When Leigh Howard returns to the Amgen Tour of California this week, he knows that he is unlikely to get a better chance to post an individual result for some time. The 22-year-old Orica GreenEdge sprinter is heading into solid form, much like he was at the same time last season.
"It's my first race that I can really have a good crack at," Howard told Cyclingnews. "Every other race there's been other goals. We've had Tour Down Under where the main goal was Gerro and Gossy. From there, Paris-Nice only had one sprint stage and I pulled out because I had an injury. Every race there seems to have been something that has got in the way at me having a crack at a good sprint. Hopefully it all goes to plan in Cali'."
Rewind 12 months to when Howard was racing for HTC-Highroad, he was coming off a third placing on the Tour of Romandie's prologue and arguably the team's best option on form for sprint victory at the Tour of California. Howard showed as much when he was only just passed by a surging Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) on the finish line at Pasa Robles and relegated to second place. Internal politics then resulted in Howard riding for eventual stage winner, teammate Matt Goss on the final stage in Thousand Oaks.
And so it is that Howard finds himself feeling quietly motivated to go one better in 2012.
This 7th edition of the Californian event will have its challenges for the fast men of the peloton with the final stage in Los Angeles a definite opportunity and the first stage in Santa Rosa punctuated by the Coleman Valley ascent before flattening out. The line-up of sprinters, despite the Giro d'Italia taking place, is impressive and includes Tom Boonen, Gerald Ciolek (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin – Barracuda), Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and Sagan. Then, there's Howard's retiring Orica GreenEdge teammate, Robbie McEwen who will fittingly call time on his illustrious career in the shadow of the Hollywood sign which of course looks over Los Angeles.
"If it comes down to the last stage and it's a pure sprint and he [McEwen] wants to try and go out on a high, then I'm more than willing to try and help him do that," said Howard.
Late last month at the Tour of Romandie on the rolling parcour of Stage 3, Howard found himself in a five-man breakaway and staring down the barrel of stripping Sky's Bradley Wiggins of the race lead, only to be brought back to earth by a desperate chase. Add to that the fact that the Australian is pushing out personal bests in terms of his power on the climbs, also that weight-wise he's at the lightest he's been in 12 to 18 months and it is not silly to suggest that the opening stage at the Tour of California, just might be Howard's day.
It's also useful to remember that it was at the Vuelta a Espana late last year where Howard featured in a breakaway on one of the tough mountainous stages to La Farrapona Lagos de Somiedo. Howard says that he was perhaps on the heavier side and definitely in survival mode, but still had the legs to make a daring attack on the peloton early in the stage before joining them once again later in the day. He points towards the likes of Goss and Haussler in the style of rider he would like to become.
"They climb really well, but can still sprint."
While Howard is still evolving as a full-time road professional, he knows that it's important not to lose sight of where his initial talents lie.
"I spoke to [Orica GreenEdge sports director] Matt White about this a week or so ago actually and I said: 'What are my roles here at this next race?'" Howard revealed. "He said: 'Look, we've signed you to be a sprinter so keep working on your sprint and don't lose your speed'.
"A lot of sprinters lose their speed as they get older. The climbing just comes with age and maturity. Every year I'm getting stronger and stronger in the hills and I've just got to try and make sure that as I get older I stay in touch with my youth, so to speak, and keep that speed in my legs."