Newly crowned Australian time trial champion Luke Durbridge has arrived at the 2019 Santos Tour Down Under ready to help his Mitchelton-Scott teammate Daryl Impey try to defend his title before he turns his attention to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix back in Europe.
Durbridge was, he admits, "over the moon" after preventing time trial world champion Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) from taking a fourth straight national title against the clock on Tuesday.
"I didn't actually expect to win," Durbridge told Cyclingnews ahead of heading out training from Adelaide on Friday. "I thought I had a good shot, but I didn't expect to beat Rohan – the world champion – especially after the road race. I didn't know how I'd recover."
Durbridge spent much of the Nationals road race in the four-man breakaway, alongside his brother-in-law – and eventual winner – Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast), his Mitchelton teammate Alex Edmondson, and Chris Harper (Team BridgeLane), eventually finishing fourth.
Two days later, Durbridge demonstrated his good form, rather than any tired legs, by taking his third national time trial title, having also won in 2012 and 2013. His last time trial win – his last race win – had been at the 2017 Driedaagse De Panne. Did Durbridge ever doubt that he could get back to the level required to beat Dennis and win the national title?
"When Rohan and I first came on the scene, we were sort of neck and neck when it came to time trialling, but then Rohan really stepped up his game, and I seemed to... just not up my game," Durbridge laughed.
"What I mean is, I started to focus more on my road racing ability, but I've been working hard on my time trial for a long time, and just not really seeing the benefits of that work. It's funny how those things can take years to really come to fruition, and I really feel that it all came together this week.
"But what happened wasn't a fluke ride," he continued. "It's something I've really been working on, and Rohan has made us all up our game.
"You do sometimes bang your head against a brick wall and think that maybe you've reached your level," Durbridge admitted, "but you sort of quietly don't believe that, either. You've just got to keep believing a little bit, and sometimes it's a bit of blind faith, I guess. You think, 'Hopefully it's going to come,' and it did come. I've been working really hard over the last couple of years – and actually, back in Perth, Michael Freiberg and I had been really working on getting our form right for January, and he won the road race and I won the time trial, so it's worked out well."
And it's worked out considerably better than at last year's national championships, when the time trials were run ahead of the road race. Durbridge finished second to Dennis in the TT, more than a minute down, and then crashed heavily on the descent on the road race circuit, breaking his collar bone and injuring his neck.
It meant that he missed last year's Tour Down Under, and went into the Classics season back in Europe feeling decidedly underdone.
"Yeah – it hurt me last year," said Durbridge. "My Classics were definitely 'down' compared to the year before, when I was running top fives and stuff in some of the bigger races, so I definitely suffered last year because of the crash.
"It just meant that I was missing that five per cent, and when you're lacking five per cent in the biggest races in the world, you know that, when you're up against all the big guys, it's important," he said.
"So I was pretty disappointed by last year – especially at the Classics, having come away empty handed, despite a lot of support from the team – so I'm hoping that this year is going to be different."
Despite having been a pro for seven years – for the same Mitchelton-Scott team, and its various guises over the years – at still only 27, time is still very much on Durbridge's side. And the cobbled Classics – and the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix, in particular, which the Australian singles out as the races he'd most like to win – often reward age and experience.
"I've always had better results at Flanders," said Durbridge, who finished 12th at the 2017 race. "But I love both Flanders and Roubaix, having grown up watching them on TV."
Although Durbridge lives in Andorra – increasingly becoming the European residence of choice for pro riders, in favour of still-popular Girona, in Spain – he told Cyclingnews that he rents a house in Belgium for a month before the Classics each year.
"You're always behind the Belgians. They always have so much more knowledge of those races than you do," he explained. "But I'm getting better at knowing where you turn left, where you turn right, where to save energy and where not to, and I'm hoping that it will all come together this year, and that I can get a good result over there.
"I mean, I've been preparing for the Classics over the off-season, and my training has been based on doing well there, which is why I was a little bit surprised about winning the TT at the Nationals. I've been doing a bit of TT training, but really with a view to the Classics. I'm in that build phase, still, at the moment: if you peak too quickly in January, you can often find out in March that you've burned the candle too much. So I've definitely left myself some room to move."
Being in Belgium and northern France in March and April, at his rented house in Ghent, is, said Durbridge, the highlight of his season.
"It's like the Grand Final of the AFL" – Aussie Rules football – "for us. It's just huge there in Belgium. It's got that vibe; everyone's loving it."
For now, in the sunshine at the Tour Down Under, defending Impey's crown at what is their teammate Mat Hayman's last race as a pro, the Classics still seem a long way off. But this is where the groundwork is laid.
"I would now be doing my eighth TDU in a row if I hadn't missed last year," said Durbridge. "I love this race. It's one of my favourites of the year. As an Australian, you never really get much of a chance to race in front of a home crowd, so being here to support a teammate like Daryl is going to be great.
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