Tour de France veteran Lewis rates JTL as 'best rider the SW has produced'
CYCLING 'insiders' have known for years that Jonathan Tiernan-Locke had a special talent and now Colin Lewis, who's been riding and watching races for more than 50 years, says that the former Mid-Devon CC rider is "without a doubt, the best I've ever seen come out of the South West".
Lewis, respected former UK national champion, Tour de France and Olympic Games rider and still formidably fit at 70, has watched every step of Tiernan-Locke's progress from teenage hopeful with the Kingsteignton-based Mid-Devon club to national stardom.
"The first time we saw what he might become was in his second-ever road race, after he'd switched from mountain bikes," recalled Lewis.
"It was the Totnes-Vire stage race, and he was a bit overawed with quite a few pros riding in it.
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"We knew he could climb, so we asked him if he could attack up Kingsbridge Hill.
"We told him to get a gap, wait for a few of the better riders to come up to him and form a break and then sit in with them.
"Well, he did exactly that, and he was a minute clear at the top of the hill. The trouble was that he just kept going.
"It took the chasers another 12 miles to catch him and then, even though we kept telling him (from the Mid-Devon team car) to stop, he kept working on the front.
"We had to tell him three or four times before he eased off. He eventually finished fifth, against some very good riders."
It was Lewis who drove Locke, still only 19, to France to take up an offer from VC Aube, a leading amateur club and a 'feeder squad' for French pro teams.
"Many people don't realise how successful Jon was over three seasons in France," said Lewis.
"He won a load of races for VC Aube and CC Etupes, and there were plenty of French pro teams interested in him."
But it was in 2005 that Locke was struck down by the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus, which rendered him exhausted whenever he tried any serious exercise.
It took three years out of his cycling career.
"Jon didn't waste those years – he got himself a university degree (in graphic design at Bristol)," said Lewis.
"But it took him all that time to get over his illness.
"He told me that, when he and his sister were out walking one day, she even left him behind when they went up a flight of steps."
It was during university holidays that Locke made ends meet by working as a mechanic at Paignton's Colin Lewis Cycles, which had been taken over by club rider Simon Aske.
He and Aske are now firm friends.
Locke, finally recovered from the virus, started riding again, especially when he realised that riders he had previously beaten were winning races three years on.
His progress over the last four seasons has been remarkable.
In 2008 he reeled off a series of victories in South-West events, earning himself a pro contract with UK team Plowman-Craven.
He did well enough to be signed by the stronger Rapha Condor team in 2010, enhanced his reputation with several impressive performances at home and abroad and then, last year, reached out for stardom.
A strong 2011 campaign culminated in a stunning display of climbing at the Tour of Britain.
He became the first British rider to wear a jersey in the modern history of the ToB, clinching the King Of The Mountains competition and finishing fifth overall, only a minute down on winner Lars Boom of Holland's Rabobank squad. Ambitious Scottish team Endura Racing, who offered Locke the chance to race at a higher overseas level than Rapha Condor, signed him for 2012.
Determined to close the gap he perceived between himself and the top international climbers, Locke put himself through a rigorous diet and training regime to lose nearly a stone in weight during last winter.
Lewis recalls a remarkable incident during a friendly training ride on Dartmoor.
"Jon, Simon and I were climbing Ausewell Hill, out of Ashburton towards Buckland-in-the Moor," he said.
"Just as it ramped up to 15 per cent near the top, Jon suddenly lifted his front wheel with one hand and 'wheelied' up the road for 50 yards, waving with his other hand.
"Can you imagine the power you have to generate to do that?
"I'd never seen anyone do anything like it."
Lighter but just as strong, Locke gatecrashed the European season, winning France's prestigious Tour Mediterranean and Tour Haut Var races and finishing second in Spain's Vuelta a Murcia with spectacular displays on the climbs.
Yet again, illness and injury interrupted his progress.
He cracked a rib and broke his collarbone – he'd first broken it when a riderless horse ran into him during a training ride four years before – in a collision with a marshal and a bollard during May's Lincoln Grand Prix.
But once again Locke's resilience saw him fight back.
He used a major stage race in France's Route de Sud to regain top fitness, and confirmed it with victory in the Tour d'Alsace in July.
Before this year's Tour of Britain, despite lining up against the strongest-ever field, he was being tipped as a possible winner over a course which suited his climbing prowess.
Saying it was one thing. For Locke, still a Mid-Devon member, to do it was another.
But over the course of last week he looked more and more like the strongest all-round rider in the race, often driving the pace at the front of the 'peloton' and always able to put time into his rivals on the climbs.
After taking the leader's gold jersey on Stage Six from Welshpool to Caerphilly, he crushed all remaining resistance over the closing two stages in Devon last Saturday and Surrey on Sunday.
He became the first British winner of the Tour, or of its predecessor the Milk Race, since South Londoner Chris Lillywhite in 1993 – 19 years ago.
"To see Jon develop and progress has been something to watch," added Lewis, "but the way he rode in this Tour of Britain was something really memorable."