He might only be 27 but Owain Doull heads into Belgium’s Opening Weekend as one of Ineos Grenadiers’ most experienced riders and, after a year beset by personal tragedy, the Welshman is looking to lay down his best Classics season to date and build on the promising results he’s had in the past.
“I feel like I’ve not fulfilled my potential in these races,” Doull tells Cyclingnews after completing his recon of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Thursday.
“I feel like I’ve shown glimmers in the past of what I can do but never been able to string together a full campaign and gone from strength to strength. I’ve always started well at Opening Weekend, and I’d like to do the same this year, but I’d like to carry on so that it’s not a flash-in-the-pan performance. I’m quietly confident that I can do something this weekend. It’s just about executing that and doing it with my legs.”
Doull certainly has shown glimpses of his one-day potential in the past. He was a surprise second place in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2019 behind Bob Jungels, and has forged a career at Ineos as one of their most consistent one-day performers.
In the Monuments, he has been utilized more as a domestique but, with Ineos set to line up for the Spring with a young roster – especially after the retirement of Ian Stannard in the winter and the redeployment of both Luke Rowe and Dylan Van Baarle – Doull’s role within the squad has taken on greater importance.
“Our DS Servais Knaven said that I was one of the most experienced guys here and asked me to make sure I pointed stuff out to Tom Pidcock, and I sat there and thought, ‘Jesus, it felt like yesterday that I was here for my first Opening Weekend’.
“I’m not old, or young, but it feels bizarre to be one of the older guys with experience, but if you look across the team we’ve got some massive young talents. It’s really exciting, and even just from the first days here, there’s a good feel around the group.”
The Ineos Classics unit sits below the stage-racing core in almost every aspect – a fact underlined by both results and personnel. However, Doull is confident that the British team can pull off results, starting in Opening Weekend, and that, like their stage-racing colleagues, they can benefit from Dave Brailsford’s blueprint of a more expansive style of racing.
The fact that the team doesn’t have an out-and-out leader for Opening Weekend certainly facilities such an approach, but Doull is well aware that he and his teammates will need to race collectively if they are to challenge teams with more bonafide leaders.
“Essentially there is no pecking order,” he says. “It’s been publicized how we want to race differently and be less rigid and I feel like the Classics are the perfect place to be like that if you want to be successful. There are a couple of guys who will do the early work and look after us and then there’s myself, Jonny Narvaez, Ethan Hayter, Tom Pidcock, and Gianni Moscon who have equal status and are there to take opportunities.
“As a Classics group, we’ve talked about it in previous years, about this structured system that we’ve had. Every year we line up in the Classics and you look across the team and think we could do something but it never quite works out. So even before the Giro last year, we’d had these discussions about racing more expansively and we bought into the idea of having numbers in the final because that’s what wins you these races.
“I’m realistic. I know that if you wait for the top guys to go, there are only a select few riders who can go with them. So it’s about being aggressive and taking opportunities as they come. I know that the Classics are the period that I can concentrate on for myself. It’s nice to know that when the Classics come around you can race for yourself a bit more.”
Perspective from tragedy
On paper, and results-wise, 2020 was far from a disaster for Doull. He took a fine win in a stage of the Tour de la Provence, finished second in a time trial in Italy and rallied with some decent supporting rides in the rescheduled Classics campaign.
However, results only tell one side of the story and below the surface last year was one of huge loss and self-reflection for the Welshman. Lockdown and its effects on mental health have been well-publicized but they came crashing down on Doull when his best friend sadly committed suicide last year.
The sense of loss in such a scenario can be indescribable but Doull – to his huge credit – managed to somehow keep his racing on track for as long as possible. In the end, he took a break from the demands of the sport but during his period away he found personal growth as well as the chance to properly deal with the emotions that had been building up.
“2020 started well and it was going well from 2019 but after that it was tough and I struggled quite a lot to be honest,” he says.
“My best friend committed suicide during lockdown and it’s something that’s scarily too common during these times. It was tough to process that but also carry on training and racing at the same time. For a little while, cycling was an escape but, like anything after a while, you have to deal with it. The bike wasn’t an escape anymore and everything just builds.
“I’m not going to lie, it was probably the worst year of my life but you learn a lot and it wasn’t a vintage year of bike racing for me but getting through and growing as a person – I was better for that by the end of the year.
“Having that time away from cycling really helped me and it helped me get perspective. I’m so fortunate that I get to race and ride my bike for a living. I get to travel and do all these amazing things and I’m very grateful for that. I’m doing these things because I choose to and it feels a lot better.”
With his mind on racing but his friend still very much in his heart, Doull is ready to saddle up and begin another Classics campaign. He wants to get back on the trajectory he showed in 2019 and, with more responsibility and maturity, 2021 could be his year. And if he does fall short, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
“You’ve just got to keep banging on the door, trying new things, and hopefully one day it will open.”