Standing 1.94m tall and weighing over 80kg, Jason Lowndes is a hard man to miss but it's the results of the 21-year-old Drapac rider in 2016 that have been equally eye-catching. The statuesque former mountain biker rode with the Continental Garneau-Québecor team from Canada last year before inking a two-year deal with Drapac as a relatively unknown prospect.
While Brenton Jones was the number one sprinter on the Australian Pro-Continental team, Lowndes quickly emerged as a foil to the fastman with top-ten results at the Tour de San Luis, Tour de Taiwan, Tour d'Azerbaïdjan, and the Tour of Norway. He then ended his season with sixth place in the U23 World Championships road race.
"I definitely came into the year with the two-year contract and planned the first year being a big learning curve and started off pretty rough with poor performances at the bay crits and road nationals on my behalf," Lowndes told Cyclingnews during his off-season break. "In turn, that ended up being good training for San Luis. I really surprised myself with an eighth place in my first race at that level in Argentina. In the closing stage, I was third ahead of Peter Sagan, and behind Elia Viviani and Jakub Mareczko, who was third at the U23 Worlds, was definitely a big surprise."
Finishing ahead of the world champion Sagan was Lowndes' equal best result of the season along with third at Tour de Taiwan on stage 2. The results were also notable for the fact that Lowndes was 'freelancing' with the team telling him to "prove yourself and earn the lead out". The Tour of Qatar was squeezed in between his tours in Argentina and Asia before a first ever flight to Europe. The Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in April was his first race, starting it "straight off the flight to Europe", where the testing conditions saw him start a run of ill health over the next few months.
"I managed to have a mid-year break in early July and from then on in, I was able to actually race the races I was doing like was Tour du Limousin, where I started to come good again," he said.
The run of illness where he was sick and stuck in the cycle of trying to recover before his next race day threatened to derail this season and have ramifications for the 2017 season. Lowndes' aim for the season was to represent Australia on the sprint-friendly parcours in Doha for the U23 road race, but there were several points across the year when the dream appeared all but extinguished as he explained.
"With all the poor performances that I had throughout my European block, and not much contact from the Australian organisation, I pretty well gave in on that and assumed it wasn't going to happen," he said of his Worlds dream. "I have never been part of any institute or any national programme or anything like that. I understood if I didn't make the selection, despite having a good January, but then 48 hours before I was meant to fly back to Australia I received a phone call asking if I would like to come to a training camp in Andorra with the national team.
"It still wasn't to race Worlds, just a training camp and I was like 'well, it's only cold in Australia so I might as well go and do that'. I enjoyed it and from there they decided to take me to the Olympias Tour where I got a third and fourth place in the bunch sprints. From that, they told me they were taking me to Worlds."
Lowndes quickly went from unknown to 'plan a' with the team deciding he would be the main man in his first-ever appearance in the national green and gold jersey.
"I think I knew within in myself I could well and truly be on the podium at Worlds, it would just depend on how the race was raced and what cards I was dealt in the finish. Because that is what bunch sprinting is like," he said of his pre-race ambition. "I think I know I could have done a little bit better at Worlds if I didn't have to make such a big effort from the last corner. Miles Scotson did a massive, massive job for me and I couldn't be any more grateful for that, as otherwise, I would have been in the top-20 and not much more than that. Without the help that the guys gave me on the day, I don't think I would have got that result."
Representing Australia at the Worlds marked a fast trajectory for Lowndes who started his cycling career racing mountain bikes and human powered vehicles. It was his time with the Torq MTB team, where he rode alongside Jack Haig (Orica-BikeExchange) and Chris Hamilton (Team Sunweb), and with coach Matt Wallis that the dream of a cycling career appeared an achievable reality.
"Even though it seems like a small team, at the time for me it was like 'oh wow, I could actually go somewhere with this if I keep pushing'", he reflected on the team that can name Dan McConnell, Steele von Hoff, Robbie Hucker and Brenton Jones as alumni. "I am very, very green still and I don't think I have reached my full ability, to be honest, being so green into the whole road thing.
"I have had a pretty quick trajectory into the whole thing but I am definitely not done yet. I want to consistently be sprinting at the pointy end of the races. I don't want to be only contesting on the really flat days. I want to be getting my fat arse over the climbs and actually contest some good finishes."
While disappointed that he couldn't secure a contract in the WorldTour for 2017 with the Cannondale-Drapac team, Lowndes acknowledges that a move to the top tier of the sport could be a hindrance to his development.
"I don't think I am ready for the WorldTour. I am sad that they didn't take me because it is a golden opportunity but I have already moved into this sport pretty fast, I guess I need to learn properly how to race," he said.
With a yet to be announced deal in place for the 2017 season, Lowndes will be aiming to continue his trajectory and make his mark at the pointy end of sprints in Europe.