In a world where early-twenty-somethings don’t just win bike races but dominate them, there’s something quite refreshing in Mark Donovan. At just 22 and tipped to produce his own eye-catching performances, he is calling for patience.
“It's a difficult one, actually, also hard because I’ve never experienced how it was before,” the Team DSM rider tells Cycling Weekly. “You do have to take a step back and say, ‘I’m 22’. [Tadej] Pogačar won his first Tour when he was 22 but I’m not in a position to do that. It’s like, OK, steady on now, let’s see the bigger picture and look at what people used to do.
“Chris Froome didn’t win his first Grand Tour until he was in his late 20s. For some people, you have to accept what you’re going to be like, trust you know what is good for you. Some guys are really good young and that’s great for them.
“I’m not stressing about having to win races, to be the best I can right now. I don’t worry that I have to be at the top of the sport when I’m 23. I’m trying to keep my head level and slowly develop, rather than pushing it.”
Donovan is one of Britain’s most exciting young riders, part of the same age group as Ineos Grenadiers duo Ethan Hayter and Tom Pidcock, with Fred Wright, Matt Walls, and Jake Stewart also coming together to form what has been dubbed the country’s second golden generation in the past 15 years.
Up until now, his two years in the WorldTour have been about learning, completing the 2020 Vuelta a España that included two impressive days in the break, and then riding to a respectable 45th-placed finish at last summer’s Tour de France.
“Mark’s made the transition to the WorldTour well and I think we’ll start to see all his learning come to the fore in the coming months,” his team’s DS Matt Winston predicts.
Patience, though, is the game. “I’m not in a position to be winning Grand Tour stages yet, although I don’t think it’s a million miles away,” Donovan adds.
“But seeing those guys who are super young, basically the same age as me, winning Grand Tours and stages, it’s impressive and motivating. It makes it seem possible.
“I think it also kicks on the level of the whole sport, because now there are more guys who are contenders to win than even just five years ago. Then it was a bunch of guys in their late-20s and early-30s who were the top guys, and they had been developing for 10 years, slowly getting better.
“We’ve still got them, but now we’ve also got riders who are 22, 23, and 22 who are capable of it. We’ve got twice as many people vying for the same races.”
It must, I ask, seem suffocating, hard to make a name for yourself when the depth of quality runs so deep. “It’s easy to get caught up in it, but you just have to trust yourself," he answers. "I enjoy it, and I hope that the hard work will pay off.”
Winston says that Donovan “for sure has the potential to develop into a leader, but that’s probably a year or two away.” He talks about Donovan’s quiet, reserved personality, although has noted that the Cumbrian “is developing as a person more. We’ve seen this winter that he is talking more. But Mark’s the sort of person who draws on experiences. He’s not one to be asking questions all the time, but he’ll soak everything in.”
He’s spent part of his winter in his European base of Andorra, taking advantage of copious amounts of early-season snowfall in the Pyrenees. “Especially in December I was out ski touring a lot,” he says, the winter sport being adopted by dozens of pros in the past few years as an alternative form of training. “It’s a nice bit of training, it’s relaxed and it’s fun to pootle around.”
He will make his season debut at this week’s Tour de la Provence and then has his sights on riding a Grand Tour for the third successive season, although the team is still to decide which one that will be.
Softly-spoken, and calm, Donovan is excited about the year ahead, one in which his contract expires. There’s no worry about that though. He’s progressing at his speed, persuading many along the way of his capabilities.
“I’m confident that I am in a good position to carry on and pick up where I left off in the last few years,” he adds. “In one-week stage races I see good opportunities to get stuck in, convert top-20s into top-10s and top-fives, and be more consistent in the front group. I’m also really keen to help the team’s top guys like Romain Bardet so that they can win, rather than vying just for my own results.”
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