An American at Astana
In bygone eras, professional debuts took place in the frigid February air of southern France or perhaps in the watery sunshine of Andalusia, rather than in the sparse expanses of the Qatari desert, but the fundamental concerns of the neo-pro have remained unchanged amid cycling's ongoing process of globalisation.
When Evan Huffman lined up for Astana on stage one of the Tour of Qatar on Sunday, he carried with him many of the same fears and hopes of debutants from generations past. As he timidly negotiated his way through the peloton, brushing shoulders with its heads of state, Huffman admitted that he sometimes felt out of place. That evening, his roommate Dmitriy Muravyev gently reminded him not to allow such inhibitions to calcify.
"I still feel kind of like a fan in a way, and I'm like, 'wow, look at this rider, look at Cavendish,' and I need to think of myself as one of them now and act like more of a pro," Huffman told Cyclingnews on the afternoon after the day before. "That was my problem yesterday, I was riding so far back and I was a little bit intimidated by everybody. I need to step it up a little in the next few days.
"I should have been a little more aggressive in positioning myself. I'm obviously not one of the best guys here but I'm feeling strong and I think I can certainly help my teammates a little bit near the front so I need to be more assertive. That's classic Huffman, that's how I've always been."
All new professionals are thrown into the deep end at one point or another, but Huffman had originally been slated to enter the fray only in late February in Italy, before a spate of knee injuries in the Astana squad last month meant that the Californian was a late addition to the roster for the Tours of Qatar and Oman.
"A lot of the guys told me coming in that this was a terrible race to do as my first race as a pro," he laughed, and the opening stage was a case in point. Crosswinds split the peloton into six echelons early on, and like the majority of the peloton, Huffman was glad simply to reach the finish in one piece as part of a sizeable group that rolled in 16 minutes down. "It was tough but I finished, and it could have been a lot worse," he said. "I think it was about what I expected."
In stage two's team time trial, Huffman had some respite from the full brunt of Tour of Qatar-style racing, as well as an early opportunity to impress his teammates by showcasing the talents that carried him to the US under-23 time trial title last year. Astana finished 6th on the stage, with Huffman prominent in driving their effort in the finale and earning the compliments of directeur sportif Gorazd Stangelj on crossing the line.
On Tuesday, the 23-year-old steps back into the breach, on another exposed road stage that boasts myriad changes in direction although, mercifully, the winds are forecast to abate as the week progresses. "At this point, I think we're looking for stage results and then see how the race unfolds," he said.
On his return from the Middle East, Huffman must go through another of the time-honoured rituals of the Anglophone neo-professional, establishing a base in continental Europe. "I've just got an apartment in Girona, but I haven't moved everything in yet and I still have to get a European cellphone and bank account and all that stuff," said Huffman, who joins a thriving community of American professionals in the Catalan city.
While Huffman's dream for the season is to line up at May's Tour of California - "I grew up in the Sacramento area and watched the race come through every year they've had it," he said - his next racing after Qatar and Oman is likely to come near his adopted home at the Volta a Catalunya.
For now, Huffman's temporary abode is the Ritz Carlton Doha, a far cry from the race accommodation of his amateur days and, indeed, from the kind of transfers he will endure for much of the remainder of the season. "The logistics of staying in the same place for the week makes it a really easy race for the riders," he said. "Apart from the racing, obviously."
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