World champion individual pursuiter applies his skills on the road
Michael Hepburn may have spent much of the afternoon sitting just 200 metres from the finish line of stage 3 of the Tour of Qatar, but his updates on events out on the road were coming from the other side of the world.
The Australian time trial champion was among the early starters for the time trial, and true to his pedigree, he posted the quickest time, average over 48.5kph as he covered the 10.9 kilometres in a time of 13:28.
After warming down by the Orica-AIS team car, Hepburn climbed into the passenger seat, and for the rest of the afternoon, most of his information would arrive courtesy of his father, who was keeping abreast of proceedings on television.
"I felt like I'd had a good ride but I wasn't too nervous because there were a lot of big names still to come and I expected a few of them to top me. It was only with one hour to go when I thought, 'maybe I can win now,'" Hepburn said in Lusail. "I was actually texting my dad, who was giving me live updates when each rider came in, but unfortunately, my phone battery went flat with about 10 minutes to go, so I didn't know."
By that time, pre-stage favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) had already tried and failed to better Hepburn's time - he finished six seconds off in fourth place - but there were still two riders out on the course with realistic hopes of beating the 22-year-old, Lars Boom (Belkin) and gold jersey Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Indeed, Boom had the best time through the intermediate time check after 5.9 kilometres, some 13 seconds quicker than Hepburn. Slowed by the headwind in the finale, however, he would fall just over half a second short of dislodging Hepburn from the leaderboard, while Terpstra hit the line eight seconds off the pace.
"It was very close," Hepburn said. "Sometimes, if you lose by half a second, you think about if you could have done something different, but I was happy with my ride straight afterwards. I couldn't have done anything better."
As befits the reigning world champion in the individual pursuit, Hepburn cut an elegant figure during his effort, quickly settling into his rhythm and making light of the fact that the test took place on a regular road bike rather than his time trial machine. He dosed his strength well, too, keeping plenty in reserve for the final push to the line against the wind.
"Through the tailwind sections, I just tried to get up to speed, get aero, hold the position and keep up the speed, and then really bring it home into the headwind," he said. "It looks like I was pretty quick in the last kilometres, which was a good sign."
On the road for 2014
Victory over Luke Durbridge in last month's Australian time trial championship marked an auspicious start to an important year in Hepburn's development: after continuing to race on the track during his first two seasons at Orica-GreenEdge, 2014 sees him focus solely on the road for the first time in his career.
Before the race began, Hepburn told Cyclingnews that his principal aim for the year was simply to gain experience, and there were certainly some stark lessons on the hardships of life on the road to be drawn from the opening two days. A double puncture just as the peloton split in crosswind cost Hepburn over 16 minutes on stage 1, while the searing pace of Monday's stage also took its toll.
"I was in the second group after the split, but I struggled with position and I was at the back of the second group and eventually I just got ridden off the wheel," he said. "But I felt good this morning. After a couple of days, I still felt like the legs were good and on the ergo this morning, I felt like I was up for a good one."
After shyly accepting the congratulations of Eddy Merckx - and deliberating over whether to wear an Orica-GreenEdge jersey or his Australian champion's colours for the podium ceremony - Hepburn admitted to reporters that he had earmarked the Tuesday's stage before arriving in Qatar.
"11 kilometres is a distance that suits me well and I did a couple of training sessions to prepare for this day in particular," he said. "I'm two for two in time trials this year, and I got to wear my national colours for the first time today which was a pretty proud moment for me."
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