"Like the boys are saying, it's like doing a Grand Tour in January," says EF Education First directeur sportif Tom Southam of the team's month spent in Australia, where the WorldTour team took on the Tour Down Under, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour, and came away with mixed results.
"We've all been away from home for over a month, and, if things go badly, and the wheels start falling off, then this week here at the Sun Tour at the end is just a really bad idea," Southam tells Cyclingnews ahead of the final stage of the race, on the team's last day of racing before heading back to Europe.
"But if things go well, it's completely different," he continues. "We put a lot of effort into ensuring that we came into this race mentally fresh this week, and up for racing.
"If you come in with a different attitude and start getting a bit annoyed about this or that, then it's just going to be a shit week. You want to finish on a high note, and I think we have," he says of team leader Michael Woods' third place overall and his win on stage 2 – the day after the team's sprinter, Dan McLay, had won the opening stage.
Like Southam says, things could have gone either way, and there was perhaps a little of both – especially following the final stage of the Tour Down Under, where Woods had gone into the final stage to Willunga Hill on the same time overall as pre-race favourite Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), only for the race to play out in an almost carbon copy of the previous year's stage.
Porte put his rivals to the sword to win the stage – his sixth straight victory on Willunga Hill – while defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) did enough to retain the advantage he had over the climbers going into the stage and took a second overall win in a row.
Woods could only finish seventh on the stage, losing 15 seconds to Porte, which meant that the Canadian EF Education First rider finished seventh overall, too.
Both Woods and Porte had gone into the Australian 'summer of cycling' as easily the two biggest names. Both put in excellent performances, as expected, with that stage win for Porte at the Tour Down Under and a stage win for Woods at the Herald Sun Tour a week-and-a-half later – yet neither of them would win either the Tour Down Under or the Sun Tour overall.
"That was frustrating at the Tour Down Under," admits Southam, "but I think every year they talk about it being a climber's race, and it's not. You've got this group of climbers there that are trying to do the damage, and can't, although Willunga suits Richie more than anyone else. For us, it did end on a bit of a bum note because the team did a really nice job and didn't quite get what they deserved out of it. And Mike felt that."
Woods turns things around
And what a difference a few days makes. That 'mentally fresh' attitude that Southam mentioned immediately yielded results on the opening stage of the Herald Sun Tour, where British sprinter Dan McLay took EF Education First's first win of the year, quickly followed up the next day by Woods's win ahead of Porte on the hilly second stage to the Victorian town of Churchill, having attacked on the day's final, gravelled climb.
"We just rode so well as a team at the Tour Down Under that we knew it must have been coming, Woods tells Cyclingnews at the Herald Sun Tour. "We just needed our top guys – me, Dan – to cross the line first, and it was a big relief doing that here. I think this was a really good start to the 2019 campaign for our team in general."
And the day after Woods's win, his teammate Dani Martinez won the Colombian national time trial title, making it three wins in a row on consecutive days for EF Education First, who only took a total of six victories in 2018.
"With Dani's win, too, I think it's just a show of the quality team we have. I think this is going to be a much better year for us," says Woods.
'Yesterday was yesterday'
"Winning on the first day here at the Sun Tour was the most important thing," reiterates Southam, "because if we'd missed it there, it would have been frustrating for Dan, and then he'd have been a bit more angsty for the rest of the race.
"And then the next day, we did it again with Mike," he continues. "I saw him go into that second stage really motivated, and I feel like he got a little bit vindicated by that win. A podium place would have been nice at the Tour Down Under, but I think that was the limit of what you could achieve with those time bonuses and sprints and stuff."
After the two stage wins at the Herald Sun Tour, and with Woods in the yellow jersey, things failed to go the team's way again on the fourth and penultimate stage of the race to Arthurs Seat – the 'queen stage', where Woods and Porte were expected to battle it out between them for the race title.
However, with an early break that contained danger man – and eventual overall winner – Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) to chase, both EF Education First and Porte's Trek-Segafredo team soon found themselves severely under-represented in the chasing group as the toll of the day's heat and the four ascents of Arthurs Seat eventually left Woods isolated, despite the best efforts of neo-pro James Whelan, and Porte with only one teammate in Peter Stetina.
Porte made it very clear that it was not up to him or his team to "win the race for Woods", while there was also a lingering annoyance on Porte's part that Woods had sat on the Australian's wheel in the final kilometre of stage 2 before Woods came around him to take the stage win a couple of days before.
Both pre-race favourites were left to wonder what might have been, although Woods still ended up third overall at the conclusion of the race – and the team's Australian summer – in Melbourne.
"Yesterday was yesterday," says Southam in Melbourne. "We started the race with six riders – not seven [as Alberto Bettiol was sick and didn't start] – and we lost Lachie [Morton] early on, after he'd crashed [on stage 3] and split his knee open, and had a severe haematoma on his hip. So it was 50/50 as to whether he'd even start the stage, and then he was gone, and then you're left with a sprinter, two other riders and a neo-pro. So it was what it was."
For his part, Woods preferred to stay upbeat, too: "I think the team rode really well, and I rode really well here, and proved that I'm consistent. I think that really bodes well for the season to come."
As for the impasse between him and Porte, Woods brushed it off, and insisted that he and the Australian were still friends.
"Richie's a champion. He's a competitive guy, and there's a reason he's won so many bike races in the world. He wants to win and I want to win, and so sometimes you're going to have a stand-off between two guys who just want to win. It was a good learning experience for me, and I think I'm going to carry that over for the rest of the season.
"We were never on bad terms," he adds. "We had a good chat in the peloton today, and I don't know of anything that's gone bad. It's all good."
Southam now accompanies his riders back to Europe having overseen two important victories in Australia, which already makes up a third of the team's total wins during the 2018 season. Add in Martinez's national title, and in early February they're already halfway to their total tally of last season.
"At a race like this, you have to start thinking, 'Right – it's on us, or else it's not going to happen," says Southam. "The local teams here haven't touched the front, and fair play. I wouldn't, either. So we had to try to make the race; it can't be a case of looking at other teams and saying, 'They're doing this and they're doing that.' You just have to learn to shoulder the responsibility.
"And you can't do it at Paris-Nice if you can't do it here, you know? You need to learn how to do it. If you coast along too long in the middle of the WorldTour bunch, and then just pop out to get some results, that's going to be OK, but, ultimately, if you're going to try to go bigger, that's not going to help you. You're going to think, 'Oh shit – how do we actually do this now?'
"This group I've had here haven't ridden for 'Woodsy' when he's led a race before, but it's going to happen this year, so it's a case of starting from here," says Southam. "I think the key thing is to keep rolling forwards. The group's been good, the equipment's been good, and it's all going in the right direction, which has been nice to see."