Long touted as a rider with the potential to perform strongly in the cobbled Classics, Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge) has taken matters in hand in 2016. After four years of largely underwhelming results on Belgian roads, the Australian arrived at an epiphany: nothing beats being there.
And so, for a month at least, Durbridge has transferred his European base northwards, to Ghent, in order to prepare for the Spring Classics. The early fruits of his labours were on show at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, where the Australian powered up the road in a counter-attack with 75 kilometres remaining, and was still prominent on the front over the Kwaremont and Paterberg in the finale.
"I've actually moved to Ghent for this period. I've always really liked the cobbles but I never really knew the roads enough so I think that's made a big difference now that I actually know where I am in Belgium," Durbridge told Cyclingnews at the finish in Waregem.
"I'm really happy with my performance today. I just couldn't get away at the end but I had a crack and it's a good sign for things to come."
When Durbridge initially sprang into action on the Leberg, the intention was to lay the groundwork for his teammate Jens Keukeleire to bridge across. The Belgian duly did just that, but Durbridge would prove the more aggressive of the Orica-GreenEdge pairing thereafter.
Durbridge was able to follow the impressive Oscar Gatto's brisk tempo on the Paterberg and he forced a split of his own when he powered to front on the cobbles at Varent with 25 kilometres remaining. He was still part of the leading group of seven over the climb of the Vossenhol, before they were swept up by the reduced peloton on the fast run-in to Wargem, where he rolled home in 27th place in the same time as winner Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal).
"The plan was that I would get up the road and Jens would come across, which is what happened," Durbridge said. "But I actually felt really good after that so I started to move in other groups on the Kwaremont and the Paterberg."
Durbridge was crowned under-23 world time trial champion in 2011 and his reputation as a rouleur was burnished further by victories in the Australian championships, Circuit de la Sarthe and the prologue of the Critérium du Dauphiné in his early months as a professional in 2012.
Inevitable and premature comparisons with Fabian Cancellara followed, though not unlike the Swiss rider, perhaps, Durbridge has taken time to express himself on the cobbles. Still only 24 years of age, he will be hopeful that his aggressive showing at Dwars door Vlaanderen augurs well for the weeks – and years – to come.
"I think most of the time it's just been that I'm pretty bad at positioning. I've normally got some pretty good legs in the Classics but I never get to use them so today I just sort of laid it out there," Durbridge said. "It's good for my confidence coming in. I think I was always there but I just needed to get to the front and go for it. I didn't hold back today and I think that's how I'm supposed to ride."
Next week's Three Days of De Panne, with its short concluding time trial, seems a natural target for Durbridge, who placed second there in 2014, and seventh overall in 2012, 2013 and again last year. "I'm racing all the races up here and I'm looking forward to every opportunity, it doesn't matter whether it's E3, De Panne or Flanders or whatever," he said. "I'm going to have a go."
Dwars door Vlaanderen set out from Roeselare in rather muted fashion, as Belgium continues to mourn the deaths of 31 people in terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday morning. Durbridge was glad that the race had been able to go ahead despite the increased state of alert in Belgium, and he was mindful of the day's wider context as he raced through the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes.
"My thoughts go out to all the families and friends of the victims who have been affected by this," Durbridge said. "It's pretty close to home when you're here. It was a very solemn start but I'm glad we could have a bike race as well."