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One of the standout performers at last week’s Santos Festival of Cycling was 20-year-old Australian Luke Plapp. Plapp was racing for the Garmin-Australia national team alongside WorldTour pros Richie Porte and James Whelan, plus his national track squad teammates. Plapp ended the four-day race in second overall, courtesy of two stellar results.
On stage 2 Plapp attacked on the final climb, 10 km from the finish, and rode to an impressive solo victory. On stage 3, Plapp was the only rider able to bridge to Porte when the latter broke clear on the slopes of Willunga Hill, with Plapp ultimately taking second on the stage.
The Festival of Cycling wasn’t the first time Plapp’s had success on the road – he took a silver medal in the U19 Worlds ITT in 2018 (behind Remco Evenepoel) and in 2020 he became Australia’s U23 time trial champion. He’s also a two-time junior world champion on the track and part of Australia’s track endurance squad for the Tokyo and Paris Olympics.
CyclingTips caught up with Plapp to chat about his breakout performance in Adelaide last week, what it was like riding with Porte, and how he’s now got more than a few WorldTour teams after his signature.
CyclingTips: You must have been happy with how last week played out?
Luke Plapp: Yeah, it was pretty unexpected. We’ve been doing a bit of a track block at the moment, so … we knew we were going well, but we just didn’t know how we were climbing compared to the others. And I guess because you haven’t raced anyone for so long, you didn’t know how they were going. But no, it was a pretty unreal week. I don’t think I could have asked for much more.
Did you guys go into the week with the plan of riding for you on stage 2 and Richie on stage 3?
The only plan we ever had was Richie winning up Willunga and working for Sam [Welsford] in the crit [Welsford won stage 4 as planned – ed]. And then we were just playing it by ear. I had to ride the front all day on day one for the boys. So they definitely weren’t working for me for the tour!
Stage 2 up Fox Creek, I sort of rated that climb a lot and have done it a couple times and I thought I’d go alright. Me and Kel [O’Brien] had a bit of a joint leadership role because we both thought we’d have a crack. I guess it worked out a lot better than I could have expected.
Can you talk me through that final climb from your perspective?
Richie rode the front all day for us and then I was just sitting on Sammy and he was taking care of me in the bunch. And then we got to the base of the climb and Richie had brought back the break by himself and then Sam just did an absolutely massive burner at the bottom just to keep it strung out to stop any attacks.
Then it was I’ll go as hard as I can and if Kel can come over the top and attack, he does that. If not, I’ll get away. And yeah, I just had unreal legs which helped and just decided I’d go to the finish line knowing that if it did come back, Kel was probably the quickest in the bunch for sprint.
Were you surprised when you looked back and had such a gap?
I was just tempo riding and then realised that I had a gap and I was like, “oh, I’ll get out of the seat and attack now to try to extend the gap.” I honestly didn’t expect it. I looked back and I was like, “oh, the wheels have been dropped.” So it’s a bit surprising because I was waiting till I got out of the seat to really turn the screws.
That was pretty surprising and I obviously had pretty good legs. I didn’t ride with the Garmin all week – I had it in my back pocket. I was just trying to go off feel. So it wasn’t till after the stage finish that I saw my tempo was probably a bit harder than I thought it was.
It looked like you’re riding a huge gear up the climb …
Yeah, that’s what we train with. Timmy [men’s endurance coach Tim Decker – ed.] gives us strength efforts up the hills for the track so it’s basically what we’re comfortable riding at. And then as soon as it got over the top, I just chucked it in the big ring and went to the line.
I guess once you got that gap at the top and you were on your own, you must have thought you were a good chance to hold on, right?
Yeah. I had a pretty good idea of that descent and knew that if I made it like 2 km over the top, that I’d probably get the rest of the way. It was just that first undulating bit over the top and after that it’s so fast that if you’ve got a gap, it’s hard to bring it back. I sorta just TTed to the line.
What was it like having Richie work for you on stage 2? I mean, you have a bloke that’s just finished third in the Tour de France riding for you. Was that pretty surreal?
Yeah, it was. It was honestly pretty crazy seeing what he did. He was just pulling massive turns. In our team opinion we were like ‘Mitchelton [BikeExchange – ed.] aren’t going to be able to bring this back.’ So Richie’s like “do you want me ride?” “You can sit in and do what you want!” [Plapp replied]. And he’s like “Nah nah nah, I’ll go ride.”
So he rode and then we had Jimmy [Whelan] going back and getting bottles for us while us track boys were sitting pretty and we had the WorldTour boys helping us out. It was really weird. I called out on the radio halfway through and I was like “oh, can I grab a water?” And Jimmy’s like, “yeah, yeah. I’m all over it.” So he went back to the car and got bottles for everyone. Considering that they’re two extremely good WorldTour climbers, they probably could have had a crack at that stage themselves.
Did you learn much from Richie in terms of his leadership and how he conducts himself in that team environment?
Yeah, I think he enjoyed the week with us, because obviously we’re a pretty laid-back team. So he was there having fun because it wasn’t as serious. And he was more so just happy to be there training. He was also real good in the stages, just keeping calm and saying “you don’t need to attack too early – just back yourself towards the finish.” But honestly, I think we just had such a laid-back week, and that’s what helped us. We were all just having fun.
It makes it a lot more fun when you’re winning as well, right?
Yeah, it’s certainly does and especially taking it to Mitchelton, or BikeExchange now. It’s always nice being the underdogs and taking it up to them. [Garmin-Australia won three of the men’s stages and three of the women’s stages – ed.]
Talk me through Willunga. That was quite an amazing performance.
So that day was also really interesting. We planned for a break not to go up the road, but one got up the road and got a very, very big gap and we got really stressed. So we had to use all our riders early on. And we actually planned to just get to the bottom [of Willunga] with the track team and almost do like a teams pursuit peel to set Richie up for the win. But we had to use all the boys really early on.
I reckon it was like 30 km before the base of the climb, which was the fastest part of the road, and Timmy gave us the time check and was like “Boys, it’s three minutes.” And me and Richie just looked at each other and we were like “we can’t win. We’re not even going to get near them.” And Richie’s like “Do you want me to ride?” And I was like “Mate, I’ll be riding for you, you sit pretty.” And then Kel did a massive turn for us and then Sammy came and did the last burner and almost caught the break. And then it was just up to the king Richie to go do his thing on Willunga.
You were the only rider able to bridge across to Richie on the hill. How did that all play out from your perspective?
Yeah, I had to wait for [Chris] Harper and Durbo [race leader Luke Durbridge] to at least give it a crack to try bridge to Richie. And once I realised that they sort of had nothing, it was just trying to jump across without dragging them with me. But the whole time when I was going, Durbo was just dangling near me. So I was like “I’ve got to keep this gap or else he’s just going to keep coming.” So, yeah, that was pretty surreal going to Richie and then he just towed me to the finish line.
He’s done it again 👑 is the King of #WillungaHill for a 7️⃣th time, taking the @ShimanoROAD #KOM points along the way and @DFIT_SA Be Safe Be Seen Stage 3 honours to boot!!! Luke Plapp applauds him over the line. What a future he has!!@DFIT_SA | #TDUFestival pic.twitter.com/6cmuz7PpcB— Santos Tour Down Under 🚴🚴♀️ (@tourdownunder) January 23, 2021
You were clapping Richie there as you guys crossed the line. Was there a small part of you that was thinking “Oh, I could just go around him here and take the stage?”
Nah, I never thought of it. Our whole week was set up for him to win that day. So there was no chance of that ever happening. He gave so much to us for that whole week so it was the least we could do.
I think Matt Keenan said in TV commentary at that moment that you’ve had some second places in your career where you’ve been pretty frustrated but that you’ll be pretty happy with that second place on Willunga …
That second place almost feels like a win. Yeah, it was a pretty memorable day. Even that crit was almost more exciting than any of the other stages. It was such a team effort to get Sam up for that win. And I guess the sprint finish is always more exciting when it pays off.
I know everything’s a bit up in the air with COVID, but assuming everything goes to plan for you, what does the season look like? Are you going to be combining track and road commitments?
Yep, so we head off to Road Nationals next week and I’m going to give elite Nationals a crack. That was a last-minute decision that happened yesterday. Richie suggested I should give it a crack and see how I go. I spoke to a few others and we agreed that it would be alright. And then after that we race the Warrny [the Melbourne to Warrnambool], which will be pretty interesting, considering we haven’t really trained at all for a road race, let alone 280 km. And then after that, I guess it’s really up in the air.
We sort of have a waiting game because the road season’s finished after the Warrny for us. We have a waiting game of finding out whether the Olympics are going to be on or not. And hopefully they are on. And if they are we’ll train for them the whole time and then after August, I would hopefully plan to be on a road team if that was a possibility and then start my road career then. But if the Games got cancelled, I’d have to hope a road team was more keen to start sooner rather than later.
What’s it been like with the uncertainty around the Olympics?
It’s definitely affected the other boys a lot more than me. I’ve come into the programme the last two and a half years, where they’ve been here for six, seven, eight years. This has been their massive goal and target so they’ve just committed for so long that it has affected them a lot more. Obviously I was upset, but I looked at them and I just couldn’t help but feel for them about how shattered they were.
Even on stage two, as we’re driving to the stage, Twitter and all social media was going off that The New York Times [The Times in the UK – ed.] had posted that the Games were called off and that really, really affected the boys. But I think it also really motivated us and pumped us up because we were like, “well, we better get a road result now so we’ve got a backup plan in the future.” And that’s definitely what I turned to.
Are you with Inform TM Insight Make this year? Are you going to do some races with them on the road?
Yeah, so I’ll be racing Road Nats and the Warrny for Inform. And then I guess if I was lucky enough to get a contract after the Games then I’d go hopefully to the WorldTour and race there, and if not I’d come back here and race NRS [Australia’s National Road Series] with Inform.
You must have had some interest from WorldTour teams after your ride in Adelaide, or maybe even before that?
Not too much before that. Definitely after stage 2 and Willunga I’ve had a little bit of interest which has been nice and a bit overwhelming. I guess the results came out of nowhere and I didn’t really expect it. And it’s always been a dream to be a WorldTour rider but to have a few teams contact me was pretty surreal.
Are you able to say how many WorldTour teams have been interested in you?
Yes, I had five really serious ones and then a few others who have just enquired.
Basically overnight right?
Yeah, pretty much straight overnight. The last two days the phone’s just been going crazy.
So what happens now? Do you have a manager that sorts all this stuff out?
I’ve got an agent who will look after all of that for me. And we’ve already spoken a bit about options and going forward which teams I’d rate being on and which teams we’d probably give a miss. And now we’re going to wait for Nationals and see what happens there. And then hopefully we can sign something with a team that I prefer to go to pretty soon so we’ve got a plan for after Tokyo.
What sort of things are you looking for in a team?
A lot of it’s around the culture. I think the money for me is not everything. It’s about having a long career and getting opportunities as well. So having the culture and the right people around you, but also the right R&D. So a big thing to me would be around having as good equipment as possible rather than maybe a team that doesn’t have as good equipment. You can obviously see the teams that have the best equipment and that’d be the dream and as well as learning from the best riders possibly that you can.
I feel like I really look up to guys and I aspire to be like them. So if I could be around them, I think that’d help elevate me quicker and to become hopefully a better rider. And it always helps having a couple Aussies on a team. That would be ideal.
What sort of rider do you see yourself as? What sort of races do you think you’d like to do as a WorldTour rider?
If you asked me that last week I would have said a completely different answer to what I’d say now. I guess now I’d love to see if I could even tackle the GC. I don’t think I ever would have said that. But after losing a fair bit of weight and climbing all right that’s definitely appealing. I’d also love to have … I guess the biggest weapon in the arsenal would be the TTs. That’s sort of my main thing and what I’d love to focus on, but then also use a bit of the track craft and hopefully be a part of a lead-out as well.
I really do enjoy the one-day Classics and the real hard days on the bike. The heat on the weekend I just loved because you could see everyone suffering. I guess that’s sort of what the Classics are like. It’s just the strongest man wins who can handle the conditions. So yeah I definitely think early on I’d love to focus on the TTs and the one-day races and Classics and then hopefully move into a GC role further on down the track. Obviously I’m not going to be one of the strongest climbers there [in stage races], but then be in touch to maybe take some time back on the TTs.
So Road Nationals next week. Are you doing the elite time trial and the road race?
Yeah, I’ll do the TT and the road race, so that’ll be my main focus. I think the TT is what I’ll probably focus on more. The road race is such a lottery so it is hard to focus on. And given I’ve never raced that distance before I guess it is a bit of an unknown how I will go in that. I’m confident with the form now but racing an extra 60 km changes everything and four more laps up [Mt.] Buninyong, you never know what’ll happen to the body.
Do you have a goal for the time trial?
You don’t pin a number on to come second. I’m not entering it just to roll around, put it that way.
Nationals will be bloody interesting. It’s 10 or 15 minutes further than I’ve ever done a time trial before. I guess it is an unknown as well. But based off numbers and things that I worked out … I studied it pretty hard to work out if it was even possible, if I would have a chance of getting close, to see if it was stupid to do it. But I think on a good day I could get close. But obviously Durbo turns up to Buninyong flying as always. You don’t beat Rohan Dennis two years in a row if you’re creeping.