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LEON, Spain (VN) — A year ago, barely anyone outside the tight-knit British cycling community had ever heard of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.
That started to change after he stampeded through the European calendar early season last year, rolling off two stage race victories last February that ticked up interest in the Endura Racing captain.
When he won the Tour of Britain last September, knocking back some top ProTeam talent in front of massive home crowds, Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford came calling.
Perhaps there’s no touch of irony that the 28-year-old has landed at Team Sky this season after a long and winding road.
“This is the best place for me to be if I want to improve and grow as a cyclist,” Tiernan-Locke told VeloNews at last month’s Volta ao Algarve. “This is the best team in the world. It’s amazing to be here.”
As a mountain biker and college student from Plymouth in southwest England, he was never on the inside track of the UK’s bike-racer machine. While British Cycling pumped out the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish, Tiernan-Locke had to find his own way.
Rather than come up through the British cycling federation talent school, Tiernan-Locke had to bang on doors and win races to catch the attention of team managers.
Ten years ago, he was tooling around with mountain bikes and trying to see how far he could go in bike racing. Despite some early amateur success, a bout with Epstein-Barr disease sent him back to university where he studied design. When he returned, he was already too old for the U-23 ranks and had to find rides where he could.
Rather than just have untapped talent that coaches could develop, as a 25-year-old, he had to go out and post results. And that’s what he did.
His breakout 2012 season was pivotal, with early season victories at the Tour Méditeranéen and Haut Var followed by second at the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain.
A snapped clavicle sidelined him for a few months, but he bounced back to win the Tour Alsace and then the Tour of Britain, a huge platform last summer following the historic victory of Wiggins in the Tour de France.
Team Sky is excited about its latest British revelation. While the team has plenty of homegrown talent waiting in the wings, with Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift and Peter Kennaugh, all products of British Cycling, poised for bigger things this season, Tiernan-Locke seems ready to show his colors.
“He showed before coming here he can win bike races,” Sky sport director Marcus Ljungqvist told VeloNews. “He’s that type of rider. He’s planning on being good all season long, not just at the start of the season.”
Tiernan-Locke, known as “JTL,” is easing into his first full season at the top level of the sport. After racing two years with Rapha Condor-Sharp before joining Brian Smith’s Endura Racing in 2012, he knew racing at the WorldTour calendar would be another level.
Flash forward one year, and everything’s changed. Team Sky is the world’s best team, bringing a depth of coaching, knowledge and tools to help him go further than he had ever dreamed.
After debuting discreetly at Mallorca Challenge and the Algarve tour, his first test comes next week at Paris-Nice.
“I’ve been working on volume of training. Last year, I was doing more intense stuff, because I had maybe 50 days of racing,” he said. “This year, I’ve been building to go longer distances.”
Tiernan-Locke has a quality schedule with Team Sky. After Paris-Nice, he’ll be heading to Critérium International and then the Ardennes.
The short, punchy climbs of the Belgian hills are ideal for his racing style. At 5-foot-8 with tree-trunk legs, he’s built for short, intense efforts and he’s hoping to post some solid results in his debut in the Ardennes at the end of April.
“Paris-Nice is an important race and we’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Rather than peak as I did last year early, I want to hit my peak in April. The Ardennes is the first real goal.”
Tiernan-Locke fits in well with Team Sky’s needs for the Ardennes. While they have a solid northern classics stable, with the likes of Mathew Haymen, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernard Eisel, the Ardennes remain a vacuum of sorts. The Colombians Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán will be happy to see the arrival of JTL.
“The way he is built, he is made for the Ardennes,” Ljungqvist said. “They are perfect for him. That’s good for our team, we need more guys for the Ardennes, so he fits in with our team for those classics.”
After a heavy spring racing schedule, he hopes to have a grand-tour debut. With Wiggins aiming for the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France too big for just about any rookie, he’s hoping for a shot at the Vuelta a España.
“Hopefully, we’ll be looking for a grand tour, so we’re looking at the Vuelta,” he said. “It depends on how things go this season.”
Whether he can develop into a grand-tour contender remains to be seen. Right now, he’s content at taking aim at weeklong stage races and the classics.
The future is now for Tiernan-Locke. If the past is any indication, he will be making the most of the opportunity.