With their 2014 roster released on Tuesday, Synergy Baku were proud to announce former WorldTour rider Will Walker as one their key additions. As the Azeri team focuses on developing local and international cyclists team manager David McQuaid has outlined a step up to professional continental level by 2015, and Walker is integral to that step.
For Walker the signing marks a bittersweet transition away from Drapac Pro Cycling as the Australian team makes its professional continental debut next season. For cycling aficionados, the recovery of Walker from tachycardia paired with the growth of Drapac was a story that was 'meant to be', and Walker's departure came as a shock. But after initial negotiations proved difficult Walker quickly pursued other options.
"For me next year not being with Drapac, there is definitely no bitterness," Walker told Cyclingnews. "I'm just grateful for the second chance I was given by Michael Drapac and the Drapac team and I look forward to seeing their successes in 2014."
And a new team means new chances for a rider who has reinvented himself multiple times now.
"I'm quite looking forward to a new challenge," he added. "I've been a pro before and it's great to do the Tour Down Under, but I've also raced the Tour Under before [finishing fourth in 2006]. I'm actually just more excited to get back to Europe frankly."
With his fiancée Chiara Sassi, the daughter of the late Aldo Sassi, Walker will base himself in Italy next season where he lived in his Rabobank days. Although his specific race program is yet to be finalised, the former Australian Champion is currently banking on doing half his season in Europe and the other half in Asia.
"He [David McQuaid] definitely wants me to stick around to help mentor riders," the 28-year-old explained. "I want at times to go for my own results but I'm really looking forward to the challenge of mentoring the younger Azeri riders, and all the younger riders in general.
"Helping them navigate races, when to use their energy, how to train properly. Just handing off all the small things that I've learnt throughout my career."
A change of heart?
Having spoken previously to Cyclingnewsabout his battles with tachycardia, Walker has gone through various stages in the recovery that he now deems to be complete. He retired in 2009, returned in 2012 and had a brief scare at the Tour of the Great South Coast soon after. Concern amongst the Australian peloton for Walker was heightened given the aberration came just days after the passing of former Drapac rider Robbie Williams due to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia. The ordeal left Walker unsure as to his future.
"I wasn't too sure, to be honest, that I was really on top of things," he explained. "But it's actually really good now, you can dwell on so many things, you can get disappointed with cycling, but I've not had any mishaps since South Coast last year."
Every recovery involves forward and backward steps, but for Walker, he believes he is finally both physically and mentally recuperated.
"It's looking like it has been a really successful come back, in the second part of this year I've done a heap of racing and I just keep on bouncing back. I'm ready to be a proper cyclist again."
Walker still undergoes electrocardiograms (ECGs), but at a much less frequent rate than in the past, and now only as a precaution. And as Walker elucidates, the testing can often seem moot given that "you know when you get tachycardia."
As to what motivates him to keep coming back after years of hard graft, Walker remains evenly split between his hunt for personal goals and helping to shape the careers of his teammates.
"With Drapac I wanted to get back and overcome some serious hurdles," he said. "But now I'm more driven by my own personal goals as well as helping to get the most out of riders like Luke Davison and Pat Lane who both can win more races than they can ever imagine."
Whilst not yet back to the level of fitness he held previously, Walker is confident that his 'knack' is back, and it helped carry him to a seventh place finish at the Australian road titles at the start of the year. Walker soon followed up with a stage win at the Tour of Toowoomba, overall podium finishes at the New Zealand Cycle Classic and the Tour of Thailand as well as a top five finish at the Tour of Hainan. If Walker can pass on his race smarts to his younger teammates then he is adamant that Synergy Baku is set for big things next year.
"The last 12 race days I've found I've been in the right position every time but I've just lacked a little bit of the finishing strength that I had when I was a pro," he explained. "If I can get some of the younger riders who have all the strength and give them the tactical skills to race I should be quite good value to the team."
Walker will be introduced formally to his new team at a ten day training camp in Spain in December. From there he will take in Christmas with Sassi in Italy then return to Australia where Walker and Synergy Baku will take their respective next steps at the Herald Sun Tour in February.