As the Bissell Development Team made its way back to Santa Rosa recently following a difficult day of training in the hills of Sonoma County, California, James Oram drifted back to the follow car to grab some bottles and bananas for his teammates.
The 20-year-old Kiwi, who will turn 21 in June, distributed the food, and then, as if to emphasize his new role as one of the team's senior riders, he peeled a banana for 18-year-old newcomer Nathan Van Hooydonck and hand fed the top Belgian prospect as the pair shared a laugh.
After two years of riding with Axel Merckx's U23 program and seeing six of his teammates graduate to the WorldTour, Oram is ready to assume his spot at the head of the class, and he hopes to follow that same path to cycling's top division.
"Ideally, I'd want to move up to the Pro Tour at the end of this year," Oram said. "It would take a lot of pressure off that last year as a U23. You can still make it up to the Pro Tour when you are 25 or 26, but I've definitely watched last year a few of the guys who were in their final year of U23, and they'd go to a race and they'd instantly put too much pressure on themselves to perform because they want to make the step up. So if I can move up this year, it would mean I wouldn't have to stress next year."
As a highly touted junior, Oram won the prestigious Nations Cup Tour de L'Abitibi in 2011 after taking fourth overall there the previous year. His performances earned him a spot with the New Zealand Continental team Pure Black Racing, but when the team folded before the 2012 season started, he was left scrambling for a ride.
"I was left in no-man's land, seriously just sending out CVs left, right and center," Oram said this week from the Bissell team camp. "I had one or two teams reply and just say, 'No. We'll keep the CV, but we don't have a space.'"
But Oram's luck changed when Dale Parker, a 19-year-old Australian who had won the Tour of the Gila time trial in 2011 before riding as a stagiaire for Radioshack in Utah later that season, decided to retire before the 2012 campaign, opening up a spot on Merckx's team.
"Axel called me and said, 'I can't offer you much, but there's a spot here for you,'" Oram recalled. "I was all of 18 and on the phone going, 'Oh my God, you don't have to pay me anything. I'll pay my way there. I just want the spot.'"
As a 19-year-old newcomer in 2012, Oram competed in the Tour of the Gila, the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge, along with a handful of other US races. Last season, he added the Tour of California to that list. He also finished second in the New Zealand national road race championship in 2013, and he was third in the road race. He's already duplicated those championship results again this year, along with competing in the New Zealand Cycle Classic (2.2) and the Herald and Sun Tour (2.1).
Now Oram is turning his attention to the start of the US domestic season. His first race with the newly minted Bissell team will come at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. He'll then head to Boulder, Colorado, for an altitude camp that he hopes will set him up well for Silver City's Tour of the Gila, one of his top targets for the year.
"Hopefully my legs are good come Redlands, because it would be nice to start the American season off really well. And then Gila, for sure, " he said. "[The Amgen Tour of] California is obviously racing with big World Tour teams, and I need to perform there, but I'll be quite happy if I perform really well at Gila, like top 3 overall or stage wins, that kind of stuff, not because it's easier, but because it's a level where it's more attainable as a goal."
Oram said his goal for California will be to to prove he can do well in back-to-back races by riding consistently, having a good time trial and finishing respectably near the top end of the general classification. After California, Oram will take a short break and then reload for the latter part of the season.
"I'd like to do Cascade [Cycling Classic] in July just for fun, because it's a fun race and we'll have the [club riders] there as well," he said. "Then I'd like to hit Utah and Colorado and hopefully come away with - a top 10 in Colorado would be huge - but I can definitely better last year's results."
If he can do that, Oram will be well on the way toward making his case for a World Tour ride in 2015, and he will have taken a major step toward cashing in on all the work and sacrifice he's put in so far.
"I like living and training quite strict and professionally and having events set in place," he said. "I've been quite strict with myself, so mentally I want to live the Pro Tour lifestyle. I'd love to be racing from January through October with the big guys."