News feature, December 16, 2005
According to some observers, Leigh Howard is arguably the best all round track cyclist, for his age, Australia has ever produced. The 16 year old from Geelong has been the best cyclist in every discipline on the track for his age group over the past four years in Australia. With two major track race wins on the board in recent times, John Trevorrow looks at what may be in store for the young Victorian.
Howard has followed his mum Kym into the sport and remembers being carted around as a toddler following bike races around the state. "I remember going up to Mt Buller and watching mum race against the top ladies. I also met Magnus Backstedt and Stuart O'Grady, who gave me a drink bidon. That started my love affair with cycling," Howard says. "Not long after that I started my first race in Hamilton. I think I got third and I reckon I could have won, but I dropped the bidon that Stuart O'Grady gave me and I stopped to pick it up," recalls Howard.
Between 2002 and 2005, Howard has won 17 gold medals in races he's contested on the track and five on the road in state titles. At the national level he has won 14 gold medals and two silver on the track and on the road two gold, one silver and one bronze. Comparisons are definitely going to be made between this exciting youngster and Geelong's greatest cyclist, the legendary Russell Mockridge.
Like Howard, Mockridge was a brilliant all-rounder, winning gold medals in the kilometre and tandem events at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and probably would have won another gold in the 1000m sprint, if not for a bungle by Australian officials that stopped him from riding that event. Mockridge was also a brilliant road rider, surprising the European media by finishing the gruelling Tour de France.
Well, like Mockridge, Howard believes his future is on the road, riding in the big time events such as the Tour de France. "Although I am a better on the track at the moment, I believe my future will be on the roads of Europe," Howard said from his training camp in Bright. "My role models are guys like Stuart O'Grady, Brett Lancaster and Graeme Brown who are World and Olympic Champions on the track and ride for big time teams in the European road season. I particularly like Brownie because he is a 'go for it' style road sprinter and that's where I see myself in a few years. But that's after I finish my apprenticeship," Howard is quick to point out.
VIS cycling coach Dave Sanders is full of praise for the Geelong youngster. "He is the best I have seen for his age and I have seen them all, Sanders said. "The most amazing thing is his versatility. His raw power and his speed and acceleration are exceptional, and his endurance is remarkable too. He seems to be able to find that little bit extra when he needs it. He's beaten the Olympic sprint champion and has become one of Australia's best all-round track riders over the past few weeks - and he's still technically an under 17 rider," says Sanders.
When asked about Howard's passion for the road, Sanders says, "At the moment there are some kids who can beat him up the longer climbs but not many. But if he prepares for that and keeps improving, I don't doubt he could make it in the extremely tough world of professional road racing. If he had told me he wanted to be a sprinter he could have gone down that path. But he told me point blank - "I don't have a sprinter's mentality."
Although he has all the attributes of a superstar, it is important to remember that he may have the physical strength of a man, but he is only 16. One of the biggest challenges coaches face is protecting riders from all the distractions that will their way, and it's important to 'keep a lid on it'. "Leigh's personal challenge is which way he wants to go, and holding himself back a bit so that he can develop more completely," says Sanders. "He doesn't need a total focus on cycling at this stage."
Howard is now looking forward to the rich Tasmanian Christmas carnivals. "It will be a bit harder now that my mark will be back to 25 metres but hopefully I can get a couple of results," says the young speed merchant. "I really want to go well in the nationals so I can qualify for the junior world championships," he added. Although he would be very hard to beat in any of the disciplines, Howard is concentrating on endurance events. "The 3000m pursuit is the event I'm really gunning for. Then the teams pursuit, the Madison and the points race, but I won't be riding the sprint."
It seems quite fitting then that it was a gift from Stuart O'Grady, one of Australia's best cycling exports, that inspired Leigh Howard. Many of those involved in the sport who have watched the 16-year-old race have a feeling that this particular youngster could be just the man to step into O'Grady's very large shoes four or five years from now.