Damien Howson made his debut with Orica-GreenEdge at the Tour of Utah last year as a stagiaire, having signed a multi-year deal with the WorldTour team in July, and duly proved himself a worthy addition by winning the rainbow jersey in the U23 time trial world championships. In his first race with the team, Howson won the bronze medal at the Australian national time trial championships to complete an all Orica-GreenEdge podium.
The 22-year-old didn't reach the heights of 2013 in his neo-pro season but was satisfied with his transition to the top level of the sport which provided clues as to where his strengths lie.
"It was great to be part of such a successful year for GreenEdge as a whole but personally, it was also a year fuelled by a lot of learning and being part of the team culture which felt great," Howson told Cyclingnews.
Having spent time with the national U23 team racing in Europe, Howson explained that the step up to WorldTour was quiet straight forward.
"Coming from the AIS team, who have that strong connection with GreenEdge as a support network above you already coming into the team, I already knew the riders from previous years, likewise with directors," he said of the familiarity that he encountered in 2014.
"The racing side of things, it was the first experience of stepping into a WorldTour team and you feel the pressure initially and as the season progressed, I was learning everyone's strengths and weaknesses and what works best, and having the leaders in the team, such as Gerrans, to guide you is a special feeling," added Howson who rode the 2012 Tour Down Under with the UniSA wildcard team.
It wasn't all plain sailing though as Howson adapted to the longer races and higher intensity of racing than he'd previously encountered but added never felt out of his depth.
"I think the way the Australian system works is to put you in the WorldTour when they know you are capable and ready making sure that you have the step and support there," he said. "My first year was another level, at a time quite tough, but myself I know I was ready for it and definitely coped with it. I'd say that first year in the WorldTour ranks I was quite happy with it and was quite successful."
Having turned professional, riders often talk of suddenly riding elbow-to-elbow with their idols having watched them race from the comfort of their lounge room just a few months prior. While Howson found himself in similar scenarios, having "world class" riders Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews as teammates ensured he wasn't star struck for very long.
"There is definitely a different vibe in some of the races that I'd watch on TV growing to then being a part of that race and knowing how the dynamic of its works when you're riding alongside the likes of a [Alberto] Contador and [Chris] Froome," he said. "It's a privileged position to be in, and it's a shock at first, but after a few events you settle down and realise that you are a part of it as much as they are and you find your place
With his time trialling prowess that has yielded Oceania and U23 national titles as well as bronze medal at this year's Australian national titles, it was no surprise that GreenEdge earmarked Howson for the team time trial
"From the word go, I set the team time trial as the major focus," Howson said of his 2014 targets, "so this time last year I sat down with the directors and they target for me to be part of the team and with me coming from the U23 world championship win in the time trial the year before, it's an event I could probably step into."
Of the 67 times that Howson pinned on a race number in 2014, eight consecutive days in France standout as the season highlight.
"Call me crazy, but I think that of the hardest races of the year was almost one of my favourites, the Critérium du Dauphiné, purely because it's a practise event for the Tour de France that everyone knows around the world," Howson explained. "Having team chefs there and huge numbers of team staff plus with riders under pressure to make the Tour team, it all makes for a really competitive event. To be part of that and see how it all works, I feel like I was part of the Tour de France for a brief period of time there."
Having competed in several one-week stage races across the season, Howson explained that he felt himself becoming adept at this style of racing.
"I think this year I was competing in a lot of the one week tours and I found myself feeling comfortable in that position and getting through the week feeling more comfortable and confident in my own ability," he said. "Climbing wise I think I took a step forwards this year in a few races while still being able to maintain my solid time trialling ability. So if I can work on both those areas in future years, and it all goes to plan I'd like to see myself riding for general classification at those shorter races."
The natural progression for Howson from one-week stage races would then be to contest the overall at the grand tours. But for now, it remains an aspiration.
"Obviously it takes a very special breed to compete at the top level of a grand tour riding for the general classification, for now I can say it's a dream, but if he work towards it then maybe one day it will be a reality."
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