Luck may often play its part, but the Classics are no lottery. A rider with ambitions of winning on the cobbles instead needs to build a portfolio of results before reaping a dividend, and Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) continued his steady accumulation of experience by placing fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
A year ago at the same race, Durbridge gave notice of his potential on this kind of terrain with a pugnacious display on the cobbles and hills between Roeslaere and Waregem. Twelve months on, he showed his progress with a visibly more assured performance. Durbridge was a confident presence throughout Wednesday’s race, marking Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) when he forced the first major selection on the Berendries with 80 kilometres remaining, and matching the Belgian champion once again when he attacked on the Paterberg ahead of the finale.
It proved to be the decisive move, and Durbridge had the misfortune of finding himself outnumbered in the four-man break that formed over the top, as Gilbert had his teammate Yves Lampaert for company. On the run-in to the finish at Waregem, the two Quick-Step riders took it in turns to attack, and eventually Lampaert forged clear. Durbridge gave forlorn chase, but was eventually squeezed off the podium when he was out-kicked by Gilbert and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) in the sprint for second place.
"You can always try to avoid getting worked over, but when you think about it we got completely worked over," Durbridge told Cyclingnews just past the finish line. "Quick-Step rode really smart. I felt like I was strong and I was covering Phil but then Yves countered and I couldn’t do anything in the sprint. It’s not my strength, the sprint, but it is what it is. I’m happy with my condition and I’m happy with how I tried to race. Maybe I was a bit pinned towards the end. Maybe I should have tried to do a few attacks near the end but I couldn’t do it."
By the time Mat Hayman pulled up alongside him and slung a consolatory arm around his shoulder, Durbridge’s initial disappointment at missing out on the win was softening into satisfaction at more forward progress in his development on this terrain.
A world time trial champion at under-23 level, Durbridge’s natural gifts as a rouleur always lent themselves to the cobbled Classics, but it was only once he devoted himself more specifically to the rigours of Belgian racing last year that his performances began to align themselves with his potential. As in 2016, he has based himself in Ghent for the duration of the current Classics campaign.
"I think last year I really dug deep. I moved to Belgium for this month, rented an apartment, learned the roads, had my coach here and motor-paced, and I’m doing the exact same thing this year," Durbridge said. "Every year, I think I’m just getting better and better and learning the roads. I want to be known as a Classics rider and hopefully now I can be known as a Classics rider. If I keep improving, hopefully one day I’ll get my chance to go for that win."
Durbridge’s fourth place at Dwars door Vlaanderen is his best finish in a cobbled Classic, but, still shy of his 26th birthday – he reaches the milestone on the day of Paris-Roubaix – his aim for this spring is simply to continue on his current, upward trajectory. Making the decisive split on a regular basis is a habit rarely picked up by chance.
"For someone who’s come from having no results in these races, I think I just need to keep going consistently," Durbridge said. "If I can keep making the front group, then I’m going to get that result I want. Obviously, you want to go well in Flanders and Roubaix, but so does everyone. For me it’s not about that, it’s about continuing the progression and always being in that front group."
Received wisdom suggests that a rider with Durbridge’s time trialling background is better-suited to the sustained efforts required by Paris-Roubaix than the more explosive accelerations demanded by the Flemish Ardennes. The Australian showed few inhibitions on the hellingen on Wednesday afternoon, however, buoyed by an impressive display on the rugged terrain of Strade Bianche, where he placed 6th in Siena.
"I would probably agree that in terms of my climbing prowess, Roubaix is a bit better for me," Durbridge said. "But in saying that, I’ve been working very hard on my climbing and I think I showed that in Strade Bianche, which has quite a fair few metres of climbing. So I’m not going to pigeonhole myself just for Roubaix."