Luke Plapp on voyage of discovery as Grand Tour future develops at Giro d’Italia

Despite suffering with illness during the second week, the young Australian has shown signs of his three-week potential during the Italian Grand Tour

Clock06:26, Friday 17th May 2024
Luke Plapp on stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia

© Getty Images

Luke Plapp on stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia

When Luke Plapp departed Ineos Grenadiers for Jayco AlUla with a year left on his contract at the end of 2023, it felt like the rider was coming home. The fit between the rider and team seemed perfect, with the then Australia men’s national champion linking up with the squad that had admired him from his junior days but had missed out on his signature just a few years earlier.

Almost six months on and the relationship is blossoming nicely with a double national title, sixth overall in an atrociously difficult edition of Paris-Nice, and a fine start to the Giro d’Italia that almost netted him a stage win and a spell in the maglia rosa. There have been setbacks, of course, such as the crash that wrecked his Tour Down Under attempt, and a DNF in the Tour de Romandie, but overall the 23-year-old has settled quickly, made an instant impression with his new squad and lit the touchpaper for a phase of his career that could see him become Australia’s next Grand Tour contender.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before Plapp can be considered a bonafide three-week racer but the signs are there, and Jayco AlUla certainly see the rider as a potential long-term replacement for Simon Yates when the British rider eventually hangs up his wheels. 

“This year was a discovery year but that’s where I want to get to,” Plapp tells GCN in the quaint countryside town of Foiano di Val Fortore at the start of stage 11 of the Giro.

“I saw that in Paris-Nice and then over seven days here that I can be right up there. I think that coming from my background on the track, I don’t have as big of an engine but that’s something that just needs to build over the coming years.”

In this day and age, if you’re not developing into a superstar by the age of 20, like Tadej Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel et al, you’re seen as a lesser rider by some, but each rider develops at their own unique pace, and Plapp’s words ring true considering that when he joined Ineos Grenadiers full time in 2021, he’d barely touched a bike outside of Australia. Time is a dwindling commodity teams are willing to invest in when it comes to long-term projects these days but Plapp’s Giro showcases a blueprint for potential improvement, as well as current success.

He was third on the gravel stage in week one after a 91km breakaway and then backed that up with arguably the best time trial of his pro career with seventh on the road to Perugia. Those two results catapulted the Australian into fifth overall and the white jersey as the best young rider in the race. He cracked the next day on the mountain stage to Prati di Tivo but those major time losses were down to illness rather than a dip in form and the last few days have seen Plapp chug through a short course of antibiotics in an attempt to regain his health before another assault on a stage win later in the race.

“I was right up there on GC after seven stages here, so the next challenge, whether it’s next year, is to build on that and then go for three weeks,” he says of his long-term ambitions.

“That’s when I’ll be ready. It’s a process but as long as we can see that from one week to two, to three… Next year I’d see the progress as being on GC and in the top five next year after two weeks. If it fails after that, that’s alright, but as long as you see that progress,” he adds.

Read more: Luke Plapp: Last year I wasn’t given the chance to be a leader enough

Positioning in the bunch

One early criticism of Plapp is that he struggles with finding the best position in the bunch and that he has the potential to be caught out by hanging too far back in the peloton. Again, it must be stressed that the young Australian is still developing as a European rider, and the roads here in Italy, France and Spain are very different to the typical surfaces you get in Australia. Secondly, it’s far easier to spot Plapp in the bunch thanks to his distinctive national champs jersey, so if he is drifting towards the back of the bunch, and the TV commentators need to fill some dead air, he’s an easy target.

That said, Plapp does acknowledge that positioning is vital and that it’s an area where improvements can be made. However, he’s also not willing, yet, to constantly take risks where they don’t need to be made.

“For me, it’s more about calculated risks. It’s not something that I like doing but I can do it. When I know it’s worth being there and worth fighting for then I will,” he says.

“But if it’s also not worth the fight or I don’t see it in my eyes, then I won’t do it. This year, especially with it being an Olympic year, that’s the reason I ride a bike and I don’t want to end a season on something so small. I’m super comfortable with doing it, but it’s about picking the times. We saw that in Paris-Nice on the last day when I spent the whole day in the front in the rain and on the gravel stage, I picked my moments."

There will come a time, however, when Plapp doesn’t have the luxury of picking his moments, and whether he likes it or not, a Grand Tour stage will explode into life and he’ll need to be present and accounted for. Not making mistakes in three-week racing is just as important as taking advantage of your rivals' efforts, and if you want to be competitive through 21 stages, you need to be ‘on it’, always.

“No, and I’ll make sure that I make the most of it now. That’s also why I’m not ready to target those three-week races yet,” he says with a smile. “You have to be consistent for 21 days and that’s not something that I can be yet. Hopefully, I can learn that over time.”

Second phase at the Giro d’Italia

While the long-term projects involving Plapp will take months and even years to come to fruition, the here and now at the Giro d’Italia remains at the forefront of the rider’s mind.

He is still fighting the illness that derailed his GC hopes this year but there are signs that Plapp is coming around and regaining his health after some incredibly tough days in the saddle.

“Stage 10 was probably the hardest day that I’ve ever had on the bike,” he says.

“It was nice just to get to the finish line but I really struggled. I got dropped really early and it’s been hard from being fifth on GC after the first week and then struggling to just make it through the race to be honest. For my goals for the rest of the season, finishing the Giro is also good for that. Even if can’t compete for another stage win then at least this is the best form of training camp.”

There’s the second individual time trial of this year’s Giro d’Italia on Saturday to consider too. Normally Plapp would be a contender for the top-five but the stage might come a few days too soon for Plapp considering his current health. Still, he would like to use the TT experience to fine-tune his approach to the discipline ahead of a likely shot at the TT in Paris during the Olympic Games. Selection isn’t guaranteed but it’s likely at this point in the year.

“I was looking at it but every day that goes by and I’m not getting better, it’s harder to look at that as a goal. It’s still there and I’ll focus on it but after stage 10 maybe not but I really like that time trial. It’s a super fast TT and it’s perfect for Ganna. It mirrors the Olympic time trial quite well, so hopefully I can be up for that and put down another good performance,” he says.

Whether Plapp leaves the Giro Italia with a Grand Tour stage win to his name remains to be seen. The only guarantee at this point is that if he regains his health, he’ll no doubt be in another breakaway and attempt to snatch a victory. His career trajectory points towards such levels of success in the not-too-distant future but with Plapp’s long-term future it’s all about the development, the incremental improvements and the vision for what could be possible in the coming years. Keep an eye on him, because whether he’s in the Australian champs jersey or not, he’ll be easy to spot over the coming years.

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list.

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