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U23 rider to watch: Mark Donovan Q&A

The 19-year-old on his journey into cycling, his first season as an under-23 and his ambitions for 2019

19 year-old Mark Donovan had an astonishing 2018, his first season in the under-23 ranks. With stand-out performances in the most prestigious stage races on the under-23, Donovan quickly marked himself out as a potential future Grand Tour contender. This is why he is one of our under-23 riders to watch this season.

Donovan came to cycling relatively late after a foot injury when he was 13 forced him to swap fell running races for bike races. He first came to our attention in his final year as a junior. Riding for Zappi Racing, he won the Aubel – Thimister – La Gleize and Giro di Basilicata stage races, and came fifth overall in the Ronde des Vallée race.

Last season, at Team Wiggins, Donovan was even more impressive. He took a notable 6th place overall in the early-season Volta ao Alentejo and things got even better from there. He claimed a very impressive 4th overall in his debut Baby Giro and even led the race for a stage. He then took a stage in the notoriously tough Giro Ciclistico della Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc stage race, 7th overall in the Tour d’Alsace and then 11th overall in the Tour de L’Avenir. If those results weren’t impressive enough for a first-year U23, he then went on to become a stagiaire for Team Sky, performing very strongly as a domestique in a string of Italian stage races.

Remaining with Team Wiggins Le Col this season, the question is: can he go even better?

We caught up Mark recently to find out about his journey into cycling, how he viewed his first season as an under-23 and his ambitions for 2019…

I don’t think I would want to be doing anything else

Mark Donovan in the leader’s jersey at the Giro Ciclistico D’Italia 2018
Photo. Giro Ciclistico D’Italia

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into cycling. And do you remember your first race?

I’ve always been super competitive and sporty, I used to race fell running and cross country when I was younger. When I was about 13 I got an injury in my feet that made it hard to run as much. So I got into cycling, and started liking it more and more. I think my first race was an under-14 cyclocross race in the northwest. 

You made a name for yourself at junior level, particularly in your final year, winning the Aubel – Thimister – La Gleize and the Giro di Basilicata. Had you been winning races before then too, or was that a breakthrough year for you?

2017 was the first year I had taken road racing seriously, so yes that was a massive breakthrough year on the road for me. Before then I mainly did cyclocross, which I really enjoyed. I won the junior national championships at the end of the 2016-17 season in Shrewsbury.

How would describe your time with the Zappi Racing junior team? Is it a path you’d recommend other junior to follow?

I have absolutely nothing bad to say about my year with Zappi’s. I learned so much and definitely wouldn’t be in the position I am now without the racing opportunities I got with them. Being able to race across Europe was fantastic and I got to do proper stage races with lots of climbing. 

Obviously, you rode for Team Wiggins last season. How did that move come about?

If I remember rightly I emailed them with a bit of a cycling CV, showing what sort of rider I was and some of my best results, and then it went from there.

Mark Donovan takes the leaders jersey after Stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia Giovani from Schio to Pian delle Fugazze, Italy, on 14 June 2018. Photo: Andrew Peat / espoirs.world

And you very quickly started making an impression at Wiggins. You first caught my eye at the Volta ao Alentejo. But then there was the Baby Giro success, the stage win in Valle d’Aosta and the stagiaire spot with Sky. Had you expected to be so good so soon as a first year under-23?

No definitely not, I didn’t really go into the year with any big expectations. I just wanted to try to make the step up as well as possible and learn as much as I could. 

Getting to wear the pink jersey for a stage was incredible, it was just a shame I couldn’t hold onto it

Tell us about your experience of riding the Baby Giro. It seemed like a real rollercoaster of a race for you?

Yes, it was a crazy race for me. I hadn’t really done anything like it before, and I had no idea how I would do on the big mountain days. Every day I gained a bit of confidence. I was just trying to take it day by day and treat each stage like a one-day race. Getting to wear the pink jersey for a stage was incredible, it was just a shame I couldn’t hold onto it.

Mark Donovan wins stage 2 of the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d’Aosta 2018
Photo: Team Wiggins

After the Baby Giro, you continued to pick up some very solid results. Was there any result that stood out in particular (and why)?

Winning a stage in Giro Valle D’Aosta; it just felt so good to get my hands in the air.

And how was it riding the Tour de L’Avenir? Were you pleased with 11th overall in your first year?

Overall yes, I was happy, although I was definitely aiming for better. But I think it was the best I could have done. It had been a long season for me at that point. I think I had done two or three times the number of races than the year before. 

And then you rode some Italian races with Sky. How did you find that whole experience?

It was an amazing experience, I still got my head kicked-in every race, but it just felt great to put on a Sky jersey with my name on it.  It also helped that [Gianni] Moscon won two of the races I did.

Overall, what would you say are the biggest things you learned during last season?

  • Cycling is seriously hard work
  • Plain pasta for dinner gets very boring after 10 days of racing
  • I don’t think I would want to be doing anything else.
Mark Donovan (far right) with teammates at the Tour of Antalya 2019
Photo: Team Wiggins Le Col

You’re with Team Wiggins Le Col again this season. What’s your race programme looking like?

Very similar to last year: mainly European stage races, and a few one-day races.

What are your goals this season?

Winning one of the big under-23 stage races: the Baby Giro, Valle D’Aosta, or the Tour de L’Avenir. The Yorkshire Worlds at the end of the year are also a target.

Finally, you’ve already had a taste of the World Tour with Sky, and you’ve been spotted riding with another World Tour team this winter. Would you consider stepping up to the World Tour at the end of this season if the right offer came in?

I’m just going take this year as it comes, try and do as good as possible, maybe win a race or two. Then I can see where I am and if I feel ready I can see what’s on the table. 

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