Peter Kennaugh ended his Australian racing block on Sunday the way he began it – with an impressively aggressive performance in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on Sunday that he believes signals his new found confidence as a road racer.
Kennaugh (Team Sky), 25, placed ninth in the 174km race at Geelong in Victoria at seven seconds to the Belgian winner Gianni Meersman (Ettixx-QuickStep), who won ahead of the Australians Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) and Nathan Haas (Cannondale-Garmin). While he was last of the nine-man breakaway that fought out the win, Kennaugh committed his last energies working for British teammate Luke Rowe who finished fourth, once it was clear the race would come down to a sprint between the group.
For Kennaugh it brought to an end a huge Australian trip that began when he and the Sky team arrived in Australia on January 5. It included the Peoples' Choice criterium and Tour Down Under, both in Adelaide from January 17-25, where he raced well in both.
In the Peoples' Choice criterium, Kennaugh, wearing the British champion's jersey, ignited the very first three-man breakaway that stayed away for much of the race. And then in the Tour Down Under, he rode strongly to help Australian teammate Richie Porte in the overall race in which Porte placed second, two seconds behind Rohan Dennis (BMC). Kennaugh then backed up with a strong showing in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race - the retirement race for 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC).
A much needed confidence boost …
He is now ready to make best of any more opportunities in the first half of a year in which he hopes to race the Tour, after missing selection last year and Vuelta a Espana.
"It has taken me a few years to get that consistency on the road, that strength where I can come to races and race, rather than take half the season to get going; or being in the back group finding my form later on in the year," Kennaugh told Cyclingnews. "It's good for my confidence to come here and race against some of the top riders in the world and not be just hanging on and staying there, but actually making the race."
Kennaugh believes he is in better shape than he ever has been for this time of year. He said that while in past seasons he would: "Start quite slowly. It takes me a few races to get going;" now he is "ahead of where I usually am to be able to be in the thick of the bike race straight away. I am really pleased with that."
On Sunday, Kennaugh was active from start to finish in the race. After Cannondale-Garmin split in the peloton midway into the race, he was active in counter chases and attacks. He later drove a four man break and went on to find himself alone and in front before being caught on first of three finishing circuits.
In the closing kilometres he then bridged to a break near the end of the last lap and made the key 10-man group that was nine by the sprint finish.
"My legs felt not really great all day. I felt kind of blocked and bloated from not doing massive amounts since Down Under," Kennaugh said. "I felt heavy legged, but obviously I was going well. I wish I bided my time and waited for the last lap. "
The spring ahead
Kennaugh's race program upon his return to Europe will resume with the Ruta del Sol in Spain, followed by the Strade Bianche race in Italy where he said he hopes: "I can do a similar thing to [Sunday's race in Geelong] – have my opportunities and get involved in the race. It's obviously a higher level, but I can't see why I can't."
His other early season races include: Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold race, and Liège Bastogne-Liège.
The seed of Kennaugh's confidence grew during a 2014 season of highs and lows. While he was disappointed for missing the Tour, the season was highlighted with his first win as a professional in the Coppa di Bartali, followed by the British road championship, and then the Tour of Austria that was held during the Tour de France in July.
He then featured in a brave but inevitably doomed solo breakaway in a rain drenched Commonwealth Games road race in Glasgow, racing proudly for the Isle of Man.
"It was a funny old year. I would have liked to have gone back to the Tour," he said "But when I didn't get selected I kind of let it go. If anything I probably relaxed and started enjoying the bike racing again. Then I went to the nationals and to Austria."
Kennaugh believes that change in mindset eventually took pressure off him too.
"Sometimes when you start thinking about what you are doing less you are able to perform better. And that's what happened when I went to Austria," he said. "But winning the nationals really helped … it gave me the motivation, a new lease of life for the second half of the season ... to start it in good form and get some results for myself."
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald