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Avanti Racing Team has already announced its pleasure at the selection of five of its riders to represent Australia in the UniSA national team at the Santos Tour Down Under [TDU] and the opportunity to race at WorldTour level has excited its five strong contingent who are ready for the challenge.
Anthony Giacoppo, Mark O’Brien, Campbell Flakemore, Neil Van der Ploeg and Jack Haig will be flying the Avanti flag alongside Brad Linfield and Caleb Ewan on the team. With a heavily focused program as set out by Avanti’s High Performance manager, Mark Fenner, the team has hit its first peak for the season at just the right time. Co-managers Steve Price and Andrew Christie-Johnston are now excited for their riders to get some valuable WorldTour experience under their belts.
"We work so hard for our rider’s to get these opportunities, this is what it’s all about for us," said Christie-Johnston. "The fact that some of our graduates like Will Clarke, Richie Porte and Steele Von Hoff are also racing gives the current Avanti guys the confidence that they can make it to the top level permanently."
"Ultimately we want to send more guys to the WorldTour," said Price. "For our riders to have the chance to use the UniSA team as a stepping stone to what we hope will be a long and fruitful career is perfect."
Returning after his WorldTour debut last year at this very race, Anthony Giacoppo is now the elder statesmen of the team. At just 27-years-of-age, Giacoppo will provide valuable support on the road to his teammates.
"I think it will be to my advantage having done my first TDU last year as I’ll have a better understanding of how it all works," said Giacoppo. "I think for some, your first big race -especially a WorldTour race- can be a bit daunting."
But Giacoppo is not daunted by the cut and thrust and will be using his bunch nous to guide himself and fellow sprinters, Neil Van der Ploeg, and of course Caleb Ewan, to what the UniSA team hopes will be a victory or two.
"The sprints at TDU are very hectic and very fast, if you get too far out of position it is very difficult to get back into position. Once you lose a wheel you tend to get shuffled back down the peloton very quickly due to the high speeds," explained Giacoppo. "The other thing you need to be very careful of are the crashes, unfortunately they are quite common at this race."
Neil Van der Ploeg is another late comer to the sport who after finishing fourth in the elite men’s road race at the Australian road nationals in 2013 was unlucky not to receive the call up to the UniSA team. Now with karma on his side the fuzzy-haired strongman come sprinter is ready to turn some heads.
"I was unlucky last year, but probably lucky this year. It's a great privilege and I'm grateful for the opportunity. It's pretty awesome for Australian riders to have something like the UniSA team to strive for," said the 26-year-old. "When I finished nationals in 2013, I thought I was guaranteed a place in the team -by being the first non-professional rider-as it had been in the past. I was in tears of joy, but when I didn't get the spot I was absolutely gutted.
"I went to watch the race, as I had already planned to go, but struggled a little bit with the disappointment of coming so close. So to be picked this year, I feel very lucky," he said. "I'd have to say the Willunga Hill stage is what I am looking forward to the most, I saw the crowds last year and it was incredible. It will be awesome to experience that type of crowd as a rider, I can't wait."
Having raced extensively alongside Ewan and Linfield with the Jayco World Tour Academy last year, Campbell Flakemore will be feeling at home as he helps position his teammates coming into each stage finish.
"I had an interrupted run in to the national championships [where he placed fourth in the U23 TT] but surprised myself with not too bad a ride on the day," said Flakemore. "I think I’ll be back on board by the time TDU starts, I just can’t wait to get amongst some top level racing."
Flakemore’s skill on the bike has been made evident with time trial victories at the Crono Champenois, Thüringen-Rundfahrt U23 and Olympia’s Tour in 2013 but he is more than just a workhorse.
Jack Haig is still a relative newcomer to road cycling, and in only his second year focusing seriously on the road, he is looking forward to the challenges of the week ahead.
"To tell you the truth I don’t really have any expectations coming into the race," said Haig. "I just want to try and do the best I can, gain some experience and try to learn as much as possible. I’m looking forward to simply being part of a World Tour race," said Haig. "This is what I want to do in a year or two as a full-time professional, so to get the opportunity to have a go early-on and try and learn from these guys is ideal.
"I think I might wait until we climb up the Corkscrew late in stage three and see how I go up there. If I climb well on there then I might try and sit in and wait until the fifth stage around Willunga Hill and try to hang on for a good GC result," said the 2013 NRS champion. "But there are some incredibly talented guys here and it’s going to be very hard."
Having represented Australia many times at the Herald Sun Tour, the junior World Championships and the U23 World Championships, new Avanti Racing rider Mark O’Brien will finally add the UniSA team to his palmares. "I've been at every edition of TDU just training and watching the race and I’ve always dreamed about getting a start," said the 26-year-old. "I was hopeful after my 2009 season where I raced well at the U23 Worlds, and went on to finish 10th in the men’s road race at Nationals, but it didn't materialise.
"Since then I have targeted Nationals every year in the hope of qualifying but it has never quite happened, which makes this year all the more special."
O’Brien was impressive at the national championships last week where he launched an imposing attack on the last ascent of Mt Buninyong. Having risked it all he paid the price when eventual winner Simon Gerrans launched his final bid for victory, but the already in the red zone O’Brien held on to a commendable seventh place finish.
"Being amongst the strongest at nationals and riding strongly against the three guys who finished on the podium -who are also some of the favourites for TDU- I suppose that gives me some confidence that I may be competitive," said O’Brien. "I know that the best guys will have improved from nationals, so I will need to lift my game to be competitive on the hard days, especially with more depth in the field.
"I will back myself and give it everything but having never raced a World Tour race before, I'm unsure what to expect."
As a member of the same Bendigo training bunch as Haig, O’Brien also climbs with the best and will be one to watch for a high stage or GC placing.
"All the stages are challenging, and have great potential for splits in the peloton. I will be hoping to make it into a break or two to show my face throughout," explained O’Brien. "But I would like to have a go up the corkscrew, and also the Willunga stage.
"The Willunga stage probably suits me better because it's a more straight-forward run in, and will come down more to pure climbing speed. I'm super excited to make the most of this great opportunity, and hopefully come away with something whether that's a breakaway, stage result, or ideally a high GC result."