Two years after he landed at the Conti’s headquarters in Besançon, in order to start his development, Lewis Askey is now about to launch his first season with the WorldTeam. Being the seventh rider to make the jump between the two teams, the 20-year-old Englishman comes with great potential, clear ideas, but also the will not to cut corners.
Lewis, how has your winter preparation been going approaching your first WorldTour season?
Actually, I had a big season last year. I raced a lot, did some mountain biking as well, and with our national championships being held at the end of the season, I carried on racing for quite a long time. After all this, it turned out that I was really tired. At first, I didn’t feel it. Mentally, I was fresh, ready to race, and I felt amazing. At the Nationals, I was in the best form of my life. The plan was then to do a few cyclocross races and then race the European championship, as I thought it would be easy to hold my form for three more weeks. However, it was just a couple of weeks too long. I ended up doing a few cross races but stopped earlier than planned and did not race the European champs because I just felt I had nothing in my legs anymore. The team doctor messaged me and told me the results from the blood test showed I was basically really tired, so I needed to stop and take quite a long time off my bike. That’s how I ended up taking about six weeks off. Basically, I did not start training until quite late. I had been literally on my bike three or four times before the first training camp in December. I went there and I was really surprised, as I felt not too bad. Physically I felt pretty good. I just did not have the endurance I normally have. Weirdly, I was actually setting a few PB (personal best) for power. Then, I ended up having holidays in France and just got back to the UK a few days ago. I restarted properly on Tuesday and felt I got that fire back in my belly. I was just excited to be on my bike again. I think I really needed that break to debut in the WorldTour. I’m now super excited and ready to put everything into the season.
“I really enjoyed the team camp”
Do you feel you got back your energy level at 100%?
Yes, 100%! It’s really easy for me to be motivated and race until I have nothing left. My mind can do more than my body can. I like training and racing, so it is quite easy for me to push myself too hard sometimes. I suppose it is usually a good thing, but it also is something we really need to watch because training too much is obviously not a good thing at all for the long-term. I now feel I’ve completely recharged all my batteries and I’m ready to go. As I’m only 20, I think it is going to be a big season for me. Therefore, it is definitely going to help me to be coming fresh into this season, and not with fatigue. With my coach, we’ll further talk about what will be next. I’ll mainly continue to build up my endurance again – because I’ve been a long time off the bike – as well as strengthen my physical condition. I will start my season a little bit later than the other riders just to take my time and to not rush into anything. There is no point in sending me straight to the earlier races without the proper preparation.
How did the training camp go for you personally?
I was not going as bad as I was expecting. It was also the first training camp, so it was obviously a lot about meetings, getting everything sorted, getting to know all the riders and working together as a team. I really enjoyed that camp. I felt that I fit in quicker than what I was expecting. I know I’ve been on the Conti but it’s still a different team, I’m the youngest guy there as well. Yet, I really felt I got along with everyone really well. It was super nice. We also had the initiation for all the new riders, and it was a good evening as well.
How much coming from the Conti made it easier for you to fit in the WorldTeam?
When I chose to come to this team two years ago, I knew what the environment was going to be like with the WorldTeam as well. Last year, I also raced quite a few times with the guys from the WorldTour. I already know quite a few of them who were in the Conti in the first year I was in. I could see how the WorldTour works when I went on the races with them last year, I already knew a few riders and staff and spent some time with them already. Then, you just know more names, faces, people who have already raced with you. It makes for an easier transition I believe. The only thing I was thinking about was, being the youngest guy in the team, I did not know how I would feel like to become mates with all the guys there. I did not know how that age difference would affect things. The camp was really good in that regard because I realized straight away that all the “adults” from the team were just big kids. I think cycling kept them all like kids at heart, which is nice.
“I prefer to have done all the right steps”
What is your feeling as you’re about to start your first year in the WorldTour?
I’m not really anxious. I kind of do my own thing and I’m not really scared of anyone or anything. I’m rather just excited for the opportunity to be racing some of the biggest races in the world. It is a big opportunity to learn, and it is obviously a big reason why I’m in the team this year. I just feel excited. I don’t really feel any pressure, I don’t feel stressed. I’m just excited that I’m now really going to be a pro cyclist for the first time. I’m just excited to get racing in the best level in the world and see where I am and what I’ve got to improve on.
Did you really hesitate when Yvon asked you to join the team?
Honestly, yes I did. Initially, I said no. Basically, I was really really happy with the situation I was in with the Conti. I had a super good group of mates, I had everything I needed to be the best athlete I could be, I was super happy with where we were staying, with the guys around, with the training and the races. I was loving it. With joining the Elite, I knew I would get to the top level of the sport and that there was no going back. In my head, there was no rush to jump up to the WorldTour. I had had two years in the Conti, they weren’t bad at all, but I was always working for others. I thought I could have won a lot of races in my third year and I was excited to win a lot of races. I did not want to rush anything because I thought that if I was good enough to be there, there would always be a spot for me. I spoke to the team a lot, because it wasn’t a complete no. I think I just needed that reassurance of why the team thought it was a better idea for me to be in the WorldTour this year than spend a year winning in the Conti. I spoke with lots of different people to get different opinions. The team basically explained to me that they were not signing me to perform straight away this year but that it was more for the long term. As much as I’d like it, I’m most likely not going to win Roubaix this year. However, if I can do these races and learn how they work and get that experience, then in a few more years, when I’ll hopefully have the legs to be one of the best in the world, that extra-experience would pay off. We’d also know each other inside out, which is important for the Classics, and hopefully be the best Classics group in the world, winning lots of races. That’s what really changed my mind. I said « ok, I can see the reason to make the jump ».
How come weren’t you willing to go to the WorldTour as soon as possible?
I think I just had good people around me all the time, from when I was younger to now. I’ve always been taught that development is the best way to go. I was aware of that and had trust in myself. I ride my bike, I love racing, I love being the best I can be. If that meant I was good enough to go to the WorldTour, then that would have ended up happening. I did not have to be desperate to get to that. I’m only 20 years old, I’m not in a rush. I just want to be the best I can in the future, to hit the highest peak I can. I prefer to have done all the right steps, and hopefully that means that when I get to the peak age to perform, everything will come together, and I can win some big races. I’m not scared of not achieving something. The only thing I’m scared of is not giving my best at something. If I go racing and give up after having done everything I could, I’d be like « crap », but I would not be disappointed with it. If I know I’ve done everything, there is not much more I can do. If you’ve reached the genetical limit of what you can do, there is no point being upset about something you can’t control. It will be what it will be, I just have to give everything I can.
“I had the legs to be World Champion”
However, you really wanted a win before joining the Elite
I’ve won at every age group. I did not want to leave the U23 and go up to the pros without feeling like I deserved it myself. I know the work I’ve done for other people, and we’ve won a lot of races with the team together because I’ve also done a good job. Still, I was so desperate to have my own win. I haven’t had that many races as a U23 rider to prove to myself that I could still win races. That day in Isard was awesome. We had a really nice team at the race. The stage was not amazing for me, the hill at the end was not perfect, but I was given the chance to race for the win myself in that week and I did not want to throw it away. We thought I could win in the sprint, but I said that if I wanted to win, I wanted that special win. There was a hill a couple kilometres out from the finish and it was not steep enough, but I just went into the briefing and said: « this is how I want this race to play out ». It literally went exactly how we planned it. To cross the line alone also one of the best ways to win a race, to have time to put your hands up and celebrate. With all the guys there, that meant so much to me. Until there, I did not feel like I did not have the ability to win the races, I just did not have many opportunities. The opportunities that I did get, I had to make the most of them.
Overall, are you satisfied with your 2021 season?
For the most part, I’m really happy with the season. I raced really well for a long time. The biggest thing I had to deal with and move on from is the World Championships because I felt I had the legs on that day to be World Champion. That hurts, that still really hurts, because it wasn’t my legs that let me down that day, it was the decisions I made. That’s something that I regret. Apart from that, there is not much I can regret really. I had a very good year, we won a lot of races as a team, I managed to get my own win. The most important thing is that I really enjoyed every minute of last year. I’m hoping this year will be similar.
People also noticed you at the National Championships.
It was a really nice week to end the road season. I had very good legs as well. The only thing is that I was told before the race that riders who had raced the Elite Worlds were only eligible for the Elite Road Race. Therefore, I was under the impression that I wasn’t racing Fred Wright and Jake Stewart for the U23 jersey. When I was in that breakaway and Fred went up the road, I was a little bit annoyed that I missed that move, but I did not chase it down straight away because I thought there was no eligible U23 rider up the road. I knew I messed up missing the move, but then changed my focus to win the U23 race. Then, I crossed the line thinking I won the U23 race. But I did not. We went up onto the podium and Fred himself was surprised he was able to win the race. To be fair to him, he asked the organizers if he could give me the jersey. It was really kind of him, but it wasn’t possible. That’s my only regret. I’m not saying I would have been able to beat him, I’m just saying I would have raced my race a little bit differently with that information. Apart from that, I absolutely loved the course with a climb that suited me perfectly. With all the crowd, it was a really good week of racing.
“The Classics is where I love to be, and to win some of them would be unreal”
When we did your “feature” two years ago, you said ‘’I don’t want to exclude anything until I reach the WorldTour, where you have to be more specific to win races. Until then, I just want to learn more about myself and my body’’. What about now?
For sure, I know a lot [repeated four times, note] more about myself than two years ago. The biggest question was probably about climbing. As a Junior I could stay with the best climbers on all the biggest climbs we did. But the biggest climbs we did were about ten-minutes long. Obviously when you go U23 and you get to do Tour de l’Avenir, Baby Giro, ten minutes is not even a climb anymore. Up until that point, I did not know whether I would be able to stay with the best up the climbs. So, the biggest thing I realized is that I’m definitely not a climber. What I still need to explore over the next few years is how much sprinting I can do. I surprised myself this year, I had the role of a lead-out man and I ended up being faster than I was expecting to be. I still don’t know how fast in a sprint I can be with more specific training. I know for sure that the best things for me are short, sharp climbs, Classics races, steep, explosive one-minute climbs. Doing it a lot of times like we did in the National Champs is absolutely perfect for me. I know that for sure. I still have things to find out, but I definitely know which road I’ll be going down on. I like the fight and the Classics racing, that’s what excites me. You get a big thrill when you talk about it after the race, even if you’re scared for your life at times. When the team told me they wanted me in the Classics group, it felt natural. It’s where I wanted to be and it’s where I’m expected to be. I don’t think it was even a thought to put me somewhere else.
How excited are you to be part of the Classics’ group project?
Massively. That was the biggest thing for me, the one that made me say yes. I had this image in my head of developing with these guys and becoming the best group in the world. I want to be part of that, it is something exciting. I really get along with all the guys there. It’s like a family. The Classics is where I love to be, and to win some of them would be unreal. Having a group that develops together and spends time together so that everyone knows each other very well, I think it is going to help a lot.
Starting 2022, what will be your main priority in terms of improvement?
For sure it will be learning the races, learning the tactics, learning how everything works, how the pro peloton works. The reason I’m here is to learn. More than anything physical, the biggest thing I need over the next year or two is to learn the courses, to learn when the important part is, when the split happens, how it happens, when the race is about to change completely. On the Classics, you really have to know the race inside out. I will be studying that in the next couple of years and hopefully that will serve me well in the future. I’m normally pretty good in terms of tactics, especially being at the right place at the right time, but everyone has told me how much the WorldTour is different racing. It’s like I’m going to a new sport in a way. It’s different. Tactically, you can always take stuff from what you learnt over the years, but I almost start from a new sheet of paper to learn how this type of racing works. I already saw last year how different U23 racing was compared to a class 1 race.
“Not taking myself too seriously”
We know you as an aggressive rider. Does it mean you’ll need to ride more conservatively from now on?
Maybe, but honestly, if that’s who I am… And I’d like to be someone that people enjoy watching. That being said, the biggest thing for me will be for sure to make the attacks I make important, rather than making a lot of them all the time. In the WorldTour, it’s more about that winning attack. It is one moment that you have to make count, knowing how to use that moment to your best advantage. Like I did in the Ronde de l’Isard.
Do you wish to get your chance at one point this season?
For 95% of the time, I’ll be here to learn, improve, develop, but you never know on the Classics… Of course I’m not going to be given an opportunity where the sports director says « we’re going for Lewis today ». However, it might be the case that the race is falling to pieces and I’m the one in the best position, so I have to race for myself and for the team. That is a possibility in a race or two. That could happen, and I’d definitely would take it with both hands, I would not let an opportunity like that go. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what my role will be yet. I’ll find out a lot more when I’ll start racing. I think there is a lot the team can do with my qualities, so it will be interesting to see what I’ll end up doing. We’ll see how the season unfolds, but I tend to be quite good at putting people in the right position at the right time. Also, if we’re going to race without Démare and Jake is the sprinter, I could lead him out a few times this year.
You said you wanted “to have fun” in 2022. What about fun then?
I think it’s the people you’re surrounded with as well. Every race trip is a fun trip away, a kind of adventure, with the guys, the staff. I want to enjoy these moments as it’s always a really good experience to share with other guys. It’s definitely one way I’ll be having fun. Secondly, it’s also not taking myself too seriously and carrying on with the way I’ve been racing over the last two years. Cycling is not the only thing in my life and I like that, because it means that I can give everything to cycling but also have so many things to enjoy off the bike. I love doing all sorts of sports as well. I know I’m not going to be able to do as much as I have been usually doing, but there are still possible things like the Commonwealth Games for mountain biking this year. There are still some exciting things to do. I definitely will not become a guy that stays on his road bike for 250 days a year. I like to be someone who can jump on anything and perform, and I’d like to keep it. As long as it is not negative for my road season, then there is no reason that I should not do it.