Janez Brajkovic's predicament is one faced by many in the contemporary peloton. His primary task at Astana is to ride in support of Michele Scarponi at the Giro d’Italia and – perhaps – Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour de France, but with one year remaining on his current contract, the Slovenian is also keenly aware of the need to score WorldTour points of his own in order to secure his future.
For some, the WorldTour rankings effectively make the domestique an endangered species, and in the dying weeks of the season, some riders feel almost obliged to defy team orders and chase points for themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, certain teams in recent years have refused to field high-value departing riders in autumn, lest they carry additional points with them to their new squads.
"It's a mess, it’s just wrong," Brajkovic told Cyclingnews of the current WorldTour points system. "For a domestique who does his work all the year and sacrifices himself for the leader, at the end of the year, he has no points and he’s not valuable to the team and he risks not getting a contract. I think that’s wrong."
Brajkovic is pencilled in to ride the Giro in support of Scarponi, although depending on the circumstances, he and Fabio Aru may have a degree of freedom in May. "The main goal is to get a good result with Scarponi, but if I ride really well, I think I’ll have my chances too," he said. In any case, Brajkovic’s aim is to pick up a smattering of points early in the campaign, so that he can ride unfettered by thoughts of WorldTour standings come the summer.
"My primary goal is to start the season strong. If I can ride really well at the start of the season and get a few good results, there are not going to be problems with the contract,” he said. “But if I don’t start so well and struggle through the first part, it’s not such a pleasant situation. Then you are under pressure, because you have to do your work for the team and you have to get a result for yourself."
Brajkovic’s early-season programme will see him line up at the Challenge Mallorca, Tour of Oman, Critérium International, Tirreno-Adriatico and Giro del Trentino as he builds towards May. Understandably, it is the WorldTour race that whets his appetite the most. “I’m not doing so many races, but I would really like to do well at Tirreno,” he said. “That’s one of the goals.”
While Vincenzo Nibali is the undisputed leader at Astana, the team has assembled a formidable roster of stage racing talent, with Brajkovic, Scarponi, Aru, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert all vying for opportunities of their own. After sharing leadership duties with the likes of Chris Horner, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer during his final year at RadioShack, however, Brajkovic is confident that they can work together.
"If you have two really good riders, and one is better than the other, he will go for the result,” he said. “It’s not a case of ‘he’s the leader and you have to do everything for him.’ It’s just whoever goes better is the main guy. I don’t really see any problems here and I don’t have any problems working for others."
Touted for stardom during his seven years under the tutelage of the since discredited Johan Bruyneel at Discovery Channel and RadioShack, Brajkovic has never quite recaptured the remarkable form that carried him to Critérium du Dauphiné victory in 2010, although his consistent first season back at Astana in 2012 included his best three-week stage race performance to date, a ninth-place finish at the Tour de France.
Brajkovic cites repeated early-season illnesses and recurring springtime allergies as impediments to his progress in recent seasons, although he is confident that he now has some sort of a handle on the latter problem. "I’ve tried medicine but it didn’t work for me because it made me retain a lot of water. In three weeks, I gained five kilos," he said.
"But I’ve learned over the past couple of years that it’s also about the food I eat. If I don’t eat certain things, the allergies aren’t as bad. Pure sugar, for instance, is really bad for me, so now I go without it when it’s not necessary."
Although Brajkovic admits that he has yet to deliver fully on his considerable potential, at 30 years of age, he believes that time is still on his side. "I think I haven’t shown what I’m capable of yet, so I would like to show that to the cycling world,” he said. “Hopefully it’s going to happen pretty soon, maybe this year."