This season could scarcely have begun much worse for Luke Durbridge, but the Mitchelton-Scott rider was grateful for small mercies. The broken collarbone and concussion sustained in a crash at the Australian championships in January may have kept him out of the Tour Down Under and put him off the bike for the bones of two weeks, but the timing could, he pointed out, have been a lot worse.
"If it had to happen then it was probably the best time for it to happen," Durbridge told Cyclingnews in Bruges. "It gave me a lot of time to come back. I'd say I'm back to full strength now. It was a bit shit to happen in January, but now I'm back to normal. I was good in Tirreno so I'm looking forward to starting the Classics campaign."
The Tour Down Under aside, Durbridge's racing schedule was not compromised by his injuries, and his first European race of the season came, as planned, at Belgium's Opening Weekend in late February, where readjusting to the demands of life on the hellingen was the principal objective.
"The first day at Omloop was really the first race of the season so I felt a bit blocked, and I couldn't quite go when the big guys went on the Muur, but the next day [in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne – ed.] when it split on the Kwaremont I was there in the first 20 guys, so I was happy with that," Durbridge said. "Obviously both days were sprints anyway but it was a good sign."
Durbridge arrived in the professional peloton in 2012 with a fine time trialling pedigree, and over the years he has focused increasingly on harnessing those qualities as a rouleur in the cobbled Classics. Since 2016, he has based himself in Ghent for the duration of the Classics campaign, and the fruits of those labours have become apparent in the years since.
Last season in particular had the feel of a breakthrough, as Durbridge placed 4th at both Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke after wholeheartedly pugnacious displays, and then rode assuredly to 12th at the Tour of Flanders. In between, for good measure, he won the time trial at the Three Days of De Panne and placed second on the Classics-style opening stage.
Still only 26 years of age – his birthday falls the day after Paris-Roubaix – Durbridge has time on his side, but is eager to continue the upward trajectory in 2018.
"I think last year was about breaking into that top 5, top 10 on a consistent basis," Durbridge said. "This year I wouldn't mind moving onto the podium in some of these races. Getting on the podium would be a goal for me.
"At E3 [Harelbeke] I've always had good results and good sensations, so that's is a good one for me, and then there's Flanders. I probably won't do Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen has changed a bit this year, apparently, so I don't know how that's going to go down. But E3, Flanders and Roubaix are the three big ones for me."
Durbridge's background as a rouleur suggests that Paris-Roubaix ought to suit his characteristics best of all, but no race is as fickle as the Hell of the North. In 2016, Durbridge did the heavy lifting by making the early split, only to be thwarted by a brace of punctures and finish 18th in the velodrome. A year ago, he entered the race on a high at the end of a fine Classics campaign, but met only with ill fortune.
"I had one crash early, came back, then another crash, came back, and then Niki Terpstra's fork broke when I was on his wheel and we both ended up in the ambulance. I think my day was done 120 kilometres into the race," Durbridge said. "But that's just Roubaix, and we love it. Shit happens."
After warm-up acts at the Opening Weekend and Wednesday's Driedaagse Bruges-De Panne, the Classics men are racing for keeps over the next nine days, starting with Friday's E3 Harelbeke, which has been an impeccable indicator of Tour of Flanders form in recent years.
It will also be a test run for Mitchelton-Scott's Classics unit, which has been bolstered this season by the signing of Matteo Trentin from Quick-Step Floors. The Italian's finishing speed gives the team another option in the finale of the biggest, while he also brings a treasury of experience from his tenure among the galacticos of the cobbled Classics at Quick-Step.
"At Quick-Step, Trentin had to move really early, and had bigger leaders behind him, but now he can be that guy to wait with the big leaders," Durbridge said. "I think it suits my style to go early. If he comes across to me and we're in a small group, it works out perfect. I can ride for him for a sprint or play off each other."
Yet while Trentin's arrival adds depth to Mitchelton-Scott and brings a new harmony to the team, Durbridge's personal approach, it seems, will remain in the same key. "I don't think waiting's my style and my sprint's not my strength," he said. "I think it's better to go early."