In its three years of existence, Orica-GreenEdge have been steadily developing its classics squad. While the Australian team has tasted success in the grand tours, it is yet to really fire on the cobbles but in Mitch Docker it has a rider who is approaching his prime years as an athlete and is confident in his ability at the top level of the sport.
In his three years with the team, 28-year-old Docker has been building year-on-year with the aim of consistently being at the front of races such as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and explained that 2014 has given him the confidence, that is where he belongs.
"It was a good season. I took some different approaches this time last year and I started working with a new trainer and I took a new focus to try to attack this season and I felt I had a better hold of things," Docker told Cyclingnews.
"My classics was really strong this year and I'd really like to build on that for next year, as you do always every year. The thing I noticed this year, for a long time I was there racing on the cusp, but this year I felt like 'holy crap, I am here. I am right there with them.'"
Docker's cobbled campaign begin at Dwars door Vlaanderen where he finished 25th. He didn't finish E3 Harelbeke but came back to place 81st at Gent-Wevelgem and then 97th at the Tour of Flanders. He finished off the campaign with 25th at Paris-Roubaix, his second best finish at 'the hell of the north.'
"Now it's just that next step of getting there and racing for the result," he explained. "But now I've realised, and maybe it's the confidence, that I can do that now and this year showed me that. Following them at the important parts like across Arenberg or in Flanders leading into the final climbs. It was interesting and I think it's just the build-up of the past few years because you realise, 'shit, I am getting stronger, maybe I am getting wiser and things are starting to fall into place now.'"
At the end of 2013, GreenEdge signedMat Hayman from Team Sky to bolster its classics squad. With 13 Roubaix's and 11 Flanders' to his name, Hayman brought across immeasurable experience as Docker explained.
"I raced really closely with him in the classics. One, just racing with him for advice and two, racing with him as a guy who can win those races changes the way you race," he said. "You have a responsibility then to look after him and feel yourself lift to another level. Mat's always going to be there because he has that experience so you say to yourself 'well I also have to be there' so you make yourself be there. That was a big thing.
"He lifted a lot of us up another next level maybe not through anything but the way he races.
"He's a leader and he's, one and off the bike, and not to sound too cliché, he's ticking every box. It's no surprise when you're around him to see why he's been professional and the top of his calliper for the last 12 years. Not everyone can do that and see a lot of guys come into the peloton for four of five years and to do it year after year, you have to be on to. The sports changed so much as well and he had to change with it."
Docker also found himself a protected rider for the classics, a responsibility he was thoroughly unfamiliar with but one that made him lift his game.
"I think the biggest thing for me was that GreenEdge made myself, Jens Keukeleire and Mat Hayman the three protected riders and I'd never been given that role before," he said. "Whether I thought I could rise up to it, was a bit of a challenge but all of a sudden when you know you have six other guys riding you, you rise for that occasion. You say to yourself, 'well you know what, I am feeling buggered or whatever but nup. I am here today, I have to do it, I have to get back. I've punctured, this guy's given me his wheel and he's committed his whole race to me.'
"That was a big difference for me this year as I hadn't felt that before because I was always the guy giving the wheel and to be on the other side of it, you feel that responsibility and it was nice."
The insight into what a leader expects of his helpers also gave Docker an insight into the role he performs on a more regular basis the importance of always giving your best.
"Because I had come from that position you feel it much more. You're like 'I know what I had to sacrifice for these guys so these guys sacrificing for me today, I want to show them in return that I am giving 100% as well.' Being a helper before in the classics, you want your leader to repay you by the result he can get, or try to get. If they've given 100% and they don't quite there, you're happy to so I wanted to do that."
After racing in the cobbled classics since 2009, it's clear which race is Docker's favourite.
"Definitely Roubaix. The Flanderian classics, I like them too, but they are not 100% ideal for me and I just think Roubaix suits me down to the ground. The flatter cobbles, the way the cobbles are and that race, I have a good connection with it."
The closest that Docker has come to a wet Roubaix was watching stage 5 of the Tour de France unravel via a television and it's the closest he'd like to come one for the time being.
"I've often said 'I want to do one' but I think as soon as I do one sector in that wet edition I'll be like 'I've done it now and I hate this.' It's one of those things you want to do but I reckon after about 5km you'll be like 'ah, why did I want to do this.'"
Grand Tour racing
For the first time in his career, Docker rode and finished two grand tours in the one year. The first of those was the Giro d'Italia which could hardly have started any better despite his pre-race reservations.
"I was looking forward to the Giro and I had heard some horror stories about the race and it was a beautiful race but it was a hard race too. Not necessarily the stages, but on-and-off the bike with the transfers, the weather, the hype of it as well which made it a hard race," he said. "Having been at the Vuelta for the past two years, it's a much more relaxed race which didn't seem like it had too many transfers and the weather is quite good so I was really happy to start with the Vuelta as a great introduction to grand tour racing.
"The Giro was also a really great race too but just another step. [Leading the race] That was also another step on top of that looking after the boys with Svein and then especially with Michael which I think put a lot of us in trouble for the second and third week because we went pretty deep in that first week."
After its dream start, it looked like it was all going wrong for GreenEdge with just two riders surviving all the way to Trieste but it that wasn't necessarily the case as Docker explained.
"Unfortunately, it looked like that but we did have bad luck," he said. "We had three guys out from one crash and then we had a virus come through the team, which got me and two others, and some other guys from other teams like Kittel got the same virus. So from the outside it sort of looked like 'oh GreenEdge, they're all just buggered.' To a degree, maybe we picked up the virus because we were all a bit more tired. If we didn't have the sickness and illness I think we would have finished with eight or nine guys."
Docker made his third consecutive appearance at the Vuelta where the team again enjoyed a stint in the leader's jersey.
"I was mentally yes," Docker said of being prepared to defend red jersey at the Vuelta. "I don't ride the front often, it not my strongest attribute but after doing a few hard days on the front at the Giro, I had a new level. When I came to the Vuelta I was ready. You're never able to 100% prepare for those days, they are so solid those days so it was still quite hard."
The performances of Matthews in particular gave Docker extra motivation to do his best knowing that the team had the rider to finish off the job.
"He's one of those guys who can reward you for the work you've done," he said of Matthews. "I remember one day at the Vuelta when we all pulled and pulled and slowly lost one guy after another and Michael said it himself, 'I saw your guys working so hard, I just couldn't not win it.' It's nice when you have a guy, to a degree, to have a choice like that and he beat Dan Martin in stage that he probably should never have won that.
"It was an uphill finish and sprinting against Martin, he's a climber. That makes you come back the next day and want to do it again. It's the same like I said with the classics, you want the guy you're working for to give 100%."
With four consecutive seasons of racing grand tours to his name, Docker is still learning every day during the three week races.
"I prefer one-day racing and I thought I really liked grand tours and this year was a new challenge. One thing I am noticing about grand tours is that year-after-year you do get better at doing them. It's always a challenge in whatever way," he said. "The first year was just finishing, the second year was doing good lead outs and this year I was trying to look for opportunities for myself. Each year that s new challenge and no longer finishing is a huge challenge, it's still hard to get through but to a degree I think I can get through.
"I have a love hate relationship with the grand tours. I always want to do them but then as soon I as I finish, I never want to do one again. But then again you forget about the bad times and want to do one when it comes up."
The 16.5km urban road race circuit to be used for the 2015 World championships in Richmond will feature two cobblestone sections that are expected to be decisive. With the UCI usually against the inclusion of cobbles, the parcours is one that suits Docker's characteristics but he isn't looking too far ahead just yet.
"I haven't really thought about it yet but people have brought it up recently," he said of the Richmond Worlds course. "I don't know the course that well but I think the hill is harder than we all think. I am always up for a Worlds spot no matter what it is. Whether it's a working role or whatever, just to represent my country.
"I'll definitely put my had up but what comes with that, sure focusing on the worlds, I am not sure it ever happens like that, you just want to have a good season and if you have a great season, they pick the best riders."