Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside
Forget winning it; Jonathan Tiernan-Locke might not even have been at last year’s Tour of Britain.
With a late pre-race training camp sprung on his already tired legs, he was instructed to do one more hill repeat in training by his directeur sportif.
He refused, got off his bike and took his helmet off to get a tan. Then the team car came round the hairpin.
“My heart sunk. He was going to go mental,” he recalls.
The manager threatened to drop him from the Endura line-up for the race. ”I said: ‘Look, I’ve been really tired, I’m not going to get fitter, I just need to rest up’. I said to him: ‘You’ve not trained me all year, I know what I need to do going into it’.”
The 28-year-old is not outspoken or uppity for the sake of it. It’s just that he knows his own body and its quirks. He admits it can frustrate him, one day flying in training, the next flagging.
Endura kept him in the team and the rest is history. JTL escaped on Caerphilly Mountain, cameras trained on his knitted brow expression, wore the gold jersey on his home Devon stage and rode around Guildford to rock star adulation.
He went on to lead a star-packed Great Britain team at the World Championships, the summit of his revelatory season. In a year, he went from being a man whose most significant result was Tour of Britain Mountains classification winner to a coveted talent, who triumphed in the Tours of the Med, Alsace and Haut Var.
Then, just as quickly as he took the scene by storm, he has slunk into the background with an indifferent 2013.
While there’s no Team Sky rider mould, a numbers-oriented training style suits some more than others. Tiernan-Locke is more old school, riding purely on feel until recently.
His home is reached by a singletrack lane on the Devon-Cornwall border; all he’s known are the heavy, hilly roads of the region. “If I lived in Nice where a lot of my team-mates do, I’d feel like my life was a training camp. And I’d hate that,” he says.
The off-road scene was Tiernan-Locke’s inspiration as an adolescent: his childhood was spent nailing jumps in the woods or sneaking into the local old people’s home to do trials moves.
Entering his first season in the WorldTour, he had the same motivation as ever. “I need confirmation that I’m improving, and that’s what gives me confidence. And when I’m confident, I’m racing well.”
Tiernan-Locke reckons the turning point was his second block at Sky’s training Majorcan camp in mid-January, 2013. Increasingly tired and struggling with recovery, he felt bad in the first few races. His self-assurance ebbed away. Even the act of training became a battle with numbers and negativity.
“I started not enjoying things… I was like a slave to this SRM box. I knew what I had to do in training, but I knew it recorded everything so the coach would know if I’d done it.
“Even if I felt not good enough to do it, I was like ‘I’ve got to’. I’d do half the session, but I couldn’t quite finish it off or I didn’t hit the power numbers [written on the stem] or whatever. Or I’d come home like: Ohhh,” he sighs, “demoralised – like what am I gonna say?”
A bad day of training would inform other parts of his life. He’d make poor nutrition choices too. “Come home and eat a cake,” as he puts it.
At the Ardennes Classics, he was overweight, then yo-yo dieted for the Bayern Rundfahrt. In losing six kilos, Locke reached lean race weight but compromised his power.
As the year flew by, it was demoralising having people asking about his dip in performance on Twitter, forums, even out on the bike. Few understand that his Team Sky role, often as a domestique to the leaders, is a paradigm shift from being Endura’s unexpected jewel.
Take one encounter in a Clevedon café when a former Tour de France rider and his friend asked where he’d been in the Ardennes Classics.
Tiernan-Locke’s role had been to cover the early break and protect his leaders. “The race was in pieces and I was at the front of it. I was written off for the next 260k, I’d ruined myself in about ten [kilometres], then I was getting bottles, bringing Froomey back after a puncture, riding in the wind.
“By the time I got to the 180k mark, with the race properly kicking off, mine was done. The TV coverage might switch on with 50k to go, at which point you’re just going out the back.”
Summer was “a blur of shit”. He had problems with motivation. At a pre-Vuelta training camp, Tiernan-Locke had it out with coach Shaun Stephens.
“‘Look, I don’t need to train, that’s the last thing I need right now. This has gone from bad to worse since training camp. I’ve got no morale, no form, I feel awful every time I turn the pedals, I can’t even do recovery rides, my legs fill up with lactic straight away’,” he says, giving the gist of the conversation.
He took a three-week break and was taken off Team Sky’s provisional Vuelta roster. Even back racing, he has endured rotten luck: punctures heading into the finales of the Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Plouay, then a painful crash in the GP Montreal (see below).
But Tiernan-Locke isn’t self-pitying or defensive about his annus horribilis. Clearly it’s something he’s thought – and been asked – about a lot. He reflects on it with unflinching honesty.
Now he needs that unquantifiable value that no magic gadget can measure, confidence: even to sometimes, perversely, believe he’s going better than he actually is.
“My confidence is getting there. I’m not deluding myself, I’m gonna need a result.”
He is currently without a coach, listening to his own body going into his second year with Team Sky.
“Everyone around me has noticed I’m just enjoying riding my bike again.”