Oliver Knight was one of a string of promising British first-year under-23s that headed for the continent at the beginning of 2020 in pursuit of future cycling greatness.
After a successful spell as a junior for the HMT Hospitals – Giant squad, netting a silver medal in the junior national 10 mile championships, finishing second overall in the Junior Tour of the Basque Country behind Carlos Rodriguez (now at Ineos Grenadiers) and a classy win in the final stage of la Vuelta a Pamplona, Knight had definitely caught our eye, gaining an honourable mention for first-year riders to watch this year.
Climbing up the cobbled street through the city walls was a great feeling, topped off by getting my hands in the air in front of the great crowds
He also gained attention further afield and was offered a contract with the French DN1 team AVC Aix-en-Provence. Oliver took the plunge and signed to the squad, committing to a year in Provence, with support from the Rayner Foundation. It’s a team that his history with British riders: Harrison Wood, Simon Carr and Alex Braybrooke are all recent alumni.
What is a DN1 team? DN1 teams form the top tier of elite teams in France. Well-resourced and with excellent race programmes, each DN1 must, as a minimum, have a squad of 14 riders, a budget of 250,000 euros, a full-time salaried coach and a part-time time salaried sports director.
Despite a disrupted year, Knight managed a run of racing in February before resuming things in August, completing the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard and U23 Paris-Tours races. He acquitted himself well and has been rewarded with the opportunity to continue with AVC Aix-en-Provence in 2021. He’ll have English-speaking company this time around too; Brit George Mills-Keeling and Irishman Kevin McCambridge will join the team from Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling.
We caught up with the young man to find out how out about his junior years, his switch to France, adjusting to racing in France, his talent for time trialling and his goals for next season.
For readers unfamiliar with you, how would you describe yourself as a rider?
I would probably describe myself as a bit of an all rounder. I’ve always felt pretty suited to time trialling though mainly, and have tried to use that to become a better climber too over the last couple of years.
You raced for the HMT Hospitals academy as a junior. Tell us a little about your experiences racing for that team.
HMT was a great set up to be a part of as a junior. I got to do a selection of the best racing in Europe, all with top level support from the staff, most notably from Tony Barrett and Mark Barry. I especially enjoyed the racing down in the Basque Country, which I felt played a big role in teaching me how to race uphill.
What was your highlight on the bike as a junior?
I’d say my win on the final stage at the Vuelta a Pamplona. Climbing up the cobbled street through the city walls was a great feeling, topped off by getting my hands in the air in front of the great crowds on the day.
This year you rode for the French DN1 team AVC Aix-en-Provence. Tell us about how and why you joined the team?
Harrison Wood played a big role in getting me in touch with the team. I’d raced with Harrison at HMT as a first-year junior, and seeing him have success with AVC gave me confidence in the team, given we have very similar strengths. The team has a great calendar. As well as the DN1 French cup, there is a good mix of top tier under-23 stage racing along with some other elite-level races in Spain and Italy.
I’ve tried my best to fit in as much as I can. The language was definitely the biggest step
How have you found adjusting to French culture?
I’ve tried my best to fit in as much as I can. The language was definitely the biggest step, although I’ve really become confident in that now. It can still be tricky in group conversations but I can see a lot of progress since the start of the year.
Although there was a sizable disruption to the racing calendar during the spring, elite racing resumed in France in the summer. How much of an opportunity did you have to race? And how did it go in the races you did do?
I was really lucky with my racing this year, I basically had an event on every weekend from the beginning of August through to mid-October. I felt as though it took a little while for me to adjust to the different type of racing, with a fair bit of uncertainty early on. However, once I had some bigger goals to aim for I felt really focused again. I did my first big team time trial, which was also my first DN1 French Cup race. We were 8th on the day, which the team was really happy with given they took such a young squad.
As a first-year under-23, how have you found the transition to under-23 races? Do you think riding European races as a junior prepared you for this season?
I definitely feel the all the European racing from last year really helped me going into this past season. I had a rough idea of how certain races were likely to be raced and was certainly made aware that the step up to under-23 level was a big one. The way my season panned out, in the end, meant that the hardest races were as late as mid-September, and although they were over an hour longer than the maximum I had raced before, it felt like a fairly natural progression and one I was excited to make.
The climbs in the Pyrenees are brutal and they split the race to bits
How was it riding the Ronde de l’Isard?
The Ronde de l’Isard was great. From the moment I knew I had a chance of riding it, I did as much as I could to make sure I was the best I could be on the start line. The climbs in the Pyrenees are brutal and they split the race to bits. I definitely felt as though I learnt a lot, and it’s already something I’m really looking forward to in 2021.
You’ve had some promising time trial results. Is this a discipline you look to develop further? Do you miss the lack of an equivalent time trialling scene in France?
Definitely. I’ve always loved time trialling, this year is the first in probably six or seven that I haven’t done a club 10. The most important time trials for me now come in the stage races, which can be so different given how short they can be. I got to do the French regional champs this year which was decent fun. I got 2nd to my teammate, Adrien Maire, in the end. Much like most others, I really hope we can have some sort of British Nationals next year.
You’ve been supported by the Rayner Foundation this year. What difference has their support made?
Aside from the brilliant financial support the Foundation gives, it also gives you the sense that you’re part of a larger community. It’s great to see riders once supported by the fund go right to the very top of the sport. It wouldn’t be possible for so many of us without their help.
You are staying with AVC for 2021 and you’ll be joined by George Mills-Keeling and Kevin McCambridge. Are you looking forward to having some company from riders that have raced in the UK?
It should be great having some riders to speak a bit of English with every now and then. Even though speaking French does get easier, it’s still quite tiring at times. Not every day is a good day and it can feel pretty far from home, and something as simple as an English conversation can help that.
What are you looking to build on from this year? Do you have any specific goals?
I’d say given how much I enjoyed Ronde de l’Isard, that’s definitely going to be a good aim for next year. I also really hope we can do Valle d’Aosta and the Tour Alsace, given they were both cancelled this season.
Featured photo: Martin Early