark” as an U23 rider without a contract before four offers flooded in during July of 2017. But what about the stresses these days? How does he deal with the pressure of now being on the best WorldTour team in the peloton and striving to kick on to the next level?
“I mean, I’m a thinker so things will keep me up at night and I guess you do sort of have to break things down,” he says. “Like, I’ll start scribbling in the notes in my phone or whatever if I think something needs a mental plan of attack but I think my stress in life is thinking about bike racing…that’s obviously fleeting, though, isn’t it? You know, it’s there for a reason, you know why you’re stressing. You work through it.”
Sleepless nights aside, what about when Knox allows himself to dream of what the rest of his career could entail? If he allows himself one moment away from training regimes and the very sportsmanlike ‘taking each individual step-up as it comes’, what is top of the wish list?
“It’s a bit of a cliché because everyone wants to win the biggest races…but of course I’d love to win the Tour de France or Liège or Lombardia,” with Knox’s eyes lighting up and a smile escaping at the sheer mention of the French Grand Tour. After a moment, however, it’s gone, and Knox is back in reality.
“Realistically, that probably will never happen but I guess in many ways I am living my dream, I’m a professional cyclist. I never expected anything more than that really, the idea of being a professional sportsman was always the dream I had.
“I’ve ridden a Grand Tour, which people watch on the telly and then go ‘holy s**t, what’s it like to ride a Grand Tour?!’ you know, racing for three weeks, I’ve done that, I’ve experienced it.”
Primarily, there are two things that Knox wants to check off his bucket list, and refreshingly it speaks to a genuine love of the sport rather than just winning. “I guess riding the Tour de France and riding the Olympics, and then I guess I’ve almost done everything I ever dreamed of. Results are an added bonus but to be here living this life is what I always dreamed of.”
Meanwhile, another English-speaking import lands at Deceuninck – Quick-Step this season, and his ambitions are more likely to be results-based. Sam Bennett arrives from Bora-Hansgrohe in search of Tour de France stage victories and billing as the top sprinter amongst the roster. With Elia Viviani’s departure to Cofidis, the Irishman looks on course for a big season. Knox’s first impressions of him after having joined are anything but that of the normal connotations that surround star sprinters.
“He has a really humble attitude for who I consider a big star of the sport,” Knox says. “I think if you put him along with all the new guys on the team this year and you got to know him without any idea of the results behind them you would not suspect Sam was a guy who has joined with a pretty huge palmarès. He’s just an easy, normal guy and doesn’t expect any special treatment.”
Just as Bennett now finally finds himself in a situation where he doesn’t have to jostle for position within a squad, Knox’s choice of Deceuninck – Quick-Step, whose roster isn’t filled with climbing talent, means he will once again be selected for the Giro and Vuelta and be able to focus on cracking a first top 10 overall placing in the general classification.
“Hopefully the plan is for this year to do a pretty similar preparation towards the Giro. If everything goes well, we’ll see what happens with the middle of the year but then I’ll go again for the Vuelta. I’ll be trying to get around both Grand Tours this year. I’m lucky with this team that I get a really great program for me. They get to give me all the opportunities I want and we’re on a pretty similar wavelength in terms of what fits.”
In between Knox’s fairly run-of-the-mill sermons of hard work are refreshing moments of candour. Not too cerebral but a grounded understanding that he is more than a pair of legs on a bike. In 10 years’ time he would undoubtedly love to have some results to show for his hard work. But for Knox, it seems to be a lot more about the journey rather than a particular destination.