By Anthony Tan
With a new contract and an open door into the ProTour, Graeme Brown believes he can now approach the 2006 season with confidence. However, the 26 year-old knows his opportunity with Rabobank isn't one to take for granted, telling Cyclingnews he will be doing everything in his power to fulfil his promise as one of the world's best sprinters.
"I'm six kilos lighter than I normally am at this time of the year, which obviously makes a big difference," Brown began by saying. "I'm just going out and rolling the legs over, y'know, 25k an hour, doing an hour and a half to two hour rides and actually really, really enjoying myself. I've spoken with a few people about riding style, biomechanics, cleat set-up, training programs... everything's falling into place, and it's great."
For a rider that began his career with Panaria back in 2002 and for whom he has accumulated ten stage wins, the Sydneysider has mixed feelings about his departure. "I'm glad about my time spent at Panaria. It taught me things about cycling that I needed to know, I did quite a few big races.
"The last year  with Panaria wasn't my best year in terms of my relationship with the boss and director, Roberto and Bruno [Reverberi]. I don't know what happened towards the end of this year... they actually still owe me money, so I'm actually that disappointed to leave."
His strained relationship with the team also had something to do with having two other sprinters on a 17-man roster, Guillermo Bongiorno and Paride Grillo. Brown cited a number of occasions where he was instructed to ride for Grillo irrespective of his own form or chances, which created a situation of unease within his team and led to the Australian fearing he would be out of a job next season.
"I think the problem is that nobody makes good money; they don't pay a very good wage and everyone's trying to win to get a bonus for next year, where you get a few dollars extra on your contract. So nobody wants to help the other person. They're an Italian team and they try and really look after their Italians - that's the way it seemed, anyway."
Thanks to a fellow Australian, Mathew Hayman, who recommended the dual Olympic gold medallist (teams pursuit, Madison) to his manager Theo de Rooy, Brown has found a very good home at Dutch ProTour squad Rabobank. With a roster close to 30 riders, up to three concurrently-run race schedules and a far larger budget, the opportunity to show himself is there - it's up to him to prove it.
"I'm not racing at all this off-season; I'm trying to make sure that my body's right for the first day of racing in Europe," he said. "My only objectives for the year are to make sure I'm right when I get to Europe and then perform when I'm in Europe.
"I have no track commitments at all. I'm not worried about chasing races like I have every other year, doing crits here, track races there, Christmas carnivals, Bay Series... it's fun, I love it, I'm glad I did it all, but now it's time to really concentrate and knuckle down on what I really want, and that's be the best bike rider I can be."
Arriving in Europe far earlier than previously on January 5 for Rabobank's official team presentation, Brown will then migrate south for the team's first training camp in Spain. From there, his first race will be the six-day Tour of Qatar. "That gives me a good opportunity to strut my stuff early," said Brown.
"Based on how I go from there, they're going to see what races I'm going to do, but generally speaking, all the Spring Classics, I would presume, and then the Giro. And they said if you're flying, then the Tour's a possibility too, especially now that there's nine sprint stages."
Look out for the interview with Graeme Brown tomorrow on Cyclingnews.