The French journalist Jean Francois Quénet can read a bike race. He's been around the sport his entire life, seen riders come and go and races develop and change. So when he came up to me, notepad in hand, before the final stage of the Tour Down Under, and started asking questions about what winning the stage there that day would mean, I knew that we were in with a very serious chance of actually winning.
There is no quarter given in a race of the level of the Tour Down Under. Yes, it is only January, but, as my riders experienced, no one is giving up a wheel, or the opportunity to sniff out some UCI points for their team, points are after all the currency by which most teams look to justify their existence. Points scored in January count exactly the same as those picked up throughout the rest of the season.
Most riders are driven on some level by two forces: doubt and confidence. Doubt waits in the shadows for a moment of weakness, it feeds on fatigue and when allowed a chance, will have a rider let go and drop the wheel they've been fighting for at that crucial moment. Confidence on the other hand tells them that there is hope and that they really are good enough, and that they really, really can do it.
A drunk once told me in a bar, that confidence was the absence of doubt, and it is one of the truest things I've ever learned over a pint of pale ale.
All through a stage race, each little moment can change which one is in charge.
Our riders had been buoyed at the (unofficial) start of the race - the non-counting People's Choice Classic criterium - when our Dutch sprinter Wouter Wippert made an impressive late run for third place.
But the first days of the race were hard for us, stage one just didn't go to plan, on stage two they struggled through the unrelenting undulations to Stirling. On stage 3, we lost any hope of a GC place when Tim Roe broke a spoke at the foot of the climb to Paracombe. Doubt was taking hold little by little.
Stage four to Mt Barker was a different matter however. In the space of a few kilometres everything changed. On a short climb just 15km from the finish in Mt Barker, Marcel Kittel drifted out of the back of the bunch. January is probably too early for a man who will be winning big in June and July, but the effect that it had on our riders was the realisation that suddenly they were in with a real chance.
The gaps that they previously couldn't find suddenly started opening up, and they could hold the positions they'd not been able to until that point. Wippert was still there, and they all knew how fast he would be on the downhill finish. Suddenly there was a chance and that was all it took. The team lifted. Trav Meyer and Graeme Brown made a huge effort to drop Wippi off at 300m to go, and that was enough. On that stage he hit out too early and managed third, but the doubts were suddenly silenced, and confidence took over.
By Sunday, we, and other people, including one of the most experienced journalists on the race, had taken note as well. On the final flat stage, if things went well, then we (and others) believed that we had a real chance to win.
Opportunities like that could be few and far between for us this year, but when the chance was there we had to believe that we could take it. Sure enough on Sunday, confidence took over: believe they did, and win they did.
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