Joe Lewis may only be 24-years-old but it feels like he has been around for much longer. The Gloucester-born rider spent the most part of last season with the Trek - Livestrong U23 development team (now Bontrager - Livestrong), riding under the guidance of team director Axel Merckx. The team is designed as a feeder to the RadioShack team but unfortunately Lewis missed out on a stagiare position with the ProTour team midway through last year.
It was a disappointment but there was more racing to come. However, when the biggest races of their season, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge were on the horizon the team was told they could not attend because of their affiliation to the ProTour squad - under Article 2.2.001 of the UCI’s regulations. Riders were told they could return home, even though it was only July.
Lewis returned to Australia and raced the remainder of the NRS series with Trent Wilson’s BikeBug.com (GPM - Wilson Racing) team and assisted the NSW-based squad to a number of wins throughout the season. Things were looking up for Lewis when he signed with the New Zealand Pure Black Racing Team for 2012. He would be back racing in the US and Europe and looked set for another year being paid to do what he loves. But just before Christmas he got the news his new team would be folding.
"It was about 20th of December that I got an email at the coffee shop, at about 8am in the morning. I went straight home and starting sending emails and got on the phone. Initially I just didn't know what I was going to do. I was worried what I was going to do for money, I wasn't studying at the time so you obviously think about your future and what's going to happen" he told cyclingnews.
"I wasn't U23 anymore so I couldn't go to any U23 teams or back to Livestrong. Basically I thought I better start making some calls for a next year because I have nothing at the moment".
Lewis quickly found a place with an Australian NRS team, RBS Morgans - ATS Pro Cycling which was not going to offer the same program as what he planned but the arrangement suited his needs. "It only took a week or so before I started talking to Ned Draydon who I got in contact with through Pat (Jonker), they jiggled things around, found a spot for me on the team and was able to secure a ride".
The flexibility and support from his new team for 2012 meant he could travel to Belgium and build a solid base of racing for the first Suburu NRS race of the year, the Tour of Toowoomba. "Ned also, as well as taking me on, helped me to go to Europe and do some racing over there. As long as I came back and did the NRS there were no problems".
Lewis joined one of the top amateur teams in Belgium, the Fuji Test Team where he got it plenty of top-quality racing. "Our program mainly consisted of UCI 2.2 and 2.12's. We did a few of the bigger amateur races which are just as hard or harder than many of the UCI 2.2's that I'd done in the past with Drapac (Professional Cycling Team). It was great, just every week getting racing back in the legs because I had quite a bit of time off this summer".
A heavier program of racing suits Lewis who missed out some important racing last season. "With Livestrong we didn’t race that much and I find that when I don't race a lot you lose that hard hardness that comes from racing week in week out - for a year on end." His physical condition has since improved, which is not simply by chance. "I was really lacking some fitness toward the end of last year and after Pure Black fell through I thought ‘if I'm going to do this I better do it properly’. I've been watching what I'm eating and training specifically and just trying to get into good shape."
Lewis had only returned to Australia just days before the start of the race in Toowoomba: "The jet-lag is starting to wear off. I was pretty tired when I got there, I was going ok but struggled through some of the harder stages". Following his finish at Toowoomba where he was "one of the strongest sprinters" according to some of his fellow NRS riders, he was starting to feel good on the bike. "It’s a shame there’s not much on in July" he said, looking forward to a complete NRS season.
His plans for the coming year will be largely dependent on his results and "getting some more first-places on my resume". He believes he has what it takes to "definitely make it on to a good team with a full European calendar."
Nathan Haas (Garmin - Barracuda) and Steele Von Hoff (Team Chipotle - First Solar), who rode for Genesys Wealth Advisors in 2011 are two of last year’s NRS success stories that show the local scene is being taken seriously. "The level in Australia has really risen in the last couple of years. To be honest I think the difference between the NRS and European or American peloton is just depth. The guys who are winning here could win most places but there is just not as many of them. But that's changing. It's getting harder and harder each year as teams invest more and more money into it."
Joe won the final stage of the Santos North Western Tour where in a bizarre turn of events the race was stopped due to riders crossing over the centre line and onto the other side of the road. Racing in New South Wales is conducted only the one side of the road as rolling road closures are not permitted. There will be more to come on this issue.