Jon Dibben and Owain Doull – Team Sky’s inseparable British duo – “did not know what to expect” heading to their first year in the top WorldTour ranks.
The 2017 season went “up and down”, even included a win for Dibben, and allowed them try the big Classics to realise just how much work still remains in front of them.
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They survived Paris-Roubaix in northern France, which many consider the hardest and most famed cobbled Classic. They raced with Sky’s biggest names, including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome. And they recognised Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard – leaders in the Classics and domestiques in the Grand Tours – as their role models.
Now, they began to reflect on the last 12 months.
Dibben, 23, appears the most at ease of the two, leaning back in the couch and tossing cashew nuts in his mouth when not speaking about his neo-professional year with the British super team. Doull, the 24-year-old who raced to a gold medal in the Rio de Janeiro team pursuit, appears more distant and observant but warms quickly with Dibben sitting shotgun.
The two have just finished the Tour of Guangxi in south China when we speak, the last WorldTour race of the season and their last job for Team Sky until 2018. Both miss racing on the track, but say they are relieved to enjoy the coming off-season without any immediate responsibilities.
“Ah yeah!” Dibben says relieved when noting the 2017 season has ended.
They were two of only three debutants in Sky’s roster for 2017, the third being another Brit, Tao Geoghegan Hart. Given their characteristics, and Geoghegan Hart’s tilt towards stage races, the duo spent much time developing together this season and strengthened the bond that already existed from the junior ranks.
One speaks for the other. Doull would finish Dibben’s sentence or Dibben would interrupt and do so for Doull. Scheduling the interview only required asking Dibben because he said, “Don’t worry about Owain, I’ll get him.”
“I think people already said in interviews last year in December, when people asked if it will be good to be with your mates, and you say ‘yes’ as a default answer, but afterwards, you discover it really it is,” Dibben explains. “You have the same people you’ve raced with and known for ages. It makes it easier racing with mates.”
“I’d say that’s more me and you,” Doull adds. “We’ve done a very similar race programme. Also we have a similar role, like in the Classics. We worked together well. A prime example this year is that when we were in the Tour of Flanders. Team Quick-Step wanted to go full-whack on the Muur, and we wanted to do the same to try to anticipate Peter Sagan.
“It was our job to go to the Muur on the front. Jon led up it and I was second wheel. Tom Boonen was third and Philippe Gilbert was fourth. It was a cool moment.”
The two seemingly gelled into one as they spoke. Mistakenly, I call Owain “Jon” when asking if it could get any better than leading the famous Flanders race up an iconic climb in front of the Classics stars. He politely corrects the name slip.
“I’d be better doing the same thing 20 kilometres to go instead of 100 kilometres to go,” Doull continues. “It’s all about progression, though. Every year you go a bit deeper and you have more of an important role. You won’t make massive leaps, going from 80th to top-10.”
Sky dominate Grand Tours thanks to Chris Froome and its strong back-up squad. After some fumbles, including pre-Classics altitude camps, the team is progressing towards a win in one of the cobbled Monuments Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
They won in the other monuments, with Wout Poels taking the 2016 Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Michal Kwiatkowski the 2017 Milan-San Remo.
They placed well in the cobbled ones and in the lower ranking one-day races, Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard already took the winner’s trophies.
Dibben and Doull joined the professional ranks and Sky’s Classics team at the right time, but they must navigate the choppy waters. Sky boss David Brailsford said that Doull for example is so much like Thomas, good in one-day and stage races, and needs to find his calling. The first years, he explained, will be about discovery.
“For sure, I thought in the first year I’d learn about races and all of that stuff. I thought that was just the line, but after doing this year, you really do appreciate that,” Doull says.
“It’s also doing the races, realising the magnitude of them and level you have to be at if you want to do well in them. That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from this year. For example, in the Classics, it’s realising what you need to do if you want to be in the sharp end.
“Now, I know what I need to do if I want to get better in those races and what I need to change in my training. You also realise how big the races are and how important and how special they are. It’s also that added motivation through the winter.”
“It’s true, when you get a taste and realise how cool those race are,” Dibben adds while Doull fades off. “You get a sniff of what it’d be like to be there, and it gives you that extra bit of motivation.”
They raced the range of Classics from E3 Harelbeke to Paris-Roubaix. Doull, who sat out due to appendicitis earlier on, was able to extend into the Ardennes Classics and ride the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne. Roubaix “shocked” them and opened their eyes.
“Roubaix was super tough, also given the job I had. The break never went so it was 100 kilometres of rolling roads before we hit the cobbles – full-gas trying to get the break going. Only then the race started,” Dibben says.
“It was 100 kilometres flat-out before you even hit any cobbles! That was certainly a hell of a shock, just the speed of the race. Then the Tour de Suisse, it wasn’t a shock, I know mountains are hard, but doing three four days of them, big bloody hills. It’s a real eye opener that it is as hard as you think it might be.
“That’s the big thing, you see exactly what the level is to win one and you know where you are. You can see the gap you have to bridge.”
Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard led Sky’s British charge with Thomas in the Classics over the past seven years. Stannard raced into Roubaix velodrome and sprinted to third place in 2016. They both change gears after the spring to support Sky’s Grand Tour captains, with Dibben and Doull trying to follow that blueprint.
“Yeah, I think it’s a copy-cat of what ‘Yogi’ and Luke do a lot: do the full Classics block and really focus on that and then as soon as the Classics finish, wait and try to climb better and fulfil that role that they have in the Grand Tours,” Doull says.
“They are kind of the blueprint for what we want to do in the future. They are bloody good at it. Ian missed the Tour this year, but he was good in the Vuelta. They’ve done it a few years in a row now: the Classics and straight to the Tour in a team role. That’s the blueprint for us.”
Their robustness has seen them successfully navigate their freshman year when others in the past have lost their way among Sky’s stars. Dibben beat the best to win the time trial in the Tour of California. Doull’s appendix aside, they both had full and consistent seasons that ran from January to October. Dibben explained last year when he was in Team Wiggins that it would be the hardest challenge. In track programme, he had many peaks, but in the WorldTour as a full-time professional, he needed to run consistently throughout.
“For both of us we did the bigger races we wanted to in the Classics,” says Dibben. “We pretty much did all the Classics. With so many climbers, the Tour or the Vuelta is hard to get into. Maybe that chance will come later on.”
“Any team you go to as a neo-pro, unless you are a really big U23 sprinter, you are always going to have to do your time and work, and I think that’s the same with this team,” Doull says.
“On the flip side, if you went to a smaller team maybe you’d have more opportunities. It’s obviously a stacked roster, but the amount of support you have here and the chance of riding with such big riders.
“The biggest thing reassurance-wise, up until the Tour of Britain, [is that] I’d done 50 days of racing, and every single day WorldTour. You’re in a bubble thinking that’s what bike racing is, then I did [the Tour du] Poitou Charentes, the Tour of Britain, and I ended up top-10 overall without really going for it.
“You forget that in those WorldTour races, many guys are there with them as big targets. The overall level is so high that you feel a bit lost at times. It’s nice to know that you can still be in the bike race. To be back racing instead of just trying to survive.”
Doull believes that without Danny Van Poppel or Elia Viviani in the team for 2018, Sky’s brass could let him do more of what he was doing for Team Wiggins and go for small bunch sprints.
“I’ll aim for that, and Jon and I will both try to race the big Classics again. For us it’ll be even harder with Dylan Van Baarle joining [from Team Cannondale-Drapac] and the team roster cut down to seven. We have a stronger squad, and to be involved will be massive.”
Viviani joined Quick-Step to have a chance to race the Grand Tours, while Mikel Landa went to Movistar to lead the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France team. Ben Swift, Richie Porte and Ian Boswell left looking for more opportunities outside the marginal gain team. However, Dibben and Doull predict long careers in Sky’s black and blue colours.
“It’s a testament to the team and how well you get looked after,” Doull explains. “I remember Mark Cavendish said to me when I first signed with Sky after the Tour of Britain in 2015…
“Mark said, ‘Ah man, you’re stuffed now!’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Any team you go to after this is just going to look disorganised and unprofessional compared to Sky because everything is done to a T and you’ll end up taking that for granted.”