The last time James Knox and I sat down in a nondescript Calpe hotel conference room in January 2020 the world was a very different place.
The Brit admits he sort of floated through the pandemic. Sure, the first six weeks as lockdowns unfolded were tough. He doesn’t ride on a turbo trainer and had to correct some of the lifestyle blips brought on by being on your own in an apartment building far away from family and friends while the world as we all knew it crumbled before our eyes.
Knox had bought a car in Andorra, where he lived, just before lockdown, but couldn’t get it insured immediately. Once he could, and was permitted to leave his apartment, he made a dash back to the UK. In between then and now, of course, there’s been some bike racing too. A top 10 overall at Tirreno-Adriatico in 2020 followed up by 14th at the Giro d’Italia before a self-described “disappointing” 2021 where he had some hard moments. If you’re the sort of person only interested in cold, hard, uncaring facts, then that’s the nuts and bolts update of what’s going on with James Knox the bike racer.
But life is about nuance, and for someone as articulate and curious as the 26-year-old can provide more than broad brushstrokes of tangible happenstance.
Two years ago, Knox’s eyes lit up at talk of the future, about potential victories in the biggest races on the calendar. But that was then, and two years on most people's priorities, ambitions, and views on life have changed.
“Up until 2020, every year I was getting a little bit better. The possibilities felt endless,” Knox tells Cycling Weekly.
The natural conclusion was that if he kept going on the same trajectory then these big ambitions could become reality. But then even with the same work ethic and determination during the pandemic years, he plateaued.
“It’s somewhat hard to take but I’m a realist,” Knox says. “I don’t mind if this is my level.”
Of course, that level sees him at the business end of Grand Tour general classifications, and setting world champion Julian Alaphilippe up in the Ardennes Classics.
Co-habiting a team with the likes of Julian Alaphilippe at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl does provide the context to James Knox’s career. Talented enough to get signed and renewed twice so far by the Belgian heavyweights and get his own chances at races, but surrounded by those who pack a proper star rider punch.
“Despite what a lot of people say, and you know, I'm happy to be a team-mate and all of that, but I think most people ride the domestique team-mate role by default,” Knox says. “They have no option, the team tells them this guy is better than you, and 90 per cent of the guys who get told that accept it and realise that the person above them is better.”
Of course, Knox hasn’t given up any hope of one day winning something big but acknowledges that as time passes it gets harder and harder to put your hand up and say you want the team to get behind you to have a crack at the race that day.
This isn’t a sob story, more the quiet struggle of being really good at what you do, but not the best. And in a mostly results-driven business, that counts.
“When you're training at home, that's more of what you dream of,” Knox says of still harbouring ambitions rather than settling into life as a career domestique - it’s worth re-iterating that despite the wisdom that comes with riding his fifth year at WorldTour level, he’s still only 26. For this year, he's switching his approach, however. Changing coaches as a change was needed, things can grow stagnant.
"It's not now or never, is it? I'm 26. It doesn't mean guys don't bloom late. I didn't come out at 18 or 20, like Pogačar, Remco, or Bernal. If it's not in the next two, three years to make that progression to the sort of bigger results then it probably won't happen. But that being said, I'm still very happy to support the top guys around me."
This transfer season just gone, Knox divulges he did talk to other teams. In his very pragmatic way, he does have an agent whom he pays after all, and with professional lives being short-lived ones, there is the case of trying to maximise your income.
In the end, money didn’t really come into it, and he was more than happy to stick around for two more years.
“I don't think the grass is always greener on either side. But probably again, in two more years, I'll be looking about again,” he says.
“You know, there's a lot of noise about the team isn't there? Everything they do. But for me as an individual, I wouldn't say I've done anything remarkable whilst I’ve been here, but just to be a part of everything has been...I think I’m lucky regardless.”
Yes, had he spent his first four years as a pro with another team he could have been afforded some opportunities he hasn’t so far. A Tour de France participation, for instance, is so far a glaring omission for a rider of his talents. But then again, he also wouldn’t have had the “pleasure” to have raced alongside the likes of Alaphilippe, Gaviria, Jungels [the riders he specifically namechecks]. With Knox, everything is measured, analysed, he’s thoughtful and you can see the cogs whirring in his brain when choosing exactly what he wants to say.
So, 2022, what are his Grand Tour plans for this season?
Knox leans in, the conference hall of the hotel dotted with his team-mates talking to various other journalists.
“What have others been saying about which races they’re riding?”
Well, there had been some whispering when Jakobsen said he would be riding the Tour while Mark Cavendish remained cagey on the subject. But generally, people haven’t been too detailed in sharing their plans.
“I’m going to play it cool then. I’m not entirely sure yet. I’ve had my name on the line for all three so we’ll have to see how it pans out.” The sort of answer that reminds you that Knox is a top-level professional cyclist.
But next, it’s time for a question for Knox the individual. Having not ridden the Tour de France or won a professional race yet, and it’s a big yet, which would he choose if he could only have one of them?
“That is a good question,” Knox puffs his cheeks out.
“Finally,” I reply.
“Yeah,” Knox says, straight-faced, with no hint of a potential reimbursement of sarcasm, he’s telling me this is maybe the first genuinely good question I’ve asked in the half an hour we’ve been talking.
“It depends on the race, doesn’t it?”
“Ok, a WorldTour race, a stage of a WorldTour race or a reasonably large one-dayer. Or, you ride the Tour and you’re guaranteed to get all the way to Paris.”
“Are you saying I could have San Sebastián on the palmarès?”
“I’d probably take the win. I would be bitter about the Tour de France though.”
“Mark has bragging rights in that regard over you now.”
“Oh yeah,” Knox realises. “He does.”
“After everything I’ve done for him as well,” Knox says with a smile, joking around now. “I literally scooped him out of Cumbria, gave him a chance. Took him under my wing.”
“Did you though?”
It’s a nice story, Knox says. Mark Donovans’ dad reached out to his dad, saying that it appeared their sons were doing remarkably similar things with their lives. Knox’s dad called his son up, telling him there was this lad from Penrith wanting to get out to Europe.
Donovan went out to do a couple of weeks of training with him in Girona late in the year in 2017 and then simply moved in. A few years of living together followed, Donovan has spoken of the nice group of English-speakers they’ve found to play cricket with in the country, and they’re still practically neighbours now.
That means Knox was present throughout the period when Donovan’s mother sadly passed away. Even from Knox’s point of view, it’s been overwhelming at times so he can’t imagine what it was like for his friend, especially then riding his debut Tour de France soon after.
“It's very sad but also a great testament to who he is as a person,” Knox says. “I think the world of him as a bloke and as a bike rider.”
Life can and will be brutal. Fellow British WorldTour rider James Shaw said as much of the cycling world last year.
“I saw those words he said and it's not that I necessarily disagree with him,” Knox begins. “But like, we're in professional sport. I think I'd much rather be here than like, say a stock market broker in the City of London, working 18 hours a day doing six years of study and just grinding it out.
“It's not easy what we do, but to a certain extent, we're sort of blessed to be given this opportunity. It's a certain degree of natural talent and hard work. What percentage? We'll never know, but everyone who gets here works really, really hard. If you keep your head down, keep working hard…I'd like to say I don't rub people the wrong way? I think I could have been a little bit shitter on this team and still would be here because two years down the line no one will go ‘that Knox is an absolute little prick let's get rid of him’.
“So to some extent it's also a people business and you're part of a team, you have to make sure that you can be a part of that understand what it means to be a part of a team, even if like, day in day out, you don't have the legs.”
Knox says the belief that flows from the managers and staff at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl is very real and having a team of that stature backing you makes a world of difference.
“Maybe my experiences would be different if I was riding for a smaller team. Battling my own doubts and battling the small team mentality. That does prevail because it's hard not to, the odds are stacked against them. It's not like it’s always been easy for me but even the hard times, I've understood why they're hard, we all go through ups and downs.”
Those hard times give Knox the motivation to get back home after a bad race and get his head down, work harder and prove himself wrong at the next one.
Balancing home life, and one usually lived in a foreign country, is one of the hardest parts of being a pro, Knox confesses.
“I think that's why a few of the British guys do crumble away,” he reckons. Moving to Europe was always what Knox wanted to do but it doesn’t work for everyone. But he’s still surrounded by English speakers and admits despite living in the Spanish-speaking world for a few years now his grasp on the language is still pretty poor.
Cycling - his day job - is therefore something quite social for him. Training isn’t a chore if it’s down with someone else, mealtimes are shared with others, going so far as to suggest it’s similar to living a university-style existence where your small group is on the same schedule away from the real world. Except, of course, lager is replaced by lycra.
At 26, it’s too early for Knox to worry about what comes after this WorldTour odyssey.
“There's too much of life itself [to get caught up in]. Relationships, where I'm living, all these little things as a 26-year-old seem way more important than retirement and what comes after.
“I'm sure for yourself you can say the same thing. You get caught up in the little things, don't you? Your mates, trying to have a good time away from cycling, what holidays I'm going to have at the end of the year…I’m often more worried about that to be honest.”
One bike race that turned into a holiday for the Brit was the Tokyo Olympics, taking as Team GB’s reserve for the road race.
“I had a great time,” Knox says. “The team was a bit here and there about me in the end, I think I think they feel like it was a mistake in hindsight, but I told them quite clearly at the time the Olympics is a dream of mine…and I’m sorry to say for them but I was just banking on Tao or G crashing out of the Tour, hoping I get a ride, but they didn't so I didn't get a ride.”
Instead, Knox flew over to Japan with the Yates’ brother for 12 days beforehand to try and get the full experience despite all the Covid protocols.
“For me, I didn't know I was going to be a cyclist growing up, for whatever reason I knew I wasn’t going to be a footballer, so beyond being a footballer I decided I liked the idea of doing something that'll be at an Olympic level. So I kind of felt like it was a bit of a dream to be there. I had a great time with the Yateses, they are both really funny.”
Stop everything. The Yates brothers are secret jokers?!
“They're not so loud in the media but the pair of them together, they're bouncing off each other. I was howling at the dinner table most nights.”
“It's kind of weird because everyone forgets I was there,” Knox professes of his Olympic Games. “I don't think I’ll be at Paris .”
Maybe you’ll be finishing the Tour de France that year and can stay on to watch the Games instead?
“Yeah,” Knox smiles. “That would be alright.”
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.