Moving from his European base of Andorra to Gent early in 2016 paid dividends for Luke Durbridge, with the Orica-BikeExchange rider enjoying his best classics campaign to date. The 25-year-old was 18th in Paris-Roubaix – as teammate Mat Hayman tasted victory on the 15th attempt – to signal he is heading in the right direction and ready for a big 2017 on the pave.
While the classics will be the main aim of the spring, Durbridge will also focus on getting back to his best against the clock with the Tour de France stage 1 time trial set as his second major season ambition.
"I would say it was a good classics season, as obviously I didn't get any major results but it was a really good progression to what I have been trying to work towards," Durbridge told Cyclingnews at the team's recent Winery Ride event. "I moved to Belgium, I lived in Gent for a month, tried to learn the roads, and I think that really helped with me making more of the final selection. I saw when the race really went, I got to see when guys would attack to win the race when normally you are dropped before that."
Durbridge first rode Paris-Roubaix in 2013, rolling into the velodrome in 100th place. He improved to 90th the next year but dropped down to 102nd in 2015. This year marked a vast improvement with his first top-20 result in a monument.
A classics campaign that started with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, featured a third place overall at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde and finished in the Roubaix velodrome, may not look impressive on paper. For Durbridge though, the spring was his best yet as he was consistently at the pointy end and could see when the race-winning moves were made.
"I was always within that last 30 guys at the classics, so I had some good races but nothing on paper to show 'this is a good result'. For me personally, it was good to know that I can be there, and now I have to perform within this group. It is a hard one to quantify as you look back on the results and see 18th is the best, but if you are consistently at the pointy end of those races, then it is a good race. 2016 was a good progression classics season."
Adding to the significance of Durbridge's campaign was the Paris-Roubaix victory for Hayman.
"I arrived and then I was riding around the velodrome thinking it had been a reasonable day. I had some bad luck so I was thinking what could have been and this and that and then all of a sudden I saw Mat's won the race and I forget about whatever I was thinking about," he recounted of the day. "It was just elation. I was jumping up and down. For a guy who has done so many and such a team player in every aspect, one, it gave me hope that maybe there is an opportunity.
"Hayman wasn't the favourite, he wasn't the favourite at all but that's what Roubaix is. You can have your day and Hayman worked so hard for so many years to have his day. He kept hoping that that day would come so it was pretty special to be a part of."
Durbridge's stint in Belgium also opened his eyes to the love of the pave and the importance of the races on a social level. While Roubaix is the race better suited to his characteristics, Durbridge explained that he has a greater appreciation for all the races across the classics period.
"It's just amazing, the people live and breathe that Flanders weekend and you start to feed off that as well. For my strengths, I think I am a little more suited to Roubaix, as Flanders is nearly two-and-a-half, three thousand metres of climbing. I wouldn't shy away from giving both of them a crack as I probably love them equally."
With the retirement of Fabian Cancellara, and Tom Boonen to also hang up the wheels after the 2017 Paris-Roubaix, the future absence of the two dominant forces of the classics for over a decade will open up opportunities for a new generation of riders. Durbridge is hoping he can be one such beneficiary.
"I wouldn't want to be unrealistic. I am progressing and becoming one of those guys and I really want to keep on working. I think next year will be a good gauge for me to try and get an up-there result and solidify what people and myself expect in the classics," he said. "I won't say once those guys have gone I am going I step up and win a race in the classics. Personally, I love those races and that is one, a big winning goal, two, I really want to go well in them. Three, they suit me. I really want to step up and hopefully get some big results in the future but I couldn't give you a timeline on it. I am going to keep going every single year and if it is next year, or like Maty in 15 years time, it is what it is. I am going to keep going every year and try to hold onto that hope it will happen for me."
Tour de France success
Durbridge's first Grand Tour was a tough introduction to three-week racing at the weather-affected 2013 Giro d'Italia. The next year was a better race as he helped the team win the opening-day team time trial and wore the young riders jersey. The team time trial victory was repeated in 2015 as Orica-BikeExchange shared the pink jersey around for the first week.
The Tour de France, by comparison, had been a luckless affair until 2016 for Durbridge. The flame rouge incident with Adam Yates on stage 7 suggested the bad luck would continue for Durbridge, but it all turned around a few days later on the road to Revel with the team pulling off a breakaway spectacular and delivering Michael Matthews to the win.
"We started in Andorra where I live, and for me to make that breakaway was a big deal as we started up the 27km climb, which is not normal for me," he said of stage 10. "So when I made the group I was like 'I am lucky to be here' and then we also had three teammates there. Even then when Sagan split it and put it in the gutter, there were only seven guys left, including us three. We were thinking we are the ideal situation but we could look pretty stupid if we mess this up. Daryl [Impey] rode so fantastically and Matthews rode really smart. There is no question that Matthews still had to beat Sagan, [Edvald] Boasson Hagen and [Greg] Van Avermaet and that is no mean feat. He is a freak."
The stage win, Orica-BikeExchange's first since 2013, erased the bad luck of the last two years and helped the team focus on helping Adam Yates to fourth overall and the best young rider jersey during the team's first Tour in which the general classification was the overall ambition.
"I had been part of two Tour's previously, and we had had a lot of bad luck. We had lots of our guys crash out, we had GC guys crash out, so after the last few years we were thinking we have to get some good luck in this race. When Matthews won, it think it was for everyone involved for the last two years," he said.
"The Tour de France for the general public is the biggest race, and for the riders, it is the biggest race in the world. Without Tour de France success, even if you won 30 races for the year, it can kind of look like an unsuccessful season because of what happened at the Tour de France. That's how much pressure the Tour de France is so when that happens, I think everyone was thinking 'that was fantastic, it was such a great moment' but there is also a bit of relief in there as well."
Having supporting staff at the team bus each day, and the directors and mechanics in the car ensured the race went like clockwork and left Durbridge to focus on his job.
"For a guy like me there is never a day off. You always have a mission to make sure they are into the last climb or bottom of certain climbs, that they don't lose time in the sprint, crosswinds. So all day you are switched on and you are worried about your man so he can switch off," he said. "The more stress you do, they can switch off. It was the quickest Grand Tour ever for me because each day I had an objective to look after a GC favourite or a potential stage winner so I had a job every day. For me, that made the grand tour really purposeful and also it went super quick. I loved it."
Post-Tour, Durbridge rode a series of one-day races before claiming a second Duo Normand title in preparation for the Doha Worlds.
Having re-focused on his time trialing, Durbridge was one the Orica-BikeExchange riders selected for the Worlds team time trial, where the bronze medal result was almost as good as gold.
"We have been third before, second twice, so we have been on the podium a lot. A lot of people are asking, 'Are you disappointed to be on the podium but miss the top step?' But this year was slightly different. We had a few guys come in from the Olympics who had done no road kilometres, so we got together for one day in Doha and we were really, really happy with that result. It was a huge result for us because we knew that we didn't have all the guys in form, and that is the hardest thing about the Worlds. It was so late and you need all the team in form. We didn't necessarily have all that many guys in great form but we knew that we had to ride to our best of our ability to medal.
"It was one of my favourite rides of the year. It was a bronze medal, sure, but we gave it absolutely everything with the team that we had. We had young guys, we had guys who had hardly ridden, we had injured guys coming in and things like that. It was real tactical, like a chess-game effort out on the road to win the bronze medal. There was no, 'Ah, we ran third again'. We were quite happy with third."
Time trial re-focus for 2017
There is no doubting Durbridge's love of time trialling, so it's no real surprise the two-time Australian champion against the clock is looking to work on the skill which first brought him to prominence in the WorldTour.
"I am a time triallist and I love time trialling. I love the aerodynamics, the effort, how you push yourself. That sort of thing. It's just you out there on the road against the clock," said Durbridge, who penned a two-year extension with the team this season. "I am going to continually try to improve that throughout the season and every opportunity I have. Unless I have ridden the front for five days straight, which happens, I will always give a time trial a good crack. I am hoping next year I get another opportunity, get a few good opportunities throughout the year, to prove myself that I can be up there with some of the best in the time trial, for sure."
Currently unsure whether he will be in the form and condition to challenge for a third national title in January, the first stage of the Tour de France in Dusseldorf is where Durbridge will focus his energies. While at 13km the stage is short, Durbridge has performed well in short tests against the clock and will aim to improve upon his 32nd place at the 2015 Tour opener, where it was another Australian, Rohan Dennis, who rode to the win and into the yellow jersey.
"I was third in the Tour de Suisse prologue, which was only 6km, so for sure I am going to give it a crack," he said. "I would love to get out there and be right up there at the pointy end in Dusseldorf."