It has been seven years since Drapac Pro Cycling’s Darren Lapthorne stood atop the podium in Ballarat as the Australian National Road Race Champion, and the veteran cyclist told Cyclingnews it's been far too long and he wants his title back.
"I would definitely love to win this race again in my career," he said. "I would like to relive that moment once more. I have trained extremely hard and I think I have the right form to be there at the end. I want it."
Having last won the race in 2007, the 30-year-old from Bendigo says his best racing is still ahead of him and come Sunday both he and his Drapac Cycling team will be ready.
"The biggest thing I can say is that for this race you can't just be in good form – you have to be in super form – to win it," said Lapthorne who returned to full-time racing with Drapac in 2011. "I believe I have a slight advantage because I've raced the domestic series this year I’ve had a shorter break with a strong build up."
In December, Drapac sports director Henk Vogels put Lapthorne and his teammates through an arduous eight-day training camp in the Victorian Alpine town of Bright in preparation for the road nationals and the start of the 2014 season.
"Darren looks lean, looks hungry. The entire team looks hungry," Vogels told Cyclingnews on Friday. "We are not here to run second. We have some guys that can win this race and Darren is at the top of that list."
The Australian cycling media has been abuzz since Drapac confirmed its second step up to ProContinental in November. Along with the addition of Vogels, a former national road race champion himself (1999), Drapac has added two mechanics from the now-defunct Dutch team Vacansoleil-DCM, as well as working with industry-leading nutritionist and physiotherapist.
A few new faces will join Lapthorne on the team as well, including new recruits, and former World Tour riders Will Clarke (Argos-Shimano), Jonathan Cantwell (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Wesley Sulzberger and Travis Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge).
Lapthorne, who rode for Drapac during its first two seasons in 2006-07, says the team has come a long way in the near-decade since. "When we were ProConti in 2007 it was because we wanted a spot in the Tour Down Under, which didn't happen. We still did some amazing races that year, like the Tour of Austria and the Tour of Brescia in Italy.
"We had 13 or 14 good cyclists," he added. "But not the caliber that we have today. Now we are such a strong group of riders and we have the talent to really win some races and get some massive results."
Lapthorne will be facing the strongest field ever assembled in his bid for a second national title. Orica-GreenEdge has dominated the race in its first two years, capturing the green and gold in 2012 with Simon Gerrans and in 2013 with Luke Durbridge. Both Gerrans and Durbridge will be strong favourites to repeat, and will be joined by Rohan Dennis, Matthew Lloyd, Richie Porte and former World Champion and Tour de France winner Cadel Evans as potential threats.
"Cycling is not just a European sport anymore," said Lapthorne. "The buildup of this race and all the big names that will be racing shows just how special it is to wear green and gold. I know Cadel doesn’t have that on his resume and I am sure he wants it too. For me, or any rider, it will be hard to get another victory that equals winning an Australian national championship.
"But there’s no easy way around this circuit and there's not a way to cheat this course. A lot of things need to fall into place and it will come down to numbers at the end of the race and who looks after themselves. I think [Drapac] might surprise some people."