Jonathan Cantwell (V Australia) will be aiming to thwart the dominance of Genesys' Steele Von Hoff when he returns to the Tour of the Murray River this Sunday for the first time since he won the event back in 2009 with three stage wins and five second placings. However, the 29-year-old heads to the sixth event on Australia's National Road Series with his future under a cloud.
This season has been comparatively lean for the Queensland-native who claimed a whopping 47 victories over the previous two years. And so asked what the highlight of 2011 has been, Cantwell doesn't hesitate.
"January – it was huge," he told Cyclingnews having arrived back home to the Gold Coast days earlier from the United States.
After what Cantwell frankly describes as a "bad Christmas" after the demise of Pegasus Sports in mid December, he went on to race on 23 occasions the following month, peaking with his victory at the Australian National Criterium Championships in Ballarat and then as part of the UniSA team for the first UCI World Tour race of the season, the Tour Down Under. Given the style of racing dominates the US racing scene where he spends the majority of his season, Cantwell gets to wear the green and gold bands "every weekend" which ultimately wouldn't happen if he was plying his trade elsewhere.
Even then, doubt remained.
"I actually didn't realise I was going to re-sign with V Australia until late February so it kind of took me a little while to get going again," he explained.
Cantwell took on the Redlands Bicycle Classic where he finished on the podium twice before claiming V Australia's first win of the season at the Sunny King Criterium in April. Another victory followed in the opening stage of Tulsa Tough, a stage of the Tour of America's Dairyland, and then Cantwell went one-two with teammate Ben Kersten at Boise Twilight Criterium.
"We definitely didn't have the depth of racing that we had last year and then the season finished a month early so it was a bit of a combination of a few things," Cantwell says of his 2011 season, to which he adds "overcoming the hurdle that Pegasus fell over" to the list of difficulties faced.
"In the US, a lot of people don't have the money any more – a lot of the races were taken off the calendar," he continues. "It was a terrible year really, to be honest."
Age is a high price to pay for maturity
Cantwell is off contract at the end of this year and is hankering for a chance to head back to Europe where he spent 2004-05 racing as an amateur with the Italian under 23 amateur Permac-Brisot team. He's frank when it comes to an explanation of what his future holds:
"In regards to myself and my future I have no idea," he says. "If V Australia decide to continue on with their sponsorship then I know Chris [White] will definitely offer me a contract but ultimately I want to give Europe a go. It's just so difficult - especially with teams like HTC collapsing it makes it even harder for people like me to knock through the door again."
Cantwell got his shot with V Australia when his previous team, Jittery Joes was forced to fold with the initial US cash crisis in 2008 and he admits that cycling is perhaps on the verge of becoming a year-to-year proposition for him – and that's not ideal following the arrival of son Jayce Thomas five months ago.
"Things are tough," he said. "You've got to look after your family and what's most important in life."
If there was a moment where he felt that his time had come, it was the 2010 Tour of California where he raced against some of Europe's best fast men, including Mark Cavendish.
"When I raced with Cav' in 2010 and all the big boys at the Tour of California I was right beside them, you could throw a blanket over us," Cantwell recalled. "I only raced those guys once where if I was racing with them more consistently I would only get better. The racing between Europe, the US and Australia is all completely different and it takes you a little while to settle in and to find your niche and your form. Having one shot at it and I got two fifth places right beside Cavendish, that wasn't too bad. It was a dream come true for me. I had touched the sky, personally."
For Pegasus to collapse the way it did, was a heavy blow to Cantwell among many others who had signed on for the fledgling outfit, which was aiming to become the first team from Australia to be awarded a UCI ProTour licence. 2011 was supposed to be his year - "It was a year for me to really get over there and to shine," Cantwell said. "It was the perfect age for me. I felt that my maturity was definitely there, I've got a family to provide for and my fitness and my form was exactly where I wanted it to be."
Discussions are currently underway with GreenEdge, Shayne Bannan's project which is currently applying for a UCI ProTour licence, but Cantwell concedes that while it's definitely an option for him moving forward, "It's no more than just a conversation at the moment," with age not on his side.
"It's too early to tell," he told Cyclingnews. "I'd love to say yes or even know, but I have no idea."
The season ain't over, yet...
The Tour of the Murray River may be Cantwell's first NRS event of the season, and "a step behind" the calibre of racing he's accustomed to in the US, but it serves an important purpose with the UCI 2.1 Tour of China next on his agenda in Early September before another tilt at the Herald Sun Tour in October.
"There's so many kids that are just phenomenal athletes so from my point of view with a little bit of age on my side I definitely don't underestimate the competition that's for sure," he said of the 15 stage event.
V Australia are unlikely to be matching the likes of Genesys, Pure Black Racing and the newly-merged Swan Hill Heart of the Murray team, but stage wins a certainly on the agenda.
"I'm feeling pretty good at the moment; I've had a little bit of time off just through travelling back to Australia," Cantwell explained. "If I don't have a good first or second stage I'll warm into it and I'll definitely get a few notches in my belt with this Tour."