Neil Van Der Ploeg (search2retain p/b health.com.au) is on a roll and the sprinter from Mt. Beauty will be hoping his winning trend continues this week during the fifth round of the Subaru National Road Series, the Santos North Western Tour.
The 25-year-old has had an impressive run so far in 2013 with a handful of podiums in previous events finally culminating in stage victories at the Tour of Toowoomba and Adelaide Tour last month, the first of his career in the Australian domestic series. It's that consistency that has resulted in Van Der Ploeg being the only non-climber in the top-five of the NRS standings, with Huon-Genesys pair Jack Haig and Nathan Earle ahead of him by 13 and seven points respectively. Their teammate Jai Crawford is next best, three points behind Van Der Ploeg in a top-10 that's littered with the might of the Orange Army. The Santos North Western Tour comprises of five stages with at least two opportunities for the fast men of the bunch – the Stage 2 criterium in Narrabri and when the event reaches its conclusion over 137.8km between Coonabarabran and Gunnedah.
"I think we'd be a bit disappointed if… well maybe not," Van Der Ploeg trails off, checking himself before continuing. "We're hoping for a win – we've had some guys racing at Singkarak recently and they're all feeling really good too so we're certainly going in with the aim of winning another stage."
Van Der Ploeg's first response is telling, mainly for the fact that search2retain essentially waved goodbye to any hope of a high general classification finish for Cam Bayly on the opening day in Adelaide with a disappointing performance in the team time trial. The team gained some redemption with Bayly claiming third in the Stuart O'Grady Road Race, but given the levels of determination and ambition in the Melbourne-based squad in 2013, Van Der Ploeg's win counted for a lot. He told Cyclingnews that his win in Adelaide was very much a case of everything coming together in the form of a textbook lead out.
"It was just a bit of persistence, really," he explained of his own personal fortunes of late. "On the last one we nailed the lead out which was something that made a huge difference. I don't think we'd even done a lead out that good in training before.
"The good thing was, [Gus] Tobin was my lead out main but before that it felt like we were playing a game. We all got in there in the last couple of laps and did the whole peel-off thing."
With definite runs on the board when it came to the mountain bike having won the 2009 Tour de Timor, Van Der Ploeg was largely an untapped talent on the road prior to the last 12 months. Since, he's emerged as one to watch in the NRS, and in January confirmation of that came with his fourth place in the Cycling Australia Road National Championships, the highest placing of any of the domestic competitors, behind Luke Durbridge, Michael Matthews (Orica GreenEdge) and Steele Von Hoff (Garmin Sharp). A top-10 finish and the Points Classification at the OCBC Cycle Singapore Criterium will certainly add to his prospects with Van Der Ploeg tipped to make the leap to a UCI Continental or Professional Continental outfit next season.
"I'm just focussing on trying to get as many results as I can," he admitted.
It's been nearly a month between NRS events but Van Der Ploeg has been busy, undergoing a huge training block as part of a camp in Canberra for his up-coming stint with the Australian National Team at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in July.
The squad essentially replicated the first week of the 14-day, 13-stage UCI 2.HC race without the altitude with Canberra sitting at 550 metres above sea level. While there was the physical challenge of the camp, there was also a mental challenge given the riders were racing without any real incentive. Van Der Ploeg however, was happy with how he performed, and is confident that the block will pay off once he's back in the bunch.
"I haven't done too many really solid blocks like that before," he explained. "I'm hoping to have some extra form."