An interview with William Walker, January 23, 2008
Quickly snapped up by Rabobank's Continental squad after winning the epic Melbourne to Warrnambool in 2004, William Walker was one of the hottest properties on the amateur circuit. The Australian gradually progressed through the team's higher echelons by riding the 2006 Vuelta a España, but his transition to the professional ranks hasn't been entirely plain sailing as Cyclingnews' Paul Verkuylen found out.
By the end of 2005, William Walker already had the kind of results that would convince most other riders to turn professional - notably a second place at the U23 World Road Race Championships in Madrid. And despite comfortably seeing off all comers at the Australian Open Road Championships soon after, Walker elected to remain in the Continental ranks until part-way through the 2006 season, finally notching up his first full season as a pro last year.
Walker began the 2007 season in the same way that most professional cyclists do, at the team's official training camp. Usually a time to get re-acquainted with some old friends as well as meet some new ones, the camps also have a serious side as riders put the finishing touches to their pre-season training before heading off to their first races. However, Walker's experience was anything but enjoyable.
"I went to the training camp and got absolutely killed," he said.
"It's going to be one of the hardest teams in the world to make." -Walker is under no illusions about selection for Australia's Olympic team.
From there, his season was a steady progression, but as so many other riders have experienced before him, making the grade in the professional ranks isn't nearly as straightforward as that of an amateur. "2007 was not the easiest year. It was fairly solid, but a bit intense," he admitted. "From [the training camp] it slowly improved. Every tour that I did, I got better, recovered and trained well and did well in the next one."
Walker's form was enough to get him a ride at the first Grand Tour of the season, the Giro d'Italia, where he played a supporting role for his more fancied team-mates. "I was actually feeling really good in the first half of the Giro - feeling good, helping out for the sprints and in the mountains," he said.
The sensations on the bike after the Giro were encouraging for one of Australia's brightest talents, but they were far from winning races, like he did as an amateur. "After the Giro I showed a few glimpses that I could do quite well, but it was quite up and down, possibly because of not being fully recovered.
"I don't know, maybe it just takes a year or two to get the k's in the legs and to step it up to the next level."
His late season form did see him take part in some of the biggest races in the world, which ultimately led to a place on the Australian team for the world championships. "In San Sebastian I felt pretty good and when I attacked on the first climb on the last lap and was feeling pretty good... but yeah. The Tour of Poland I was there about but I didn't have enough energy to prove why I was there."
Unfortunately for Walker, an untimely Achilles injury hampered his day at the world championships, meaning he didn't feel on top form after a promising build-up. "It was pretty strange kind of thing. I would never expect another one like it. It was just the day of the world champs and that was it, so it was a great day to have it," he said of the injury that has subsequently disappeared after treatment.
Refocusing his sights on the 2008 season, Walker hopes to make the step up to the next level, and once again challenge for race victories. "Hopefully this year I can be there on the climbs and instead of thinking about when I am going to be dropped, I might be sitting there with a chance to attack," he said.
The all-rounder started his season at the Bay Series criteriums in Melbourne with several strong performances before heading to the Australian nationals where he proved that he's at the level to fight for stages or possibly the overall at the Tour Down Under.
His aims at the first ProTour round of the season are fairly simple: "I will be looking at getting in a breakaway that decides the GC like every other year, if that doesn't happen then to get in a breakaway another day.
"You never know how it might pan out. Now that it's ProTour it might just be sprints every day. If not then I would like to take the opportunity when it presents itself."
Following the TDU, Walker will travel to the Tour of California where he hopes to meet one of his heroes on the podium, if his form permits it. "Arnold Schwarzenegger is in California and I heard that he meets some people on the podium, so..."
After California, it's back to Italy, his home away from home, and into the European season which will likely follow the same pattern as last year. "The Giro is normally the Grand Tour that I will be riding again. I really like Italy and the racing there is really nice. If I can step it up a notch there, then maybe I can prove that I am a worthy candidate," he said, referring to possible selection for the Australian Olympic team.
Although still many months away, the Olympics are a focus for many riders, Walker included. The small and powerful rider is well suited to the course which includes a ten kilometre climb each lap, the reason he has already made the Australian team's shadow squad. But Walker remains realistic about his chances.
"It's going to be one of the hardest teams in the world to make," he said matter-of-factly. "If I go I think I will be there as a helper because Australia has the best bike riders in the world. Cadel is good as is Rogers, Stuey and Davis."
For now though, Walker will have to wait and see how things pan out for him over the next few months, but for a rider with as much potential as he's already shown, it surely won't be long before he's in the spotlight once again, possibly even as soon as this year's Tour Down Under.