At Orica-Scott, the triumvirate of Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers are regarded as future Grand Tour winners following their breakout performances in the past 12-months. A key rider to the success of the trio working behind the scenes is Australian Damien Howson. The 24-year-old will shepherd Chaves and Simon Yates through the high mountains of France next month when he makes his Tour de France debut.
A former U23 time trial world champion, Howson has reinvented himself as a key domestique at Orica-Scott and become an indispensable member of its general classification squad. When given the opportunity at the Herald Sun Tour, Howson also proved his winning instinct and ability when he claimed the queen stage and the overall title.
With Tour de France selection on the cards since December, Howson explained to Cyclingnews the satisfaction of securing a place in the nine-man team for July.
"I am super excited and elated with emotion. I knew from December last year that it was a potential for my programme to be riding the Tour de France this year. Everything had to go smoothly, and I had to be racing well and be injury and illness free. I was relieved to hear that I had done everything that I could and that the team put me in the starting nine for the Tour de France," said Howson of the team, built around Chaves and Yates.
"The team saw me as a valuable asset to join forces with Esteban. Things can change, and it was never guaranteed. Just because Esteban was doing a Grand Tour doesn't mean I will follow in his footsteps all the time. On this occasion, that was the case."
A promising basketballer in his youth, Howson added that his decision to change sports was well and truly the right one ahead of his Tour debut.
"As much as I did enjoy basketball and that was a massive passion of mine growing up, I made a tough decision when I was 13 to give up a sport I had been trying to make it in since I was five and I was getting places in," the Adelaide local said. "Cycling took my fancy and I just worked through the ranks through the years to the top of the sport and I guess you can call the Tour de France the very top."
After impressing at the Tour de Romandie where he finished 11th on GC, Howson, Chaves and Sam Bewley headed to Colombia for a May training camp in preparation for the Tour de France. Staying in a hotel in Bogotá at 2,600m, the trio were accompanied by a chef, physio, a coach, and a mechanic to ensure total focus on the task at hand.
"We had a good time with hard training and obviously being at that serious form of altitude, hopefully it had a positive effect," he said of the experience. "It was great to focus on everything from nutrition to the training, recovery and also on the easier days we got to experience the local culture and cuisine. It was a good experience and I'd go back."
Howson and Chaves both returned to racing at the Criterium du Dauphine in June for one final hit out pre-Tour. Making it through the Tour 'dress rehearsal' unscathed, Howson is now firmly focused on doing the best job possible on his debut at La Grande Boucle.
"I want to make it to Paris and do everything I can along the way until that stage but we have many ambitions with the team so for me, it is helping out and doing the best that I can to make sure that happens," he said of his objective for his fourth career Grand Tour.
"As a rider, to grow up only watching the Tour de France it is a race I have always wanted to compete in and that feeling that I am doing the world's biggest and most renowned bike race gives you that extra sense of achievement but also the nerves and excitement that comes along with it. I am mostly really excited to be a part of it and I'll treat it like anyone other race as much as I can. I am assuming that the environment of the Tour is going to be very different from what I have been told from every other rider and director that I have spoken with. And obviously there is a huge amount of support on the side of the road and that millions of people are also watching on television."
With the 2017 Tour de France starting with a 14km time trial in Dusseldorf and Howson a proven rider against the clock, it is the only stage of the race he will start with any personal ambition. For the remaining 3,526km of the race, he'll then be fully committed to his teammates and the team ambition.
"Stage 1 is only a short 14km time trial, so I guess the team looks at it from my role and what they need in coming stages, but I am sure I will have the freedom to give it a go. I will be happy to do that and in the back of my mind, I have the young rider jersey that I can potentially take after stage 1 and maybe hold it for a few stages," he said. "Personally, that would be a really nice thing, but the bigger objective is for when we hit the mountains. For me, that is why I am there, and I am more passionate about doing that role to the best of my ability."