In the age of teams signing riders straight from the junior ranks, or teenagers foregoing their development careers entirely, Oliver Knight stands out.
The softly spoken 23-year-old from Bedfordshire has not done anything radical, not really, but simply completed his years at under-23 level before moving to the WorldTour. It's not radical, but in the age of teenagers like AJ August, Markel Beloki and Theodor Storm signing pro contracts, it feels different.
Not that Knight feels that difference, he's very much at one with his decision.
"It's strange, but I never felt like it was taking too long," he tells Cycling Weekly and GCN in a side room at the Adelaide Hilton during the Tour Down Under. "I never felt like I was in too much of a rush. You see guys now signing WorldTour contracts as a first-year junior.
"There are always going to be guys that are that level, but I know for myself, if I was in a position where I could sign WorldTour two years ago... I'm a completely different person now. I really got to enjoy the last two years as an under-23, being pretty successful as an amateur, and learn not only styles of racing but also what works well for me."
"I think I've got a bit more sense now," he continues. "I'm in the process of looking for somewhere to rent, sorting out finances... if I was having to do this two, three years ago, I wouldn't be coping with it as well."
The Tour Down Under was his first race as a proper professional with Cofidis, his new team - he spent time as a stagiaire at the squad last year - but sadly, it only lasted a day and a half before Knight was forced out with illness. Still, the race gave him his first taste of being a WorldTour cyclist.
“Even though I've done two years as a stagiaire, it's still different to being fully on the team,” Knight explains. “Being coached by the team, on the group WhatsApp and everything. It's just different. Having that security of knowing that it's now your job for the next at least two years. It's just quite surreal.”
The French connection
Knight made his way to Cofidis after four years with AVC Aix-en-Provence, four years he was able to complete thanks to funding from the Rayner Foundation, who named him its rider of the year for 2023. It was the same path trodden by Harrison Wood, now into his second year with the team.
"I knew I didn't want to end up in Belgium, as it would be predominantly flat, same as northern France," he says of his decision to head to the south of France. "I knew also, with Aix, that there would be a good taste of UCI racing. The majority of French teams don't venture out of France, but I have with Aix.
"I did the full four seasons at under-23, which feels like a long time. It's a long time when you look at other guys, other Brits, who don't stick around too long, especially abroad. Every year, I felt that if I wasn't stepping up to the WorldTour, then I didn't think I'd get a better opportunity anywhere else."
AVC was the perfect team for Knight to develop and flourish; one gets the sense that he not only is a good rider, but a well-rounded person, something his new squad undoubtedly foresaw.
"It was such a welcoming team," he says of AVC. "There were times where I struggled; I never really got too homesick, but there were times I'd rather have been at home, and I couldn't. At the start, I couldn't speak French, no one could speak English, and all I wanted to do was speak my own language.
"That was hard, but they were so welcoming and seemed so comfortable. I wasn't having to deal with the pressure of having to compete with the world's best cyclists at the same time. It's hard going through that age if you're a WorldTour pro or an amateur."
Cofidis, his new employers, don't feel a million miles away from what he is used to. The boss of AVC had connections at Cofidis, and therefore Knight followed Wood. Contact was made as early as 2021, to show how on it teams are in terms of future talent.
“It's a traditional French team,” he says. “It's not too far off from what I've experienced under-23 days. It does feel a bit like a family, and it doesn't feel like I'm really looking up to anyone too much. We're all here for the same goal, and that's to make the team successful.
"It doesn't feel like I'm really looking up too much to anyone. It's more of like, you're all there for the same goal, really. And that's to make you and in the process make the team successful."
From work experience to full-time
Cofidis was not the first WorldTour team that Knight has ridden for. In 2022, the Englishman spent time with UAE Team Emirates, the squad of Tadej Pogačar, as a stagiaire. He raced 12 times for the Middle Eastern outfit.
"It's tricky," he says when asked to compare his time as a trainee. "The first time I did it was different to the second time. The first time, I knew I was purely a stagiaire, there was a chance [of a contract], but nothing more. I had a bit of bad luck then, I broke my pelvis.
"It feels like you're intruding into this environment that is so well-knitted, that it's a bit awkward and hard to break into that. I focused more on the social stuff than the racing, it's whether you can integrate that's the most important bit.
"Last year was a bit different, because I'd been on a lot of the team camps, I knew a lot of the guys, so it made that integration process a lot easier. I knew there was a contract at the end of it."
Knight really broke through at last year's Tour of Luxembourg, where he might not have achieved a ridiculous result, but spent time in a long breakaway and caught the eye.
"It was definitely a race that gave me a lot of confidence," he says. "I was given quite a lot of freedom, especially as a stagiaire, to go and race it aggressively. My result wasn't incredible, but it was enough to give me confidence that I could do it. [I was] being an entertainer, because I suppose that's all it is at the end of the day."
This is what he hopes to do more of this year: "There will be times when I get a bit more freedom, and the races I'll do will be pretty aggressive anyway.
"Obviously you've got to take it seriously, but I'm trying not to take it too seriously where you're stressing over every minute thing," he continues. "In times where I've had a good block of things going well, it's when I've been relaxed and not overthought things. You're going to get injuries, you're going to crash, and you're going to get ill, so it's just learning how to overcome it."
It does not feel that Knight is overawed by his new environment, that of big names, exotic locations and journalists wanting to interview you in your downtime.
"[I don't get intimidated] really now," he says. "I think I felt it a bit when I was with my first stagiaire team. From last year, I didn't really get too intimidated. I knew the numbers were good, and it's always going to be a bit different in the bunch, and everyone is more skilled."
Having matured on his terms, learned and grown, and now finding himself at WorldTour level, it seems Knight is ready to have his breakout year. Stay healthy, maintain his attitude and results will surely come.
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