First round Australian National Road Series leader, Mark O'Brien (Budget Forklifts) is hoping to continue his strong run of early season form when the Tour of Toowoomba kicks off next Thursday June 14.
O'Brien, who hails from Horsham in Victoria, heads into the second event of the men's 2012 calendar with his sights firmly set on an overall title in a bid to launch himself back into the European racing scene.
"I looked at what Nathan [Haas] and Steele [von Hoff] did in the NRS last year and I thought it's better off taking one step back then trying to take two steps forward," the 24-year-old told Cyclingnews, using the Genesys exports as his preferred model. In 2010 and having spent three seasons coming through the ranks with Drapac, O'Brien had been set to race in Italy before the team folded. A stint racing in Asia with the Malaysian squad LeTua followed to resurrect his season and then after travelling and a brief appearance for Team TDU, O'Brien signed with on-the-rise Australian continental team Budget Forklifts for the current season. The former winner of the Tour of the Southern Grampians juggles training and racing with his job at Nalini, working in custom design, and has settled back into life back in Australia.
"I've got great teammates around me and some of my best mates from growing up like Sam [Witmitz]," he explained. "It's really exciting and I'm just really happy at the moment with family and friends around me. "
O'Brien's season began with his impressive 12th-place finish in the road race at the Australian Road National Championship at Buninyong and went a long way to giving him the confidence for the domestic calendar.
"I've always performed well on that circuit and I tend to think that on a tough circuit that I can match it with the best around Australia," he said. "Obviously you've got guys like the Richie Porte's and the Simon Gerrans' and Matt Lloyd's who are just incredible, but after that there's no reason why I can't be competitive in the NRS. I've just got to do the right training."
O'Brien won the second stage at Mersey Valley and the finished third on the third and final stage to take out the overall title by 1:25 from Genesys' Nathan Earle. Budget Forklifts teammates Michael Cupitt and Marc Williams were next best in a solid team effort.
The five-stage Tour of Toowoomba, one of the tougher events on the NRS calendar with genuine road race stages, has introduced a new element for the 2012 edition with the inclusion of a 12 kilometre team time trial.
"As far as I'm concerned, our team showed at Mersey Valley that we're one of the strongest, if not the strongest, at the start of the season so hopefully the team time trial plays into our hands," O'Brien stated. "The courses in Toowoomba are just really surprising. I think the wind will be a huge factor because it's really open and windy there. Then it should come down to a strong climber that can still be there at the finish on Sunday... I think a lot of the pure climbers could be found wanting when the roads open up to the cross winds early on in the stages."
The team recently held a training camp in Toowoomba off the back of the Queensland Road Teams Series, where Budget Forklifts hold a slim lead over Eclipse Pro Cycling in the team classification. Knowing that they are due to go head-to-head with the likes of Genesys who have had several squads racing in Asia in the last month, means that preparation for the event has reached an all-new level in intensity.
"Being with all the boys keeps the motivation high," O'Brien admitted. "We did some quality stuff and I think it will be really useful.
"I think a few people will be surprised by the difficulty of Toowoomba."
Looking a little further ahead, O'Brien will back up for the inaugural Santos North Western Tour which begins four days after Toowoomba's conclusion where he'll look to increase his lead over the competition.
Unashamedly admitting that the hillier tours are his strength, "I can't really sprint out of sight on a dark night," he says, O'Brien plans to have a few points up his sleeve by the time the NRS hits events like the Tour of Gippsland and the Tour of the Murray. The racing should return to his favour with the Tour of the South Coast and the Tour of Tasmania. Then there is that other big season objective - the Melbourne to Warrnambool – where he finished second in 2010.
"If I can win the 'Warny' I'd be absolutely stoked."
Budget Forklifts team for the FKG Tour of Toowoomba: Mark O'Brien, Michael Cupitt , Brian Mcleod, Luke Ockerby, Peter Loft, Sam Witmitz.