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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Sam Spokes (Etixx)
Australian has learnt to love the bad weather of Belgium
Sam Spokes has taken a slightly different route to his contemporaries in order to race the roads of Europe during his second season riding on the Omega Pharma-Quick Step feeder team Etixx. The 23-year-old, who enjoys his birthday in early-April, has been steadily building his palmarès since he left Australia to live and breathe the European racing life.
In 2010, Spokes came to attention when he won Liège - La Gleize overall, a race that Eddy Merckx won in 1962, to announce himself as a promising junior. In 2012 he then won the Tour of the Eure-et-Loir and with several good rides under his belt, he landed a contract with the Czech based Etixx squad having ridden for Museeuw Test Team and then EFC Omega Pharma QuickStep.
The 2014 season for Spokes started in Australia with a fifth place at the U23 Australian national time trial championships, an aggressive ride in the criterium a few days later almost landed him a green and gold jersey and he then finished off the championships with 18th place in a hot and hard road race won by Caleb Ewan.
"I always enjoy racing in Australia. I was very surprised with my ITT result as I hadn't done a lot of work on the TT bike after breaking my collarbone, but I knew I had done much more training in the off season then previous years," Spokes explained to Cyclingnews.
Wary of burning out, Spokes added that understanding what his young body is capable of is necessary for a long season of racing. "To be peaking in January, it's almost impossible to be going strong towards the end of the European season at our age."
Spokes stint down under was extended with a spot on the U23 Jayco Australian national team at the Herald Sun Tour in early-February and although it was a composite team, Spokes was full of praise for his teammates.
"I always enjoy racing with the Aussie team, even when it comes to nationals where you are all fierce rivals. That quickly disappears when you pull on the green and gold jersey and you become best mates. With Etixx we are like family, we spend a lot of time away together and even though we are from all different countries we have a great time and enjoy racing together.
"But I think both Etixx and the Australian national team are two of the top U23 teams in the world and that was shown at Thüringen-Rundfahrt last year where six of the eight stages were taken out by both our teams."
The road less travelled
Although yet to finalise his racing schedule for 2014, Spokes won't be short of racing opportunities and marked down some big races he'll target this season.
"I always really enjoy Tour of Bretagne so I think that will be a big goal of mine, but there is a few races after Normandy like the U23 Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege that if I get a chance to ride in, I would like to have a good race and possible get a good result. Especially in Liege."
While the route to the top echelons of professional racing for promising Australian juniors may appear to only be in reach to those within national and state academy programs, Spokes is proof that there are alternative means of getting a ride in Europe.
"I'm a 100% happy with the route I've taken, I think it's been a bit harder the normal Australian route through the AIS and maybe going that way would of brought me to the level I'm at a year quicker, but this is now my fourth full year in Europe and my third living on my own, which was a big step." Spokes told Cyclingnews.
"But the life skills that I have learned I will always have after my cycling career. And on a riding note, I think doing two years in Belgium has given me a good understanding of positioning and bike handling skills as well as learning to love the bad weather. But I think there is no right or wrong to make it to the top level of our sport, it's just a matter of finding what suits you and that you don't lose your love for cycling."
Spokes finds both the crowds and culture of racing in the Low Countries takes racing to the next level and that cobbles and bergs are just one small component of racing.
"I do enjoy racing on the cobbles, not so much for the cobbles but for the atmosphere of racing in Flanders where people are so passionate about racing, be it the pro's or juniors, as well as the adrenaline rush you get fighting for positions coming into an important section.
"I think in the future I would lean toward the Ardennes Classics such as Liege, where the climbs are a bit longer but you still get the great atmosphere and fiercely contested racing."
Having pulled on the national jersey at the world championships last year in Firenze, Spokes is once again looking to represent his country on a course that may just play to his strengths.
"For sure Worlds will be a big goal, at this stage I haven't looked much into them as there is a lot of racing to do between now and then but it's always in the back of your mind, last year I was really disappointed with my race, as the week before I had great form in the Tour Du Doubs, but that's racing and I've learnt from that week at worlds so it would be great to get another chance to go for the rainbow strips."