'I think I've got more to give': Mark Christian on his rollercoaster journey from Aqua Blue to racing for Alberto Contador's cycling team
The Manxman on the demise of Aqua Blue, riding the Giro for the first time, and why racing is getting faster
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"I'm sure I have a good few years under my belt yet," Mark Christian asserts. The EOLO-Kometa rider is speaking from his home on the Isle of Man, where he still lives despite riding for an Italian team.
"I think I've got more to give," he argues. "I had a couple of mixed years with the way things did turn out. So from going back to continental level, I think I've shown in the last year with this team that I can perform really well at this level, and then hopefully still progress as well."
The 31 year old's cycling story has certainly had its fair share of "mixed years". From winning on the track, to ascending to Pro Conti level with Aqua Blue Sport, then dropping back down to Conti after the demise of that team, now back to near the top with EOLO, it has been a rollercoaster for the Manxman.
Living on the Isle of Man still means that Christian has to contend with the, err, interesting weather of British Isles.
"It just makes it a little bit harder I think. Battling the weather, the rain, wind and like, it's just the mental side," he tells Cycling Weekly. "But luckily, we haven't had any snow or ice this winter. So I've always actually been able to get out and do what needed to be done. Hopefully it picks up soon anyway."
His selection for EOLO-Kometa, the Italian ProTeam run by Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador, might seem an odd one, especially as he is the only British rider alongside 11 Italians and six Spaniards.
However, his transfer to the relatively new team came through Sean Yates, who works as a sports director at the team.
"He [Yates] had moved from another Pro Conti team to this one. Then I was put in touch with him basically, after a couple of phone calls and sent some information over to him, and he passed it onto the team. It all happened quite quickly, actually, over a course of a couple of weeks.
"There was just a spot on the team for me. I always like to thank Sean and the team for having faith in me, after having hardly raced in the year before. I'm really grateful for that."
It was a tough pandemic up to that point for the Manxman. He was part of Team Wiggins Le Col in its final year in 2019, and then joined Canyon dhb p/b Soreen for 2020, just as Covid reared its head.
"It was a strange time," Christian explains. "I was on Canyon at the time, in the UK, so the programme that we ended up with was really limited. We basically had no racing the way things turned out. It was a difficult year, an unknown period. The team had a bit of faith in me, and my numbers in training were still going in the right direction so I was able to put a case forward for myself."
He raced just one UCI race in 2020, the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, which he finished outside the time limit on, 36 minutes behind the winner, Aleksandr Vlasov.
Christian tried not to give up, despite the adversity of a lack of racing coupled with concerns about his future in professional sport.
"I can't really think what my thoughts were at the time," he says. "Maybe it was more just about trying to keep progressing within myself and sort of knowing that It was a difficult time for everyone, it wasn't a normal world. I think that I got back to basics, enjoying riding. The training had a different focus with not knowing when the next race was going to be.
"I had that good feeling of just enjoying riding the bike. Knowing that eventually, there would hopefully be some racing around the corner or something. Even if you didn't know, it was coming in one week, one month, or whenever. I just tried to knuckle down and keep my head screwed on and make the best of the bad situation."
From there to the team run by Basso and Contador seems like a big jump. He rode the Giro d'Italia last year for the team, in its debut grand tour, his second.
"I've really enjoyed it so far," he tells Cycling Weekly. "Last year was a good first year. I'd had a bit of a gap of racing before that, so maybe the first couple of months just took a little bit to get back into racing and back into it, especially at that level.
"Then about halfway through the year I continued to sort of progress, and got back into things really, really nicely. I think overall, the team has been great. All the staff and all the other riders, they've got a good sort of setup, everyone is well drilled."
To be in the Basso/Contador team must have its perks, with the former being the more visible of the pair in the life of the team. Christian actually raced against Contador in his last race, the 2017 Vuelta a España, when the Manxman rode for Aqua Blue. He did finish over four and a half hours behind the man who is now his boss, however.
"Ivan Basso comes to a lot of the races," he says. "Alberto as well he was on the training camp for a few days, he turned up to some of the races as well. It's great to have them as part of the management. They're obviously quite recent in the sport as well, so they know how it works. They know the level we need to be at to be competitive and the way the team needs to be run. So it's great to have big names really behind it and, and part of the management."
Being the only Anglophone on the team has been quite the experience, with Christian admitting that his Italian has needed some work over the past year.
"It's a little bit different," he says. "Actually, language is probably the big thing. I had a little bit of Italian behind me before I went into the team, which is quite lucky. And then I've worked on it quite a lot over the last year. It's definitely improved and most of the younger sort of guys speak a decent bit of English.
"Some of the staff and some of the riders speak hardly any English at all. That's the only difference really. In the past I've been on teams where I'm not the only British rider there, but this year I'm the only full British rider. Culturally, just trying to fit in, it's completely different, comparing an Italian team to a Belgian or an English team."
He is clearly valued by the team, being chosen for its first Giro last year. The squad have received an invite for this year's event as well, and Christian hopes to be lining up in Budapest come May.
"The Giro is the main goal for the team in general, I think for all the riders on the team, that's the first one that everyone wants to do," he says. "Obviously, being on an Italian team, a lot of Italian riders and that, it is definitely a big one. Everyone's got an eye on it.
"That'd be a nice focus as well. I did it last year, and I'd love to have another shot. Which all being well, hopefully, I should be able to."
His second grand tour experience after the 2017 Vuelta was "okay", he says, explaining that when you're in the bubble of a grand tour it does not seem as long as it might to someone on the outside. His first Giro was eye-opening, however, for the man from Douglas.
"The weather was a lot worse in Italy that time of year, which was quite surprising, actually, because you generally think it's at least gonna be alright," Christian explains. "But I think it does get its fair share of bad weather. I had a few issues early on in the race with illness, which held me back a little bit in the first and second week. It was only a few days in when I first picked up whatever illness it was. It was only probably about stage 12 or 13 when I started to shake it off and feel myself again.
"In a way it helped for the last week, that I'd been almost holding myself back without choice and I went into the third week with good legs and maybe a little bit fresher than some other guys, so I was able to have a good positive finish to the race. I'll be raring to go there again this year hopefully."
Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction in 2018, with Christian and his Aqua Blue going to some big races. He even won the mountains classification at the Tour de Suisse, the first person from the British Isles to do so.
Then, just a week before the Tour of Britain, one of the team's big goals, it was announced that it would be no more in 2019.
"I think the way it abruptly ended was not a nice situation for everyone," he says. "But the time I did have there, I have to say I enjoyed it. It was a nice setup, we all got on really well. We were provided with a lot of opportunities to race some pretty good races - I got the Vuelta in my legs and that was my first grand tour.
"Some of the other monuments that we were in, we had a really good calendar of racing. I do look back with fond memories overall, just a shame the way it finished in the end."
That left Christian, and the 15 others in the team, suddenly in the lurch and without a team for 2019. While some like Eddie Dunbar and Caspar Pedersen were given routes to the WorldTour, others were forced to step down a tier or even retire.
"Deep down I was quite confident that I would eventually find something," he says. "But with it being quite late in the year, it was tough. Even with the pandemic and stuff, the team one was more all of a sudden where it was literally finding out one morning. I think it was only a week or so before the Tour of Britain.
"There was just like a switch where it was an absolutely life changing moment where you just one moment you've got a team, you're going to the Tour of Britain, there are a few other races on the cards, you're even looking ahead to the following year. Next thing, it's just swept away from underneath you. So it was just about keeping the faith."
Christian is good at keeping the faith, and it has paid off for him, now back on an upward trajectory.
He explains: "Mentally, because you've been sort of that close to being in that sort of unknown zone of not being able to race and not being able to have a team, you sort of think well actually, now I have got this opportunity and it gives you a different outlook on it. That you want to really make the most of it.
"In the past, it's probably easy to take it for granted and go with it. Then it becomes a bit of a job. But when that's taken away, and you haven't got the choice, all of a sudden you think oh actually I do really like it."
At 31, Christian knows that he has to keep working on himself and training hard in order to stay at the right level.
"You can never stay still, everything is always moving forward and progressing. The races are getting faster, training is improving all the time."
So far this season he has already impressed, finishing sixth on the opening stage of the Ruta del Sol after surviving in the break, and helping his teammate Lorenzo Fortunato to ninth place overall.
Asked why he thinks racing is seemingly getting faster post-pandemic, the Manxman explains that there's a web of intertwined factors.
"Training is advancing and the science behind it is advancing," he says. "Even technology, with bikes and things like that. I think naturally, it's getting quicker, but things are also getting raced a little bit differently as well. I think the rule book got ripped up a lot over the last couple years.
"Races are getting more aggressive from earlier on in the race. The almost unwritten rules went out the window. Especially with some of these younger riders coming through, they aren't scared, there is no fear. And it just sort of changed a little bit."
That is a big shift from when he started his career with An Post - Sean Kelly back in 2012, alongside Sam Bennett.
"Data and science has taken a massive leap over the last five or 10 years, everything is so much more quantifiable," Christian says. "I think that's probably why we're finding guys who are able to train into races a bit more than they used to. In the past everyone talked about racing, as if you needed a month of racing to get back, and form builds through it. Now the first races, the level is already super high.
"I think that's probably the data and nutrition in training, that you can then replicate in a race. With the winter break, that's changed a little bit as well. Everyone used to have a month off and wind down, and now you have to be on it by the time you get to your December training camp. The more you lose in that time, the more you've got to gain again."
Getting back in the groove this week at Coppi e Bartali, Christian will be hoping to continue his good fortune, and move onwards, away from his rollercoaster years.
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Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.
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