Tom Southam's career as the head sport director with Australian Pro-Continental team Drapac Pro Cycling got off to the perfect start when Wouter Wippert took his and the team's biggest win to date when he sprinting to final day victory at the Tour Down Under.
The early victory set high expectations and while there was no repeat WorldTour win, the team had breakthrough wins and podium finishes in North America but the 2016 season will see the team turn its attention to racing and performing in Europe. The team has lost Wippert to Cannondale-Garmin but recruited several young talents that Southam is hoping can deliver in one-week stage races which will be its bread and butter in 2016.
"Our biggest win came so early at Tour Down Under which was as much as we could have hoped from in that race. There were a few other highlights, Wippert was obviously very close in California, Lachie Norris winning a stage in Utah … I think overall it was satisfactory," Southam told Cyclingnews of how he saw the season on the eve of the team's training camp.
The team's wins in 2015 included stages of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, the Tours of Taiwan, Japan and Korea before Norris' breakthrough win at the Tour of Utah ahead of Brent Brent Bookwalter. Southam explained he was unsure how the 28-year-old would perform in the US but is now backing Norris for bigger and better things in 2016.
"Lachie stepped it up a gear this year and started winning and I think he's proved he can do which is an important step. I was unsure at California whether he even wanted to win and wanted to be a leader or just wanted to help. He answered that himself and it's great," he said. "Lachie came sixth overall at US Pro Challenge, if you'd offered that to the team last year it would have been massive. This year it like 'ok, that's kind of another result' it was good but your expectation rises as you get more successful."
While Southam can confirm Norris' protected status at the Tour Down Under and Jayco Herald Sun Tour early-next year, the reality of being a Pro-Continental team means Drapac need race invitations before fully mapping out the season ahead.
"Lachie is looking for results early on at Down Under and Herald Sun Tour which are obviously important races for us. There are a lot of stage races which should suit him. It's quite difficult at this stage because we are still waiting on a lot of invites to races which is frustrating," Southam added.
With a "cheap sprinter" the rider "every team on the planet" is chasing during the transfer season, Southam explained that as Wippert offered the "biggest bang for buck" they let the Dutchman move on and decided against a like-for-like replacement. Drapac looked into hiring Marko Kump, who signed for Lampre-Merida after 18 wins in 2015, but decided on placing their faith in 24-year-old fastman Brenton Jones. But the Victorian isn't the only young rider on Drapac's books that Southam is expecting big things from next season.
"We didn't get another out and out sprinter because we believe Jones has stepped up to the level we need him to be at. He proved that in the last year of the year," he said of the Tour of Hainan stage win, Jones second victory of the season.
Having ridden the biggest races on the US calendar, Drapac is looking to expand its European race programme and Jones is one of the riders to benefit from this change.
"I think the next logically progression as a Pro-Continental team is to go into Europe and do more racing. BJ's a part of that and will start the year at Tour Down Under then Qatar and Oman, which will be a step up for him. He did Coppi e Bartali this year but had limited exposure to that kind of racing. It should be an important year for him."
Sam Spokes, Jordan Kerby and Adam Phelan are other riders Southam is looking to for results in Europe but it's new recruit Brendan Canty that has the sport director excited, explaining he is looking for the 23-year-old to put in a good show at the 2.1 Tour de San Luis in January.
"I like to see Canty do a good GC there. He's a neo-pro but he's come off a good summer, he was 14th on the Abu Dhabi mountain stage and looking at the parcours it should suit him. Realistically, they start with a team trial and we'll have Jens Mouris who is a double silver medallist in the team time trial plus a few other strong team time trialists in that group so he should be in contention there. I'd see to see Brendan run a top ten on GC there and see how realistic that expectation is. He's a young guy but I think he has a good opportunity."
Southam, who rode for Amore & Vita, Barloworld, Drapac and Rapha Condor during his career, will have a clearer picture of how his plans for 2016 are coming together following Drapac's team camp this coming week in the Victorian alps with just over one month to the teams first objective of the season, the Australian national championships in Ballarat.