EF-Drapac sign U23 Tour of Flanders winner Whelan

21-year-old Australian inks 3-year WorldTour contract

EF Education First-Drapac announced on Friday that they have signed U23 Tour of Flanders winner James Whelan for three years beginning with the 2019 season. The Australian will start with the squad as a trainee in August.

Whelan, who transitioned from running to cycling just two years ago, currently races with the Drapac-EF Development Team.

"If someone had told me six months ago that I would be signing a three-year WorldTour contract now, I wouldn't have believed it," Whelan said in a team press release. "I would have been delighted, but I would have thought, 'Well for that to happen, everything is going to have to go perfectly.' And I'm fortunate enough to have had the right people around me and the right form to get the right results at the right time."

Whelan's meteoric rise in cycling began after he suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon in 2016 and took up cycling. He finished second to Cyrus Monk in this year's U23 Australian Championship road race, catching the attention of Michael Drapac.

"After Road Nationals, I caught up with Michael Drapac in Adelaide during the Tour Down Under. He and Vasanta Iyer, who is the general manager of the development team, offered a contract opportunity, essentially a scholarship position, to be on their team," said Whelan, who added that he was keen to join the team because of its connection to the WorldTour squad and the opportunity to continue his university studies in urban planning.

"I still have one year left of my study. It was very important to me to find a team that would support my endeavors off the bike. To have a team that not only supported but encouraged academic pursuits alongside athletic ones was really appealing."

His journey to the WorldTour came when he and Monk funded their own trip to Europe to race with the Australian National Team in the U23 spring classics - a trip which resulted in his Tour of Flanders victory, which impressed Jonathan Vaughters.

"Jimmy is obviously a talented young rider and one we're excited to bring on board, and that's not only because we see his potential as an athlete," Vaughters said. "He's passionate about racing and about education and thinking outside traditional cycling norms. He's a great fit for us all-around."

Whelan will continue racing with the development squad until August, heading to Europe this month for a few races before relocating to Girona where he will begin his stint as a trainee with the WorldTour squad.

"I'm in discussion with Charly [Wegelius] about my race program," Whelan said. "We haven't finalized anything yet. The program for the WorldTour team needs to work alongside the Australian team program. I'm hoping to get selected for Tour de l'Avenir and Worlds.

"Obviously I can't do any WorldTour races, but hopefully I can start Tour of Britain, Japan Cup and some of the other one-day races in Italy in October," Whelan added. "Those are all looking possible."

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