Moving directly from the junior ranks to the WorldTour isn’t a complete novelty anymore, but it remains a rarity. Michael Leonard joined that elite cadre when he skipped the under-23 category to join Ineos Grenadiers at the start of this season, and the 19-year-old has lined out for his first WorldTour race this week at the Tour of Guangxi.
“This week has been a good experience, I’m learning a lot from being in a peloton with high calibre riders,” Leonard told Cyclingnews in Nanning. “There have been a lot of races earlier this season where I’ve struggled with illness but I pushed through them. It’s the tough moments that allow you to grow.”
The leap in standard is a considerable one, but then Leonard had arguably already taken a bigger plunge when he left his native Canada early in 2022 to race as a junior in Italy with the Franco Ballerini squad. Early exposure to racing in Europe has long been a part of the maturation ordeal for aspiring North American riders, but few make the trip alone at such a young age.
“I’d say probably moving to Tuscany was a bigger step than going from juniors to racing professionally,” Leonard said. “I didn’t speak the language, I had no clue of what I was getting into. That was a reality check. [Joining Ineos] was a big step, but I was already in the environment and I knew more or less what I was getting into.”
At first glance, Leonard’s decision to seek a European squad before he had even completed high school seems the act of a young man in a hurry, of an ambitious rider following a bullet-point plan to reach the WorldTour as quickly as possible.
The reality, he explained, is that it was more an act of exploration. Leonard’s results from his first year as a junior had suggested he was good, and he figured the time in Italy might tell him exactly how good. But no matter how the racing unfolded, it was going to be an adventure.
“I didn’t go to Italy thinking I needed to do that to go to the WorldTour or whatever,” Leonard said. “I went to Italy just thinking it was going to be an awesome year, come what will. Whether it was the end of my cycling career or the start of it, I was going to have a good experience.”
Leonard had contacted Team Franco Ballerini in the modern fashion, by sending a direct message on Instagram, although he had already caught the squad’s attention when he placed second at the 2021 Tour de Leman with the Canadian national team. The squad, which serves as a…