Zak Dempster added his name to the honour roll of Australians to have ridden the Tour de France when he lined up in Leeds this year with his NetApp-Endura team. In a season that Dempster described as being "pretty good," the Tour was a 'highlight.'
"I made a step forward in every area in comparison to 2013, obviously you always would like a bigger step but that's what next season is for," Dempster told Cyclingnews.
Having ridden for Continental teams between 2006 and 2012, with a stint as a stagiaire for HTC-Highroad in 2011, Dempster's opportunities for a Tour appearance were almost zero. When the NetApp and Endura teams merged at the end of the 2012 season, Dempster found himself racing for a Pro-Continental team for the first time and the opportunity for three week racing became a reality.
The 27-year-old made his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España in 2013 with the German Pro-Continental squad, who he will continue with in 2015, and with NetApp-Endura securing a wild card invitation to La Grande Boucle this year, Dempster was one of the nine riders to get the call up.
"I'd had some informal confirmations but regardless, getting the flight to Leeds in my inbox and subsequent phone call from Ralph Denk [team manager] was a very proud moment," he said of the confirmation that he would be racing the Tour. "I called my family straight away and they flew over for the start. I was picked because of my ability to do what was expected of me through so getting the call up was about one percent of the job at hand."
With the experience of the Vuelta and several monuments under his belt, Dempster explained that he felt comfortable in the peloton during the three-weeks.
"In terms of the racing it is definitely a very different level because everyone is completely set and in top shape for the Tour," he said. "But, they're the same guys I'd raced the last couple of years and sporadically in the early part of my career so I kept that in the forefront of my thoughts and I felt I could position well and hold my own. The crowds in the UK stages were incredible, it made it really dangerous but it was an experience that will be hard to top I think."
Earlier in the season, Dempster lined up at both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix for the second year running. In his first attempt at the cobbled classics, Dempster recorded a DNF and 108 respectively. With the experience of 2013, Dempster placed mid-50's in both races and believes he can improve upon those performance again next year.
"For sure, those are the two races that inspire me most," he said. "It's a massive step to those top guys or even the guys going for top-ten but I'd love to be competitive in the finals of those races. But that's really easy to say, and really bloody hard to do. So, bit-by-bit I'll focus on improving and I think I could be a lot further up next year.
"Flanders was really good, I only cracked on the last lap so that made me sort of think that I'm getting closer to the final and it's plausible in the coming years."
Looking ahead to the 2015 season with the renamed BORA-Argon 18 squad, Dempster explained he is also aiming to improve his lead out for the team's sprinter Sam Bennett.
"Leading out Sam Bennett is high on my priorities," he said. "We have a good understanding of what needs to be done in the finals and I like leading him out for a few reasons including that he's a good mate."
It will also be a season in which Dempster is looking to get closer to the podium and take his chances when the opportunity presents itself.
"I'd personally like to make that step from the times I get fourth to tenth when I get a chance in harder stages to finishing the job off properly when I get that chance. And also the classics, I'd like to make a big step forward there. I think those are three viable goals for the first part of the year."
With NetApp-Endura relying on wild card invitations to the big races throughout the season due to its status as a Pro-Continental team, Dempster's racing schedule will depend on where the team gets starts but he is aiming to replicate his 2014 calendar.
"So far I think we've been announced for the Tours of Qatar and Oman so I'll be heading there, then hopefully I'll follow a similar program through to the end of the classics, have a little rest then prepare for what's ahead depending on which races the team decides to go for wild cards in," he said.