Eighth place at the Tour de l’Avenir may have earned him a WorldTour contract at Quick-Step Floors, but fans would have been forgiven for knowing little about 22-year-old James Knox at the start of this season.
That’s until he started putting in some mammoth turns on the front of the Abu Dhabi Tour, drawing attention with domestique performances that have helped Elia Viviani to one stage win and into the overall lead after three stages.
The numbers are there for something special. Rumours are going around Girona – where the Brit from Kendal now lives – that he recently broke a climbing a record held by Bradley Wiggins.
Despite his strong performances in the Abu Dhabi desert, results over the last two years riding for Team Wiggins have shown that he’s a climber, with some not expecting him to settle so quickly with Belgian WorldTour team, Quick-Step Floors.
So, who exactly is James Knox, and why is he so strong?
“I didn’t really know him until this year, but he’s a strong little bugger,” Luke Rowe (Team Sky) told Cycling Weekly the morning after Knox had impressed with a strong performance on stage two of the Abu Dhabi Tour.
“On the first day, it was a long drawn-out day and he rode at the front the whole day. If you look at his characteristics, I think he is more of a climber, but here he proved himself to be strong on the flats. It’s early days, but I think he has had a promising start to a pro career.”
“He’s a young lad from Kendal, in the Lake District,” Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) explained. “He used to be a runner. He is a light guy, 58 kilos. He’s lean and looks good. What’s possible for him? Anything and everything.
“If you think about his weight, that’s why it’s quite impressive. It’s a good workload for him, he pulled all day, 90km on the first day. And if he can do that, for sure when he goes to the mountains he’ll be a lot stronger.”
After Viviani won stage two on Thursday, he picked out Knox for special praise in his interviews after the stage. Knox helped pull the second echelon group back up to the first group to give Viviani a chance at victory, before moving to the front of the race to prevent further attacks in the final 20km.
“He’s a fighter. I saw that in the last couple of years in Team Wiggins, he has some grit and fight in him. He’ll go far,” added Scott Davies (Dimension Data), who rode with Knox at Team Wiggins in 2016 and 2017.
“He’s a proud Cumbrian. A great climber, a good GC rider. He’s pretty robust to be fair. I’ve seen him also crash and get back in, so he’s robust. He can go far.
“He’ll morph into a GC rider. These first two years are all about the learning. I’m sure he’ll burst onto the scene sooner or later.”
Davies said he will have his new team-mates laughing sooner or later, that “Knoxy” has a good sense of humour.
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“He’s from the North,” Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin), who is less familiar with Knox, said. “By the sounds of things, he’s from way up there, where the sun doesn’t shine and it rains all the time.
“I heard his numbers are phenomenal. That was the biggest reason why Quick-Step signed him. We are in a day and age where your numbers are more and more important. Not more than race results, but they are heavily taken into account. It will be interesting to see how he does.”
Also 22 years old, Team Sky rider Tao Geoghegan Hart is in his second year at WorldTour level, but has a long memory of racing with Knox.
“We have been racing together since we were 15 or 16,” said Geoghegan Hart. “He’s always been strong. He’s got the perfect physique for a climber.
“He’s from Kendal, so there’s really hard riding around there. We’ve trained together a couple times around there, and it’s not easy, you can see why he’s strong.
“He’s come from a bit of a different path than many British riders riders. I did a similar thing too, so many people don’t know him, but he was already riding the junior Worlds in Florence [in 2013], so it’s not like he popped out of nowhere.”
As for Knox himself, he appeared relaxed as he laughed with his team-mates at the Abu Dhabi Tour as they prepared for Friday’s third stage. Viviani wore the red leader’s jersey, so everyone was in good spirits.
“Who is James Knox and why is he so good? Well, who’s asking that question? That’s what I want to know,” said the man himself. “That question’s done me, you got me. I’m sorry!
“I’m a proud Cumbrian. There are not many Cumbrian cyclists. It’s a small spot in the UK, and not many people do it. I’m proud.”
After his impressive rides and results in the amateur ranks, Knox met with the Quick-Step staff for tests in August 2017. They met again after they confirmed the deal at the Tour of Britain.
“The team won more than anyone else last year, and just to be part of that is exciting,” Knox continued.
“There are plenty of guys who do a better job at [riding in the crosswinds] in the field today, but we have Elia in the team here and I’m trying to get stuck in. I am hoping to excel in the climbs later this year, but right now, it’s baby steps.”
“I’m extremely excited to do those races and see how I shape up against these guys. I’m not expected to do anything, but just to see what the level is and build a bit of strength.”