Twelve months ago Owain Doull touched down in Australia to embark upon his WorldTour debut at the Tour Down Under. However, the Welshman never made it to the start line after being diagnosed with appendicitis.
A year on and Doull is back in Adelaide and ready to put last year's experience behind him as he builds up to the Spring Classics. His season is set to be split into two distinct halves with the Classics the main priority before the emphasis shifts to making the Vuelta a España squad. In a contract year, Doull is well aware that he needs to hit the ground running.
"It's a contract year, so it's an important one. They say that the second contract is always the hardest one to get because there's a lot of promising and aspiring rides at U23 level, so it's a big year for me," he tells Cyclingnews as he outlines his support role at the Tour Down Under.
Team Sky have sent a relatively young team to the Australian WorldTour race, a change in stance given that the last few squads have included the likes of Sergio Henao, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas. Only two of the team in Adelaide this time around have enjoyed Grand Tour experience, while the team includes neo-pros Egan Bernal, Chris Lawless and Kristoffer Halvorsen.
For Doull the plan is relatively simple – stay fit and healthy and use last year as a marker for the coming campaign.
"Up until this point last year it was fine, but then I had appendicitis. Hopefully, this year, I'll get to race and touch wood nothing else happens. At least there's no appendix to take out this year.
"That said, I think that it messed up most of my year, to be honest. The Classics were always the main aim for me and I was able to make them and got back to a decent level. But, I wasn't quite right and felt like I was always chasing my form. I felt like I was in a bit of a hole for most of last year and it wasn't until the back-end of the year when I started to freshen up and feel like myself. The year was so up and down and the appendicitis really knocked me for six. This year I just want to have a healthy balance."
So far Doull has had everything he's wished for. He raced deep into 2017 and became one of the key riders that helped the now departed Elia Viviani to a string of wins in the second half of the campaign. January has seen him rack up the miles in training and he has a strong programme that should, in theory, take him all the way through to the velodrome in Paris-Roubaix come April.
"I'm going to do Flanders and Roubaix. The Classics will be the main focus for me in the first part of the season. They're the races I get excited about and they're the reason I've taken such a short break over the winter and come out here and trained for. It's all for those races and that's where I want to do well."
Doull's role in the Classics is set to be a repetition of 2017 too. He will be expected to do the early grunt work for the likes of Stannard, Geraint Thomas and Dylan van Baarle but with a year of WorldTour racing under his belt, the 24-year-old will be looking to go further into the races than before.
"Although Luke Rowe is out injured you can almost replace him with Dylan. Then the squad sizes are down to seven for the Classics, so they're not easy teams to make selections for. If I make then I'll probably be riding a similar role to 2017 and doing the early miles. That said I'll be coming into those races a year older and stronger and hopefully, I'll be able to go deeper into those races. I want to continue that progression and develop."
Of course the off-season at Team Sky – and in all of pro-cycling for that matter – has been dominated by the news of Chris Froome's positive test for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana. While the case rumbles on and the Team Sky management remain silent, it has been left to the rest of the riders to front up. For Doull, the situation is clear. He just wishes to keep his focus on his training, and his racing, and not let things he has no control over get in his way.
"I'm not going to speculate because it just adds fuel to the fire. Everything is out there now and the team and Chris are working with the UCI to help the investigation and we've just got to let it run its course," he said.
"I was at the team camp in December and it was pretty much business as usual. Everyone was working towards their own goals and getting their race programmes. For us, we're just working hard, keeping our heads down and there's no change."