For domestiques, flicking the switch from 'worker' to 'winner' can be a daunting task. Damien Howson presented 'exhibit A' in making the shift as he climbed to his first professional victory atop Falls Creek at the Herald Sun Tour. In doing so, the Orica-Scott rider stamped his authority on the race and will be favourite to claim the overall title Sunday afternoon around Kinglake.
"It doesn't change too much. All the way to 2km to go today when I put down the final attack I always had my teammates in my mind," Howson said when asked about changing his focus from domestique to potential leader on the gradual 29km climb.
The former U23 world champion reinvented himself as a climbing domestique after his neo-pro years, excelling and developing at a similar rate to Orica-Scott's Grand Tour contender Esteban Chaves. Howson was the wingman to Chaves' successful 2016 campaign at the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana and Il Lombardia in particular.
"Esteban I know would be the first person to put his hand up and help me for the rest of the tour if that is the way it plays out. I would be very grateful for that but also, like I said, they are still within striking distance themselves, so if a move goes on one of these tough stages coming up, the roles could be turned around very quickly."
Along with taking his first professional victory, the experience of leading a stage race is new to Howson. The 24-year-old was calm when asked how he sees the race playing out, considering that Team Sky are unlikely to leave any stones unturned in their bid to defend Chris Froome's title.
Not only did Howson ride like a seasoned winner, but he also spoke the words of one.
"They are obviously one of the world's strongest teams so I can guarantee that they will throw everything they have. There are still a lot of tough stages to come, but I also have a very strong team around me and a lot of strong riders that are still in contention, so we'll see how the next couple of stages go," he said.
Jai Hindley is Howson's closest challenger at 38 seconds while Kenny Elissonde (Team Sky) is at 54 seconds. Froome meanwhile is fifth, 1:13 in arrears. The addition of the Stanley climb late on stage 2 is likely to allow the likes of Froome to edge closer to his lead, but it's stage 4 around Kinglake where the final GC shakedown is set to occur, and Howson is unfamiliar with the terrain.
"I actually have no idea. It is new territory for me. I know it is a tough circuit with four laps of this climb and from all reports, it is a tough climb," said Howson. He will also need to be wary of riders picking up bonus seconds at intermediate sprints and on the finish line. "Like I said it is one of the stages that could change the CG but no doubt my team are up for the challenge."
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