By this point in the year, Owain Doull was meant to have 12 race days and two WorldTour outings under his belt across a six-week block in the Australian summer. As it is, the 23-year-old finds himself in Abu Dhabi this week only now making his road debut as a fully-fledged professional.
“I was throwing up and stuff for two or three days and I thought it was just a bit of stomach bug, and it died down for a while but then I woke up middle of night with a stabbing pain in my abdomen, and that’s when we knew I needed to go to hospital straight away,” he told Cyclingnews ahead of the opening stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, where he did indeed make it through the start line.
“I was lucky. We were close to a really good hospital, and had a really good doctor on the team, so it was diagnosed pretty quickly. Within an hour or so of it rupturing, I was on my way to the hospital and was operated on three or four hours later.”
Having trained hard over the winter to be in good shape in January for Down Under, the Cadel Evans Race, and the Herald Sun Tour – even arriving in Australia two weeks in advance – it was a significant setback.
“In terms of where I was at, it was frustrating. It was taking a few steps back, and I’d worked pretty hard over the winter to be in a good place to start the year so that was a bit of a pain, but I guess better to have it now at the start of the year rather than the end of the year,” said Doull.
“It was pretty annoying to be honest but there’s nothing you can do. There was nothing I did that made it happen, nothing the team did, it’s just one of those things, it’s completely out of your control so there’s no point dwelling on it, I guess. It was frustrating, don’t get me wrong - I was gutted at the time - but looking back now, you kind of just accept it and move on pretty quick.”
Doull, with a confident and laid-back manner you might not expect from a neo-pro bracing himself for a first foray into the WorldTour peloton, shrugs the ordeal off as "not ideal”, but it has nevertheless jeopardized the focal point of his season – the spring Classics.
That’s where the Welshman sees his future, and he was set to get his first taste of Belgian one-day racing this weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, with a view to making the Sky teams for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“The plan originally was to do all of [Australia] then start at Nieuwsblad and Kuurne, and not be here. But that would be too much now, coming as the first race of the year. This is a nicer way in, four good days of racing, a bit more relaxed, a few bunch sprints, and just easier racing to be honest."
The opening weekend would have been a good way for Doull to ease himself into the Classics at professional level, with most of the top riders guarding their top form for when the important spring races come thick and fast towards the end of March. He could also have staked a claim for a space in the line-up for the bigger races, though he insists those races are still within his reach and still the main focus of his season.
“My programme is a bit up in the air after what happened – I only had the operation four weeks ago – so I don’t know when [the first taste of Classics] will be, but hopefully it will just be the next Classic. Originally, I was down for Milan-San Remo but I don’t think that’ll be the case anymore – it would be too much of an ask,” he said.
“I’ve been training fully for a good few weeks now – it was just over a month ago now – and it’s going well. I think I’m still missing a bit, but it’s nice to be back racing and on the right track to being where I want to be and making that Classics group.”
Doull has no great expectations in Abu Dhabi beyond getting the ball rolling and the kilometres ticking, though he will be called upon to make sure Elia Viviani is well positioned for the bunch sprints. After that, and after hopefully getting a decent spring campaign under his belt, Doull wants to grab a win for himself.
“I think it will be a smaller race obviously, where I’d get my own chance, but I want to take my chances as they come,” he said. "In 2015 I had a good year, a good Tour of Britain and stuff, and that was a couple of years ago now, so I’m ready, it’s there – it’s just about finishing it off.”