Modest Mark Donovan is enjoying well earned chill time after ending a memorable first professional season in the saddle on a real high at the Vuelta a Espana.
Although lockdown brought disruption during 2020 after 21-year-old Mark had penned a three-year deal with Team Sunweb, it also later paved the way for opportunity.
The former Keswick School student, from Penruddock, was handed a Grand Tour debut in Spain as Europe’s three prestigious races — which also include the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia — were shoe-horned into the closing stages of the competitive campaign.
That allowed Team Sunweb to call up younger riders, including Mark, for the headline events. And he seized his chance, clocking up two top five Vuelta stage finishes — fourth on stage 11 and fifth on the penultimate day.
“It was really nice to have that opportunity at the end of the season,” said Mark, who is currently based in Girona, northern Spain.
“During (the Vuelta) you don’t really think about how big it is, you’re just flat out racing.
“But when you take a step back you realise actually it’s quite a big deal. A first Grand Tour is a big step in your career. And it was cool, realising ‘I’m doing this now’. I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it.
“It’s some of the hardest racing in the world, three weeks of flat-out races, so the expectations were lower. I didn’t want to get carried away going into it, but I still wanted to give it everything and see how I could do on the biggest stage.
“I guess the two highlights were the two top fives I got on the two big mountain days. I was really happy. I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it, didn’t want to put any pressure on myself.
“I knew I was going pretty well during some of the races leading up to it. I was hoping to at least kind of be involved in some of the races, but I definitely got more out of it than I thought I possibly could. I definitely can’t be disappointed with how I rode. I got everything out of it that I could.”
On reflection, the experience had been “great”, he told the Herald.
“It’s probably the first time a lot of people have heard my name, the first big race that I’ve done and to be up there it was real nice; people watching it on TV, supporting, people back home in Cumbria, and then the team was really happy with how it went, with the whole team as well,” he said.
“We’re a young team and expectations were lower, but the team put a lot of support behind us and we felt like we did a real good job. They were really happy with how we rode for such an inexperienced team.”
Sporty while studying at Keswick School, Mark initially took part in cross-country and fell running, before heel problems meant he switched his attention to biking aged 14 or 15, competing in cyclocross events, first regionally and then nationally as a member of Penrith-based Beacon Wheelers.
A move to under-19 level brought a transition into road racing which, he said he hadn’t really enjoyed much when he was a bit younger.
It proved a shrewd move. He joined Team Wiggins — a development outfit created by Sir Bradley Wiggins — and memorably passed through Cumbria during stage four of last year’s Tour of Britain before joining Team Sunweb.
But, after a tough first pre-season, the COVID pandemic struck. It left him locked down in Andorra and cast doubt over a debut 2020 professional cycling campaign.
“I managed to do one race in France in early March. I had a full season’s worth of races all lined up, ready to go, and then everything got cancelled,” he said.
“It was pretty disappointing. You put all the work in, and suddenly you’ve got no chance to do anything. We weren’t sure if races were going to start again.”
He returned to action at the Criterium du Dauphine and then came his memorable Grand Tour bow.
“I got loads of nice messages. People from school were watching, old friends, people from my old club, Beacon Wheelers, they were happy to see that I was up there,” he said.
“I’ve always felt like I wanted to be a professional cyclist. I never really knew whether it would happen or not, but once the ball got rolling it all seems to have happened so fast, it’s crazy really. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was racing grass track around Frenchfield (in Penrith)!”
After a short period “chilling” at home, Mark will step up exercise in the coming weeks and then return to cycling.
”I’m just spending a lot of time on the sofa. You come back from a three-week race and you don’t have much energy so just sitting on the sofa watching TV is about all you feel like doing,” he said.
“By mid-December it will be back into the regime and cracking on, thinking about next year. It’s funny. It feels like you’ve only just finished this year and already you’re thinking it’s not too long now until next year starts.
“It’ll be great to keep it going, keep the ball rolling. I finished off on a nice high this year. Hopefully I can get a good winter’s training in and races can kick off again in February/March time and we can have a somewhat normal season
“We’ll just see how it goes; just try and keep the momentum going.”
Mark is the son of Pete and Annie Donovan, and has a brother, Finn.