The intimidating Alpe d’Huez to new lessons learned at 29: Owain Doull’s debut Tour

The Welshman realises a lifelong dream, doing his best to soak it all in.

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It’s around 10.30pm on the second rest day of the Tour de France and Owain Doull is walking through Carcassonne alone. He walks up the street that bends round until the citadel comes into view. At night it’s lit up. Tonight, John Legend is in town and playing a concert somewhere within the medieval walls.

You assume Doull hasn’t spent €65 on a ticket and is making his way up late to catch the last few songs. This is confirmed as 10 or so minutes after he makes his way back past the outdoor tables of people eating and drinking, returning down the road to his team hotel.

Maybe, then, just a walk to clear the head. To get out of his room for a brief moment, a glimpse of solitude that hasn’t been afforded to him for more than a minute the past few weeks. Maybe, he’s just trying to take it all in.

This year Doull left the Ineos Grenadiers, the team he turned professional with aged 23, having turned down an offer from Europcar to go pro earlier. He instead balanced gaining road experience alongside his quest for Olympic gold, which he achieved in the Team Pursuit at Rio 2016, the first Welsh-speaking Olympic champion.

But as the years subsequently ticked by at Sky/Ineos, something was missing. As the British squad romped to numerous Grand Tour victories, spots in the winning squads were usually the most coveted and competitive in the WorldTour. The 2019 Vuelta was his only Grand Tour appearance.

By 2021, it was time for a change, deciding to leave the rich kids at Ineos for the cool kids at EF Education EasyPost. Trading in his Belstaff attire that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Six Nations rugby match at Twickenham for a pair of multi-coloured crocs, baggy pink shorts and a white t-shirt with cartoons on it.

The attire is why Doull was so easy to spot as he walked the streets of Carcassonne. At 29, he’s the eighth-oldest Tour debutant, but with his gold medal the most accomplished. Having already got his debut Giro d’Italia under his belt earlier this year, despite being forced to abandon after the first week, the brave decision to leave what was effectively a job for life at Ineos in search of a career with no box left unticked seems to be paying off.

“It’s been pretty mad,” Doull reflects at the end of the second week of his debut Tour. “It’s trying to get that balance between remembering that it’s just any other bike race and it’s the same guys you race for most of the year but then also recognising it’s the Tour and trying to enjoy it and soak it in as much as possible.”

Even as he approaches 30, there are still things to be learned at the biggest bike race on the calendar. The stage to Mende on paper didn’t look like it would be that complicated, Doull explains, but it turned out to be unexpectedly tough.

On that Mende day, Doull managed to briefly put his nose out front and get on the attack, able to balance team duties with racing for himself. The next day he was taken out by a stray bidon that had fallen in the middle of the peloton. That, in a nutshell, is what the Tour de France is like.

“For sure by the end of the Tour I’d like to try and get up the road,” Doull said. “And if it’s a breakaway that sticks and I have the chance to try for a win that’d be amazing. But I’m just happy to be here more than anything, just trying to take it all in. It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing and being part of this race. So yeah, I try to make the most of the experience.”

At no point has Doull felt out of his depth, not even on Alpe d’Huez where he had the chance to take a mental picture as he made his way through the throngs of fans at the roadside.

“I’m learning as I go but also feeling pretty comfortable, to be honest, it’s never really been in too much of a struggle,” he admitted. “And so when I hit Alpe d’Huez I had plenty of time just to kind of soak it all up and enjoy the experience, which was really cool.

“It’s a weird one,” he continued. “Obviously I’ve watched the Tour so many times we’ve seen when the front guys are going up this tunnel of people and to kind of experience that even 30 minutes behind the race…it’s quite intimidating actually. It’s just an experience in itself.”

One thing that was noticeable about the Alpe was the number of Welsh flags on display.

“I was joking with G[eraint Thomas] that I think there’s more this year and the only factor that has changed is me being here…I’m kidding. There was the Welsh corner and that was that was really cool to see.”

Maybe it was Alpe d’Huez Doull thought of as he walked up to the citadel and back. Maybe it was thoughts of home. Maybe it was thoughts of the Pyrenean stages to come and which day could suit him in the breakaway. Regardless, it’s a dream realised and Owain Doull is just trying to soak it all in while in the eye of the Tour’s hurricane.

“Sorry,” he says as the interview ends. “That was a bit of a rubbish interview. I’m just a bit fried.” Even in his media duties, Doull is determined to make every aspect of his first Tour something to remember.

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