Twelve months ago the name Michael Leonard wasn’t high on the list of prospective transfer targets for major WorldTour teams, but the 18-year-old turned heads this season with a standout year of domestic racing.
Two big wins in April, followed by victories in the Trofeo Madonna del Cavatore and the Gran Premio Bermac Gara, drew interest from Ineos Grenadiers and by August the Canadian had secured a WorldTour contract from one of the biggest teams in the world.
But just who is Michael Leonard and how did a VeloNews article on Will Barta, an Instagram DM, and some hugely talented athletic genes help this cycling sensation land a spot in the big time?
VeloNews: What were the steps that you went through in order to earn a contract at Ineos Grenadiers?
Michael Leonard: As a North American rider the important thing for me was coming over to Europe and getting stuck in because obviously there’s no way they’d be aware of you if you’re not over here doing stuff. Then I rode some pretty good tests, and had some pretty strong races, and they started to follow me from a distance. Then over the summer they got in touch a little bit and I spoke directly with them. From there they decided that they wanted to move forward.
VeloNews: Where did that interest from Ineos start? As you said, they may not have seen you in North America until you were winning races in Italy.
ML: That’s exactly it. I started winning races in Italy and word spread from that. They started following me and they spoke to my agent as things progressed they wrote an email to me in the summer and said that they wanted to speak.
VN: So you came in and did some tests with them?
ML: They wanted to look at all my power data. I didn’t go in and do a test with them but I did a test on my own but they have access to all of my power and heart rate data from every training session that I’ve done going back to when I was 12. So I think that they felt that it was enough.
VN: You’ve been training with heart rate and power data since you were 12?
ML: I think that I got the power meter at 14 but heart rate, pretty much. I love the data.
VN: What got you into cycling then?
ML: I was doing triathlon, not a particularly high level, but I figured out that no one was forcing me to swim or run. I liked the cycling aspect so I decided that I wanted to give that a go. Then the year that I started taking it more seriously they built a velodrome half an hour from my house so I started to develop through the pathway that they were building there.
VN: Did you expect to turn pro at 18?
ML: It’s definitely a surprise to me and it’s not what I was expecting coming into this year. I thought that I would learn and see how it went but it went a lot better than I thought that it would. Actually though, the first inkling when I thought that I might be possible was when VeloNews published a story a couple of years on Will Barta’s power data. You had his coach talking about what it took to be successful as a U23. So I read that and I thought, ‘I think that I can do those power numbers pretty soon.’ I read it a couple of times and sent it to my coach and she read it and came to the same conclusion.
That was the first moment when I thought that this might actually be something that’s possible. Obviously there’s a lot more to racing than just power, so that’s why I’ve come over and had to learn to ride well but that was the first moment when I thought that it might be possible to become a professional.
VN: How did you get the ride in Italy?
ML: I’m super thankful to Kevin Simms and the Toronto Hustle team, as well as Cycling Canada because they gave me the opportunity to come over to Europe last year for a good block of racing. From there I met these guys very briefly at one race that I did. So I knew that for this year I needed to come over and really be here for the whole year. I wrote to the sports director on Instagram in the fall, and said that they looked like a good organized team. I asked if they would be interested in giving me a spot and I ended up here.
I basically spent the entire year here. I came at the start of February and so I got about a month and half of prep before the racing started. I raced here all through the spring and then the plan was to go home for nationals but I ended up going up for longer because I was injured but then I came back and I’ve been in Europe all through the summer.
VN: What was the biggest adjustment that you had to make when you came over to Europe?
ML: Honestly it wasn’t the big change that I thought. The big change has been living by myself and planning getting up, what I’m eating for the day, and basic life skills because it’s my first time living totally by myself. Beyond that, it’s bike racing, and it’s a bit harder and there’s different tactics. The language stuff, I had to learn. There have been big transitions but nothing hugely shocking.
VN: So how’s your Italian?
ML: I’m functional. I understand everything related to cycling and most things outside of that. I can get my point across and it’s been good because there haven’t been a huge amount of English speakers here so I’ve really had to focus on learning it. It’s a skill that you keep for the rest of your life so I’m happy to have it.
VN: When Ineos came in for you was it too good of an opportunity to turn down or were you thinking maybe I could do another year at U23?
ML: It was a combination of both. I went through all the pluses and the minuses but at the same time there was some confirmation bias as it feels like a fantastic opportunity. Also when I look at it rationally it’s also the place where I’m probably going to be able to learn the most. I’ll have the best support, guidance and mentorship out of anywhere I could possibly be.
VN: What are your expectations for the first year?
ML: It’s really just to learn as much as possible both on and off the bike. I want to try and learn and absorb things and then just make myself useful in the races. I’m not turning up expecting to win the Tour de France or anything, it’s just a matter of learning as much as possible so that I can progress the best that I can.
VN: What swung it for you when it came to deciding to go to Ineos?
ML: The type of rider I’d say that I am, looking at my physiology and my mental characteristics, I’m hopefully someone who could have potential in the grand tours. That’s the sort of rider that I want to be at Ineos. When it comes to riders and staff I think that Ineos has the most experience when it comes to winning grand tours, so I can really learn from the best.
VN: Outside of cycling, if you have time for it, what else are you into?
ML: I do a fair amount of reading, and when at home I like to play the piano. So I’m going to have to buy an electric one once my living situation becomes a bit more stable. That’s about it. I don’t do much else.