A young cyclist’s first season racing in the WorldTour is never easy. A first year in the middle of a global pandemic, even less so. This spring, Mark Donovan spent 6 weeks in Andorra confined to the turbo trainer as a result of strict lockdown measures that banned all outdoor exercise. This summer and autumn, he raced the Criterium du Daupiné, La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, before finishing his debut season at the Vuelta a Espana, where he finished 4th and 5th in stages 11 and 17 respectively and in the top 50 overall. Quite the turnaround for the young Englishmen.

Donovan took time out of his pre-season preparations to chat to The Oxford Blue about his experience as a neo-pro riding on the World Tour last year; training and competing for Team DSM, and his aspirations for the coming session. 

Mark Donovan began cycling racing cyclo-cross as an under-16 rider and then a junior. Finishing school in 2017, he moved straight to Girona, a hotbed of European cycling, to focus fully on riding. Racing for Zappi’s junior in team in the UK and then subsequently as a stagiare (a free agent taken on by a professional team for experience) for Team Sky, he impressed enough to be offered a contract by Team Wiggins in 2019, and in 2020 by Team DSM (formerly Sunweb).

Cycling is a sport where it is easy to get fixated on the latest piece of gear, the newest training gimmick, or popular diet fad. Donovan, in contrast, seems immune to such pressures and trends. Talking to him after he had just returned from a recovery ride, it most struck me how relaxed he was in his approach to his training and performance. He explained that he avoids focusing on all the metrics he sees in training. He has a personal coach at Team DSM who gives him all his training, and he just does, by and large, whatever sessions he is given without worrying too much.

“Sometimes you can think you are flying in training, and you turn up to a race and you just have nothing. Sometimes it’s the opposite.” Donovan says, “Racing is the only real indicator for how you are going to race.” He stressed it isn’t the numbers in the training, but the results on the road that he produces, that ultimately matter.

Nutrition wise, Donovan says he doesn’t really focus or even think about his weight. Climbing at the highest level is often presented as a battle to get the lowest sustainable weight possible. Geraint Thomas talks in depth about the grueling process he undertakes annually to get from his natural weight of 72/73kg in the off-season down to his Tour de France race weight of 68kg. Donovan seems to have no such issues. “I just try to eat a healthy diet. I find it hard to put on weight”, he says, “and when I do ride longer hours, the weight seems to come off pretty easy.”

Donovan is equally candid discussing racing on the WorldTour. “It is different, but it is kind of the same. You’re still riding your bike, just now with the best guys in the world.”

The biggest changes moving from a development team like Wiggins to a WorldTour like DSM were all off the bike. There are five times more staff than riders at Team DSM. It is the media obligations, sponsors, coaches, mechanics, soigneurs, nutritionists and psychologists that Donovan noticed most.

“It’s a whole operation off the bike at these big races, like nothing seen at the lower levels of racing.” Donovan says, “The Team Bus, the support cars, the trucks… It is a massive-step up from the lower levels of racing.”

Donovan opens up about a session he did before La Flèche Wallonne this year, an Ardennes classic that finishes up the steep, but short Mur de Huy. In the course of a 4-hour training ride, he rode a hilly 20-minute loop 6 times with a steep 4-minute climb of around 12%. Every loop, he would attack the climb simulating race effort. He averaged around 450 watts (just under 7 watts a kg) every ascent.

He is now in the base phase of his training. “It’s quite light now”, Donovan says, “there is still 2 months until the planned start to the season, so lots of time.” He rode 28 hours last week.

With the massive growth in Zwift racing as a result of lockdown confining cyclists indoors, riders, more than ever, have become intimately acquainted with their power numbers. The subtle phrase ‘What’s your FTP’ (an estimate of the maximum watts you can hold for an hour) is often dropped in whenever meeting a new cyclist.  

However, racing at the World Tour level, Donovan says “it is not really about being able to push a massive number of watts for 20 minutes.” Instead, it is far more important to “be able to push repeated efforts 4-5 times over the course of a race.” Donovan weighs 65kg. He can push 410, maybe 420 watts on a good day for 20 minutes. But, it is his ability to produce 380-390 watts repeatedly deep into a mountain stage that he hopes will help deliver race results in the future. 

Donovan is equally relaxed about his future. In 2018, he finished behind Joao Almeida (who came 4th in this year’s Giro d’italia) and Aleksandr Vlasov (11th at this year’s Vuelta) to finish 4th in the Baby Giro. In the same year, he finished 11th in the Tour de l’Avenir five minutes behind the race leader. The race was won by a young 19-year-old Slovenian, Tadej Pogacar.

Donovan mentions how racing and competing against the likes of Remco Evenepoel and Pogacar in the u-23s has given him confidence about his future prospects, but he is also realistic about the level he is currently at. “There are plenty of years left, I don’t feel any pressure to win just yet. I just want to keep enjoying it.”

Donovan is also lucky to ride for a team with a clear focus on building up young riders. This was reflected in the success of DSM at Tour De France last year with three stage wins despite the lack of an obvious team leader. “Team DSM is quite a development-oriented team”, he says, “they are really good at helping us, choosing a race calendar that allows us to all reach our potential leader. We have our leaders: Bardet, Hindley, Benoot, but there is a real positive dynamic within the team.”

Donovan seems to accept that he is likely to be a General Classification or at least Grand Tour specialist in the future, rather than a one-day rider. But, for next year at least, “My job is just to help the top guys in the team, help them do their jobs and win races”, Donovan says. “Obviously I want to carry on how I left 2020. Some top 5s, some podiums would always be nice, but I’m young, I have time.”

Only time will tell, but his already impressive Palmares will surely continue to grow in the coming years.

Oliver Bater

0liver Bater is an Opinion Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is going into his second year studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St Edmund Hall. When not at Oxford, he lives in Hong Kong.