It may be one thing to be the standout sprinter of Australia's National Road Series, but the true test of Steele Von Hoff's mettle comes this week at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour where the Genesys Wealth Advisers team will be putting everything on the line to give the 23-year-old the best chance possible of matching it with some of the world's best.
The timing could not be better for the Victorian who has amassed 17 stage wins in this year's NRS, with the crowning glory coming via a determined chase to stay firstly in contention and then edge out Russian National Team pair Alexander Serov and Alexi Markov on the finish line at the 208.2 kilometre Launceston to New Norfolk Classic. Importantly for Von Hoff, the victory was an indication that distance would not be a problem for him.
"It's all well and good winning the short criteriums but when you go over to Europe there aren't many of them – they're all long 200km-plus races," he told Cyclingnews from the Tour of Tasmania, which he was sitting out in preparation for this week's five-stage challenge.
"When I had the teammates around me that I did, I was always confident that I was going to get back but it was whether or not I had the legs in the end. It turned out I had a little bit more than I thought at the end and I finished the sprint quite well."
There is quite the buzz when it comes to Von Hoff and his racing future, although he is yet to put pen to paper with anyone for 2012. However, one very interested party to Von Hoff's progress is Allan Peiper who will join Garmin-Cervelo following the demise of HTC-Highroad. The renowned directeur sportif has been in contact with Von Hoff and his Genesys boss Andrew Christie-Johnson, offering guidance along the way for some months now.
"The Sun Tour's going to be interesting to see what he [Von Hoff] can do with longer stages and with a deeper field and maybe some better sprinters there as well," Peiper told Cyclingnews. "Heinrich Haussler's going to be there... we'll get an idea of where Steele is really at in his development."
Von Hoff's rise has been rapid, having packed in his day job as a boilermaker at the start of the year to concentrate on cycling full-time. It's a dedication that netted Von Hoff the 2011 Scody Cup, despite sitting out the five-race series final event in Tasmania. His 12 stage victories was a Scody Cup record. However, given his only recent focus there are questions marks as to what exactly he is ready for, with Peiper explaining that there's a lot to be considered from his perspective.
"His endurance base is probably not as high as it could be although people are scanning the world now for a top-rate sprinter you know, and even though they could be a sprinter: can they fit into a bunch gallop? Can they fit into a lead out train? What intelligence do they have for the sprint?
"If his endurance base is right and he can show that he's got it, then I think there will be a lot of teams that will try and snap him up," Peiper continued. "But the danger is, is that if he's not ready for that, he's going to get lost and bogged down because he won't have the depth, he won't have the results, he'll lose his confidence and those things are really crucial to come into the WorldTour - you need to be ready to take that step and make your mark or at least hold your own directly from the gun. There's no development time in ProTour."
Heading to Europe as a professional without the backing of the Australian Institute of Sport isn't easy, but it can be done and Richie Porte (Saxo Bank-SunGard) is just one example of that, having missed that key period of racing in Europe as an espoir. Porte of course, having also ridden for Christie-Johnson when Genesys was known as Praties.
"I remember Richie Porte two years ago in Italy, we had one place left on our roster [with Highroad]," recalled Peiper. "There were two Australians and one European-based rider who were up for the place and the decision was made and we didn't take Richie. He was at the point where he'd come through that different system, he'd had good results in Italy but the thing is, he didn't have the back up and there years where he'd been with the AIS. It's still possible, but even Richie had difficulty getting into a team."
With so much action in the background with regards to his future, Von Hoff is confident about the task at hand – without getting carried away with the premise that one way or another he will be racing in Europe in 2012.
"I know that I'm not quite at the level of the pros yet so I'm definitely not getting ahead of myself; I've got a lot of work to do in order to match them," he admitted. "That's where this Herald Sun Tour's going to be a really big learning curve for me. I've raced quick guys and I know I have the speed now – it's just about getting to the finish so I can try and sprint against them."
Small fish, big pond
The Genesys squad is amped at the prospect of racing this week, and Von Hoff admittedly is a bundle of nerves but is hoping that the orange train can deliver him to be in the mix for the sprint in at least "a couple of stages." He says the nerves are more about who he's racing against, rather than the hefty weight of any expectation.
Most definitely underdogs, the Genesys outfit of Von Hoff, 2010 NRS winner Pat Shaw, current NRS leader Nathan Haas, 2011 national criterium silver medallist Anthony Giacoppo, Kyle Marwood and Nathan Earle know that their major challenge is to be able to be in position in the first place in order to contest the sprint. Then, Von Hoff says it comes down to a roll of the dice.
"We're just going to have to try and match everything," he explained. "If we miss a break, it's Tour over, we're not capable of fighting it out against that class of team to bring it all back so we're going to have to be on our game and be in everything we can.
"It all depends on how I've recovered from the last couple of months of racing," he continued. "If I have, and I'm up there in the end I'll give myself a shot but if I struggle to get to the finish, maybe not."