Joe Cooper ready for Tour de Perth defence

Tipped as next big thing by team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston

Avanti Racing Team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston has an eye for talent and clearly knows a good cyclist when he sees one. Since co-founding the Australian UCI Continental team in 2000 under the name Praties – and later Genesys Wealth Advisors – with fellow Tasmanian Steve Price, who still serves as the team's directeur sportif, Christie-Johnston has rostered not just some of the nation's best, but rather some of the world's very best cyclists.

The likes of Sky's Richie Porte and Nathan Earle, and Garmin-Sharp's Nathan Haas and Steele von Hoff have all climbed their way through the ranks of one of Avanti's previous incarnations en route to headlining the WorldTour stage. Now, according to Christie-Johnston, the world of professional cycling may just soon add New Zealand's Joe Cooper to that illustrious lineage.

"At 28-years-of-age, Joe is just starting to reach his prime," Christie-Johnston told Cyclingnews. "How he has slipped through the cracks is beyond me, but if a pro team signed him for just a two-year contract, it would be the best signing because there is no one in Australia or New Zealand any better – I've had no one better."

On the eve of Avanti supporting Cooper's Tour de Perth title defence and heralding the start of the 2014 Australian National Road Series, Christie-Johnston is reminded of just what makes the current Oceania time trial champion so special.

"We mucked up on a stage of the Battle of the Border last year and allowed a 12-rider break up the road and we had no one in it," he said. "We were leading the tour and I told Joe to put three boys on the front and bring it back. Joe said 'I'll take care of it' and he put himself on the front and 20km later he brought it back by himself.

"He is just a machine, and he needs to be in the World Tour," continued Christie-Johnston, who did not expect to see Cooper back with the team this year. "I was hoping not to see him this year, and for sure I hope he is not back next year. He is just a talented bike rider and great guy.

"He is not going to be a Grand Tour threat like a Richie Porte, but he is just a big powerful unit – a Adam Hansen type guy that can just ride day in and day out on the front."

But first, Cooper and company have work to do in Western Australia, with 155 riders spread across 19 teams scheduled to start the twilight criterium in Fremantle on Wednesday, March 26. A menacing hilltop finish on stage 2 to Kalamunda before a road bike-only 19km individual time trial on Rottnest Island will not serve the reigning champion and time trial specialist any favours before the final road race around Perry Lakes on stage four.

"The race will be challenging this year," Cooper told Cyclingnews. "I have been working a bit on my climbing and should be able to get through that stage and make the time trial work for me.

"I am confident in our team, and we are adaptable and will make the course work for us. At the end of the day we just have to go out there and ride our bikes better than the other guys, and it's very important for us to start the season on the right foot."

A course alteration is not the only obstacle standing in the way of Cooper's attempt to retain the crown. With the rapid rise of now-Pro Continental squad Drapac Pro Cycling, Australia's most successful NRS team now finds itself outmatched and out-resourced in a true showdown of David versus Goliath over the course of the 2014 season.

"The strongest challenge on paper by a mile is Drapac," said Christie-Johnston, who will shell out $15k of his own money to fly the team 3,420 kilometres from Melbourne to Perth to race this week. "They have a very strong team with four really good guys that can both time trial and climb quite well."

Christie-Johnston marks Drapac's Will Clarke and Lachlan Norris, who finished second and third just seconds off Cooper at the Oceania TT in February. Although he believes Perth native and former Orica-GreenEdge rider Travis Meyer is the biggest threat.

"Travis is obviously in good form and motivated for his home tour," Christie-Johnston said. "Drapac is the team to beat for sure, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Travis win it.

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