Rising star: Oliver Knight a calm and confident WorldTour debutant

The new Cofidis rider has had a steady rise to the top, and is ready to ply his trade at the highest level after a promising four years as an under-23

Clock14:00, Sunday 11th February 2024

© Billy Ceusters / Velo Collection via Getty Images

Knight has taken to the Tour de la Provence as part of his early season race schedule

In the era of riders signing WorldTour contracts before they’ve even started their junior career, slower journeys are becoming an anomaly. The idea of a WorldTour debutant has become associated with a young rider making a splash on the peloton, being thrown into a brand new environment, and having to quickly find their feet as both a rider and a person.

However, not all introductions to the professional peloton are as dramatic as some riders make it seem. At the recent Tour Down Under, the first WorldTour race of the season, several riders were making their debut. Some were nervous and slightly daunted, some were energetic and keen, and some won stages on their first outing at the highest level. Some, though, were calm, collected and assured.

Britain’s Oliver Knight signed for Cofidis for the 2024 season and started his first WorldTour event for them in Australia. The race didn’t go to plan for the 23-year-old — he pulled out on stage 2 with a lingering illness — but the Knight that spoke to GCN a few days later was a rider who already seemed settled and happy in his new team, and not deterred by an early setback.

“It's brilliant,” Knight said of Cofidis, whose ranks he has been part of since the summer as a stagiaire, stepping up after four years with the AVC Aix-en-Provence squad.

“It's a traditional French team, so it's not too far from what I experienced in my under-23 days. There's things that change, obviously, but there's things that are very traditional. I suppose a lot of teams are like this, but it does feel like a bit more of a family. There are some good jokes within the team and even between the staff as well, it doesn't feel like I'm looking up too much towards anyone, it's more like you're all there for the same goal really and that's to make you, and in the process the team, successful.”

Part of what has made Knight’s transition to the WorldTour so seamless is the path he’s been on for the last few years. Moving from a club team to the WorldTour may look like a leap, but in reality, Knight has been closely involved with Cofidis for almost three years, has trained with them before, and also had a taste of the WorldTour before when he stagiaired with UAE Team Emirates in 2022.

Often, a stagiaire spot is just a precursor to an inevitable full-time contract at the end, but that’s not always the case, and that wasn’t how it worked out for Knight at UAE.

“The first year I did [a stagiaire stint] was different to the second year,” he explained. “The first time I did it it was purely as a stagiaire and that was it. There was a chance that that could lead to something, but it wasn't certain. I had a bit of bad luck there - I broke my pelvis on the last stage of the first race I did, so dead luck. So that was a bit different because it's almost like you're intruding on this environment of this team that's already so well-knit, so it's obviously going to be a little bit awkward and hard to try and break into that.”

His 2023 stint, though, was a different story. Thanks to his manager at AVC Aix and his agent, Knight already had a close relationship with Cofidis, including training camps and testing, so an autumn as a stagiaire and a neo-pro contract was a natural progression. Though joining the team properly in January was hardly a drop in the deep end for Knight, it was still a change.

“It’s strange,” he explained, just a couple of weeks into January. “Even though I've done two years as a stagiaire, it's still different to being fully here, coached by the team, followed by the team, on the group WhatsApp and everything. It's different. Having that security of knowing that it's now your job for the next at least two years, it's quite surreal really.”

Knight bucks the trend in completing the under-23 ranks

At 23, Oliver Knight is by no means an ‘old’ WorldTour debutant, but the fact remains that these days, very few riders complete their full four years as an under-23 before joining the WorldTour. The talented riders get snapped up early, and the ones that do age out of the category often don’t find a WorldTour contract at the end of it.

It would be easy to think that riders who are approaching their final year as an under-23 see that as a cause for concern, and treat their time from 18 to 22 as a race to get out, but that’s very much not how it was for Knight.

“I did the full four years of under-23 there, which seems like a long time, and I think it's a long time when you look at other guys, other Brits, they don't really stick around at the teams too long, especially abroad, but every year I felt that if I wasn't going to step up to say a WorldTour team, I didn't think I'd get much of a better opportunity anywhere else, whether it be a Continental team or another French or Spanish amateur squad.

“I never felt like it was taking too long, I never felt like I was in that much of a rush,” he added. “You see guys now signing their WorldTour contracts as a first-year junior, it's crazy. There are always going to be guys that are at that level, and they do the tests on them and they know they're going to end up really good, but I know for myself that if I was in a position where I could sign WorldTour two years ago, I'm just a completely different person now.”

Far from feeling like a late bloomer, it’s clear that that time as an U23 has made Knight the rider he is, and contributed to the assured demeanour he brings to his first full year with Cofidis.

“I think I really got to enjoy the last two years as an under-23, being pretty successful as an amateur and learning not only the styles of racing but also what works well for my body, how to eat well, train well, and just what works for me in general,” he explained.

As well as the practical and physical benefits of a longer stint as an under-23, Knight highlighted the mental benefit of being able to find himself as a rider — and a young person — without the pressure of being tied into a WorldTour contract or a team expecting big results.

“There were times when I struggled. I never got too homesick but I'd say there were times when I would have rather been at home or just nipped back, and I couldn't,” Knight explained candidly. “There were times at the start, especially, when I didn't speak French, there was no one who spoke English, and all I wanted to do was speak my own language. That was hard but they were so welcoming, and made it seem so comfortable, and I wasn't having to deal with the pressure of competing with the world's best cyclists at the same time.

“It's always hard going through that age, whether you're a WorldTour pro or just an amateur, but it just depends how you deal with it.”

Aggressive racing and consistency among Knight's hopes for 2024

As a result of his four-year stay in the under-23 ranks, and a gradual, steady rise towards the WorldTour, Oliver Knight is starting 2024 ready to race. He doesn’t need long to find his feet or his place in the team, and with an array of French and Spanish races on his calendar, he’ll be racing on terrain he’s used to.

He already had his first taste of racing freedom with Cofidis last year, when he burst onto many radars with his performances in the Tour de Luxembourg, and this was a reflection of what he wants to do in 2024.

“That was definitely a race that gave me a lot of confidence,” Knight said of Luxembourg. “I was coming into good shape, I had a good July and August to build up to that point. I was given quite a lot of freedom, especially for a stagiaire, to really race it aggressively.

“I'd say the highlight was probably the time trial or the last day. I got the time trial bang on in terms of pacing and everything, and then the last day they gave me the go-ahead to make a move on the last lap. I think I was fifteenth in the end, it was nothing incredible, but it was enough to give me a bit of confidence that it's possible.”

Knowing what’s possible, Knight is looking for more of the same in his debut year, plus a few key areas of improvement. Another benefit of his relative experience is that he knows his abilities and strengths well, so 2024 will be a year of honing and building, rather than finding where his talents lie.

“Of course, I want to keep learning as much as I can,” he said. “I'd really like to progress in my time trialling. I feel like I've not done much time trialling at all as an under-23 because there's just none of it in France. I had a couple of tastes, once at Luxembourg and once at Poitou-Charentes, and the team were happy and they've helped me out with a bit of testing so we're going to work on that.

“Then also to try and become really consistent and try to fight for those results in medium stage races, and also the French Cups as well which are always fun racing, pretty aggressive, constant attacks, which I really enjoy.”

Next up for Knight is the Tour de la Provence, starting on Thursday, where he’ll be hoping to make a stronger start than his slightly halted trip to Australia. From there, there are a lot of new things for the 23-year-old in his first WorldTour year, but also a lot of familiarities, which should set him up well as his amateur pursuit becomes his career.

“This year especially is going to be a real big focus on volume, just getting as much of a base as possible, and having the future in mind. At the end of the day it's still the same thing that works - just riding your bike, doing a fair bit of endurance, then throwing in a few efforts.

“There's nothing crazy to it. It's just going to be what I've known for years now, but just having it as my full-time job.”

For more rider interviews, see our interviews section.

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