Bouyed by a strong start to the season which sees him in fifth on the UCI world rankings, Australian Luke Roberts is hopeful he can hold his strong form through the Spring Classics and into the second Grand Tour appearance of his career at the Giro d'Italia.
"When I was with Team CSC I raced Paris-Roubaix with [Fabian] Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady when they won, so I've got a lot of experience that I'm hoping I can put to use at Milram," Roberts told Cyclingnews in Mallorca, Spain, on Monday.
The 33-year-old will shortly embark on a Spring calendar that features Milan-Sanremo (March 20), Gent-Wevelgem (March 28), the Tour of Flanders (April 4) and Paris-Roubaix (April 11). His preparation for the Classics began ideally thanks to a strong return to the ProTour at last month's Tour Down Under, where he finished fifth overall, 17 seconds adrift of winner André Greipel.
"When I met with [Milram] we spoke about the Tour Down Under as an important goal; I know the roads and I've had a lot of experience at the race." said Roberts, who had expected to arrive in Adelaide in good form. "Finishing last season early meant I could put in a really strong couple of months of training, so the Tour Down Under was a big goal."
Although pleased with his result at home, Roberts admitted things could have gone even better. "I was hoping it would be a little bit harder, to be honest. It was more difficult that previous years but it was still essentially a sprinter's race.
"I knew it would be difficult to get the time bonuses over the sprinters so I decided to have that dig on the Saturday [stage 5] from a kilometre out and was able to get a time bonus and time on the peloton which I was able to hang on to. If it had been a little bit harder it would have been good for me."
In addition to his potential for the Tour Down Under and the Classics, Milram signed Roberts to bolster the lead-out train of their star sprinter, Gerald Ciolek. A crash last week's Tour of Qatar has ruled the German out of competition for as much as two months, but Roberts is confident the team has the depth to cover the enforced absence of their marquee fast man; Roger Kluge's emergence in Qatar coming as little surprise to the Australian.
"Roger's still young, he's got a lot to learn. I raced with him on the road in Germany over the past two years so I knew he was a major talent. I was pleased when I heard he'd signed with the team," said Roberts. "But we've got plenty of riders who can step up and fill Gerald's shoes while he's out. Kluge and guys like Wim Stroetinga are guys who can sprint."
Roberts indicated that Ciolek's prognosis had caused a minor reshuffle of his programme, with Tirreno-Adriatico likely to be replaced with a start at the Tour of Murcia. However, despite the possible changes, supporting his team at the Giro d'Italia will remain a clear focus.
The event will be Roberts first three-week race since his Grand Tour debut at the 2005 Tour de France with Danish squad CSC. "We'll have to wait and see what happens with Gerald's recovery. It's possible that he could recover enough to still have a strong first week at the Giro. He won't lose his pure speed," explained Roberts.
Like his teammates, Roberts' contract with Milram only runs to the end of the 2010 season. Last December, team sponsors announced their intention to withdraw from the sport at the end of the current year, increasing the pressure on management and riders alike. Despite the extra burden of uncertainty surrounding the team, Roberts has already observed an air of confidence amongst his colleagues.
"It's obviously not a hot topic of conversation at the dinner table, but I think it's in the back of everyone's minds. We've got the talent that if everyone does their part we can have a really good season," he said.
"I can't speak for the difference in this year to last, but I think [Milram manager] Gerry van Gerwen's been trying to inject a new mentality into the team. From what I can see he's done a good job and I think everyone's excited."