Lucas Plapp is the bolter for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic squad, the youngest member at just 19 years of age, able to force his way into a well-established squad by the force of his tremendous ability and determination.
Lucas Plapp’s career trajectory changed on the day he made up his mind to quit track cycling for good to go on the road.
Plapp caught the eye of many with his outing during the Melbourne six-day carnival, but most significantly it was the Australian guru of the track, Tim Decker, that came over for a chat with the Victorian youngster. Decker recalled the moment of seeing Plapp’s ‘eye of the tiger’, the competitive urge and tension that is rarely far from the surface within the young rider.
While having a chat with the men’s endurance coach during a training session with the team pursuit squad, he suggested talking to Plapp about the time he decided to quit the track for good.
“Timmy tell you that one,” laughs Plapp. “It was December 2017 and I’d decided that I’d quit to concentrate on the road with the world championships coming up next year. I thought that my best chance to get a result in Under 19s would be to quit track and concentrate on the road.
“One of the Victorian boys had gastro and I got called up late for the Melbourne six-day. Against all these boys here (gestures around at the Australian track team) and I was 16.
“I had an awesome six days of racing, basically chewing stem for all six nights and trying to hold onto these boys’ wheels. They were all my idols and to race against them was amazing. From that, Timmy told me to keep riding the track and there might be a future for me there.
“At that stage I wasn’t convinced, as soon as that race finished I focused on the road and managed to win the national title there. Still in my head I was doing road.
“I got a late call-up to do the track nationals and managed to sneak three gold medals there which was pretty special and got me selected to the junior worlds track team for that year. I managed two gold medals at worlds and it’s been a pretty special process. Straight after track worlds, I went to road worlds and got silver there (in the time trial behind Remco Evenepoel).
Accelerate the story forward a few years and Plapp has proved the promise of his junior results and is now one of the brightest young talents of his generation. That he achieved selection into the team pursuit squad for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was not a big surprise for those in cycling circles.
In between those two points has been many training sessions, years of hard work to improve Plapp as an athlete and to work on his technique to fit into the very particular rigours of the team pursuit discipline.
“When I set out a goal, I do everything I can to achieve that,” says Plapp. “I’m purely focused on it. If I don’t achieve it, it’s not a very nice feeling and I’m fortunate enough that almost everything I have set as a goal I have achieved so far.”
You can see the pain written on his face on those rare occasions that the Victorian hasn’t quite done what he thought he could. Plapp had a very specific plan coming into the season, go into the Australian national championships and win the time trial in the Under 23s, which he managed handsomely. However, after the Under 23 road race, you would have been forgiven for thinking the 19-year-old was in mourning as a pained expression beyond the normal fatigue of the event wracked his features following his fifth-place finish.
“I went to nationals for the time trial, that was what I was there for and I wanted to get that result,” says Plapp. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d finish the road race… but halfway through I had amazing legs and I was feeling pretty awesome.
“Coming into a few laps to go I thought I was a real chance, which was a surprise as I really hadn’t done any work towards that. It didn’t work out that way, but one of my best mates (Jarrad Drizners) got the win and that was special for me.
“I was pretty gutted, just because I had thought I was so close to winning. If I’d played my cards differently… I was really disappointed, but reflecting on it I’m really happy with my performance. Just one of those things in the moment.”
That marked the last of Plapp’s road objectives before the big goal of the season, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“For me, I’ve ticked off the TT at nationals and now it’s all about the track,” says Plapp. “In my head I committed to that one personal goal that I was confident I could do if I poured all my energy into it. In my mind, ticked that off, job done.
“This group (the team pursuit squad), we’re all great mates, trying to get the best out of each other without competing with each other. You’re all in it together for the one goal.”
That support has been crucial as Plapp has worked his way into being a member of the squad, but you get the sense that it’s just as much the single-minded drive and focus that Plapp brings to whatever he sets himself to that has secured his selection within the squad for Tokyo.
“I’m more than two years younger than all of them,” says Plapp of coming into the squad. “These guys have done so much, won the Comm (Commonwealth) Games gold, broke the world record at Comm Games, won countless amounts of medals at World Championships and go in as favourites to almost all the events.
“For me, it was a daunting challenge stepping up but they’ve been so inviting in helping me out. Me being young, I’ve brought that hunger and drive into the team, that bit of enthusiasm just uplifting the team a bit.
“They push me to be a better athlete. The first three months I was just chewing stem trying to hold onto the wheel and now I’m pulling my share of the work. We’re all just feeding off each other and getting stronger every week.”
Coming into the peculiar beast that is the team pursuit event, Plapp needed to adapt quickly to the technique and efforts required of the discipline, a process that has gone faster than any have expected.
“It’s been super quick,” says Plapp. “Six weeks ago my best was a 3.53 and then I did a 3.48 (the current Australian record is three minutes and 48.012 seconds). It has been really big jumps really quickly and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to handle that and these guys have taken me under the wing and mentored me to help me through that. I’ve had to have big jumps to get to their level this quickly.”
Watching the team cut quick laps of the Adelaide Superdome, the precision required is near unbelievable as riders swing off in the smoothest of motions and snap back onto the wheel of the third rider with mere centimetres the margin of difference between perfection and causing a crash.
“For me, that’s where I‘m the furthest behind,” say Plapp. “I could do the skills at 3.50 pace, but now doing it 3.48 pace is so much harder. You’re flying along and there’s no margin for area. If you miss the wheel, that’s race done. It’s where I’m the furthest behind and what I’m working hardest on.”
While there was a new benchmark set at the recent world championships by the Danish squad, Plapp, speaking ahead of that result, spoke of the processes and refinements in technique that will put Australia in with a shot at the medals at the Olympics.
“For our team, that’s what we have over the other countries,” says Plapp of the hard work the team put into their technique out on the track. “We magnify everything to make sure everything is as it can be. Nothing can ever be perfect but we try to get as close as we can.
“We understand the smoother we are, the faster we can go. It’s about understanding that while there are four of us out there it’s one team and you’re all trying to be the exact same rider. When you’re on the front, it’s not about going as hard as you can, it’s about doing what’s going to make everyone go faster.
“We work so hard on the technique and it really does show on race day, how we compare to the other countries. I think that’s where we come out on top.”
Plapp’s laser focus is on the track for Tokyo and the chance at gold, but there’s clearly a future for the young Victorian on the road as well, one in which he hopes to emulate hero Cameron Meyer.
“Up until August 13, TP (team pursuit) day, that’s where my sole focus is and where my energy goes,” says Plapp. “After that, I’d like to have the opportunity to go to Switzerland in Aigle for the road world championships. I feel I have unfinished business there, getting second as an Under-19 to Remco.
“That was pretty heart-breaking as it was what I set my season out to do. Now, looking at the rider he’s turned into, I almost count it as a win now! That’s a major goal for me, to be a time trial world champion.
“After that, I’d like to dabble in the WorldTour if possible and come back to track. Cam Meyer, he’s my biggest idol on and off the bike, he’s been able to balance the track and road for so long. Hopefully for Paris (2024 Olympics) I’d be able to do the Madison as well. That would be a big goal and something that I could balance the road and track for, you’ve seen how he (Meyer) does it. I love the road, I always have and that’s where I’d like to make my career.”
Plapp has built his reputation on the road as a time-triallist, but history has shown that you can adapt that power a number of ways to be effective in a variety of road races.
“For me, that’s what I love, being by myself because I know that I can push myself as hard as I can,” says Plapp. “Even here, when I’m on the road I go alone as when you’re with people you sometimes limit yourself. I love being out there by myself and tearing myself a new one.”
For the moment, Plapp is as much a fan of road racing as a participant, he’s quick to respond to cycling media and the achievements of friends and others in the sport.
“I love following the road and seeing what everyone’s doing, especially now as I’ve got a few mates that have gone over to Europe and joining teams. I love following the WorldTour guys, Mitchelton guys, I idolise all those guys and hopefully I can be on that team one day.”
If that goal goes the way that the majority of Plapp’s other goals have in the past then it may not be long until we see the Australian WorldTour squad with a new young Australian member.
By Jamie Finch-Penninger