At 21, Chris Hamilton will be on the younger riders when the peloton lines out in Buninyong for the 2017 Australian national cycling championships. The 2016 U23 national champion will make his Team Sunweb debut in the 163km race, showing off the new black, white and red kit of the WorldTour team.
Hamilton was aggressive throughout the opening night of the championships in the criterium, won by Orica-Scott's Caleb Ewan, but did so in a stealth black kit. On Sunday, he will be a little easier to spot and will also be on his favoured hilly terrain instead of the sprint friendly parcours.
Briefly back at home in Bendigo before making the one-and-half hour drive back to Ballarat, Cyclingnews spoke to Hamilton about his current form ahead of the race.
"I’ve definitely upped my training from previous years but I wouldn’t say I am at 100 percent because, doing the nationals and Tour Down Under is a pretty big deal for an Australian but being my first season, and its going to be a big season, I think to at 100 per cent his early in the year for a rider like myself is a bit risky," Hamilton said. "My form is good and really happy with where I am at but I have a bit left up the sleeve. With my form, I think I can be in contention."
Hamilton will be one of several 'one-man teams' come Sunday and with recent history favouring solo riders in the race, he will be looking to make a move and ensure he doesn't finish the race wondering 'what if?'.
"Nationals is one of those races, I assume it’s a race that people to go to win, but you do have to be a bit realistic. I am still 21 and I wouldn’t normally be an elite but I think I’ll roll the dice and take a risk and see if it pays off. A podium would be great but you have to see what happens," he explained.
Orica-Scott will again start as the overwhelming favourites for the road race, headlined by Simon Gerrans and Ewan, and it's the Australian WorldTour team who decide how the day will play out.
"There is really only Orica-Scott and IsoWhey Sports Swissness and they will be t the two strongest squads out there in terms of power and numbers. As in individual, you can sit back and let everyone else do their race and if you are there at the finish you go for it then," he said. "Or you can go in the early break and see if that stays away and the last few years the early break has stayed away in the elite race. It depends who Orica or Isowhey have in the break and whether they are happy to let it go or bring it back."
With Orica-Scott wanting to ensure it keeps its options open and is tactically flexible for the race, Hamilton suspects the team will be riding for 2012 and 2014 champion Gerrans.
"He has won it before, but they do have two very good cards to play there. They also have a lot of good riders that they can take a chance with in the early move. It all depends on how it is raced if the sprinters make the finish or not."
Tour Down Under and long-term GC development
Hamilton's U23 road race win helped to secure a place on the UniSA-Australia wild card team for the Tour Down Under. He will return to Australia's sole WorldTour stage race later this month but does so as a fully fledged professional with Team Sunweb. Having finished 14th overall last year, Hamilton was a breakout rider of the race but in 2017, good first impressions for his new team rather than results is the aim.
"I won't be the main rider for the Tour Down Under so for me, it means a lot to get the opportunity to race in front of the Australians," he said. "Also, it is about proving to a new team that I can do my job and do whatever they need me to do. What I really want to get out of it is to have a good ride for what I have been set to do and make the team happy."
The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race will follow before Hamilton flies over to Europe to establish his base in Girona. He'll then head to a team training camp before heading to the Abu Dhabi Tour from February 23. The 2017 season for Hamilton will be one of learning and gaining experience with the long-term ambition of developing into a general classification rider for the Grand Tours. Despite no three-week race featuring on his programme this year, Hamilton is more than content with the make up of his calendar knowing it's year one of a potentially 15-year career in the top-tier of the sport.
"One thing that Sunweb has made clear to me is that they don’t want to throw me in the deep end. They want to have a long term programme with me and really develop me into being a GC rider," he said. "Which is good because it gives me a lot of confidence knowing what I am in for this year, I have my full programme and I am really happy with it. it is quite a relief to know there is no pressure on me, and I have time up my sleeve so there is no need to rush into this things."
Having demonstrated his GC potential and climbing capabilities at races such as Tour Down Under and the Herald Sun Tour, where he finished fourth, key to Hamilton's progression is working on his time trialling and developing his skills against the clock.
"More time on the time trial bike is just riding one in general," he said. "I have done really no work at all on a time trial bike and I have only ever done one time trial previously on a proper TT bike. It is not something that I have experience with at all. It is something we’ll be working on in the future especially at the team camps."