After the sensational times set by riders at the recent Australian track titles in Adelaide, Australia, one of the country's rising stars believes the national team pursuit selection could be the fastest ever at the upcoming UCI Track World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Michael Hepburn (pictured, right) says the 4:14.427 recorded by Jack Bobridge and Rohan Dennis' 4:15.764 for the 4000m men's individual pursuit could lead to the fastest time ever ridden by an Australian men's team pursuit at the world titles next month.
"A year ago the Australian teams at the world cups were riding 4:02, 4:03, 4:04 [for the team pursuit]... and now we're consistently riding sub four minutes or around that four-minute mark," said Hepburn. "In Beijing we did a 4:01 and we stuffed up in the last kilometre. If we hadn't, we would have done a four [minute] flat.
"I think the Brits are still the top seed at the moment - they've done a 3:54 in the past few months - they've gone quickly before and they've definitely got the riders to go low 3:50s. So who knows? Worlds this year should be interesting. I think that it could be one of the fastest times by an Australian team," he added.
Hepburn himself rode a 4:22.163 for the individual pursuit at the national titles in his first year as a senior rider and was part of the Australian team that broke the four-minute barrier at last November's UCI Track World Cup round in Melbourne. He believes the recent performances of his teammates from that squad put the team in good stead in Copenhagen.
"Jack did a 4:14, Rohan did a 4:15... they're world class times," said Hepburn. "It's hard to have someone as fast as Jack; they've got Geraint Thomas, who's been rumoured to be riding around those times but Jack took second in the event at worlds last year and he's only gotten better since then. Who knows what he'll do this year at worlds?"
He's quick to moderate his sentiments however, putting these latest developments into an Olympic perspective with over two years until the London Games. "It's good to see that the teams are regularly going several seconds faster than last year. That's the improvement that we want to see every year and hopefully next year we'll see 3:57 times - we've just got to take the necessary steps. It's a program until London so we've got a couple of years," Hepburn explained.
As for his own future in the lead up to the next Olympics, the 18-year-old Queenslander is anticipating racing in Europe wearing the Australian U23 road race champion's jersey, a privilege he secured in Ballarat during the national road titles this January.
"I'll be based in Varese for about two months of this year between May, June and some of July. I'll start off with the Tour of Japan, then a nine-day tour in the Netherlands which all the track endurance riders will be doing," said Hepburn.
"There's also the Thüringen Rundfahrt, which is the race in which Jack Bobridge won two stages last year; I'll be wearing the U23 national champion's jersey in that event. It's my first race in that jersey, so I'll definitely put on a good show there."
With many tipping Hepburn to be the 'next big thing' in an increasingly long line of talented young riders coming out of the Australian Institute of Sport road program, will there be temptation to sign for the likes of Garmin-Transitions or HTC-Columbia, such as countrymen Cameron and Travis Meyer, Jack Bobridge or Leigh Howard have done?
Hepburn says his focus remains firmly on being in the best situation on the track for the 2012 Olympics however, pointing out that those before him have seen out their apprenticeship before turning professional.
"It's definitely in the plan to stay with Jayco Skins during the next two years; they're going to support me with my track stuff all the way to London. You look at guys like Trav, Cam, Bobridge or Howard - they're some of the best riders in the U23 category and they've all stayed with the team for two years before going onto the ProTour."