In September last year, Michael Hepburn announced his intention to make a return to the track and claim a place in the Rio Olympics team pursuit squad. In his first competitive team pursuit race in over two years, the 24-year-old was part of the squad that set a new national record of 3:53.010 to claim gold in the Cambridge Track World Cup round in December.
Hepburn's quest for gold in Rio started at the Australian national championships earlier this month before heading to Adelaide for the Tour Down Under, riding the majority of the six-stage race on the front of the peloton for Orica-GreenEdge who claimed four stage wins and the overall with Simon Gerrans.
"A little bit of both, obviously coming here with Caleb and Simon we are really targeting every stage so there are guys to help Caleb in the finish, there are guys to help Simon as well in the finish of the race," Hepburn told Cyclingnews of his role in the team for the Tour Down Under. "Then we have a couple of guys like myself and Durbo [Luke Durbridge] who are in charge of the stuff earlier on and keeping the breakaways in check. It's just my job for the race. I knew coming into the race that this was going to be my job and I think it will help the track stuff as well. Just a big block on the road, I haven't got a whole lot of road racing at the start of the year so I am just making the most of it."
Having completed his road miles for the month, Hepburn will return to the velodrome at next week's Australian track nationals to get some further experience on the boards in the build up to Rio.
"I am going to stay in Adelaide the week after the race for the track nationals after this and hopefully the Worlds as well in London. I just need that little bit more track time as well so I am trying to get every session I can in and get a lot more comfortable riding the track again before the serious part with the Olympic build up later in the year," the three-time team pursuit world champion said of track programme.
Hepburn's run into the 2012 London Olympic Games, where Australia finished second to Great Britain in the gold medal final, included the Melbourne World Championships in which he won gold in the individual pursuit and silver in the team pursuit. Asked how he would compare his preparation for a second Olympic Games appearances to four years prior, Hepburn explained "I am feeling pretty confident about things. We have a really good group with about 10-15 guys in the squad and a lot guys with a shot of going to the Olympics," he said.
"Before London we probably only had four-five guys really in the mix, and there were a couple of us who knew we were always going to ride. It's that healthy level of competition, and Tim Decker is doing a great job with the young guys who are improving even, last week in Hong Kong [World Cup round which Australia won, ed]. Even with a young squad they can ride sub-four minute times. I am feeling really good, obviously we still have guys like Jack and Alex [Edmondson] and I am really enjoying being back with them and riding quick. I think we still have a lot of room to work with and a bit of time to get quicker before August."
Considering Hepburn has stepped back from the track over the last few seasons, Cyclingnews asked if he found there to be any significant changes to team pursuiting in the intervening years.
"I've noticed a few difference just in terms of the training, it's a different sort of environment now with new staff, a new coach to what I was used to and there a lot of new riders as well," he reflected. "Before the last camp, I hadn't met or ridden with half the guys but I've only been on the track for a month so I am still getting used to it and trying to get that feeling that back. At the moment it's looking good and I am looking forward to the next little bit on the track to see what we can do."
Speaking with Jack Bobridge, Cyclingnews asked the Australian national champion how he has seen Hepburn's return to the track.
"Heppy's performance in NZ was pretty incredible considering he had two years off and only did a couple of weeks here with us in Adelaide," Bobridge said. "It's pretty exciting for the whole group to think what he'll be able to give us in Rio once he's spent that extra time on the track and does all the smaller things that we do now for team pursuiting."
The track focus doesn't end in Rio for Hepburn, who suggested he would consider an attempt on the UCI Hour Record, despite Bradley Wiggins setting the bar rather high at 54.526 kilometres, in the coming years.
"I'd love to but I think that would still be a long way away," he said of attempting the hour record. "With what Wiggins has done, not many people will stick their hand up for a fair while, and he's set a pretty high mark. I wouldn't rule it out for three or four years down the track. I really enjoy the track and obviously, I've had great success so the track is quite special to me but he's certainly taken it to a level now that I don't think too many guys will have a crack at."
First, Hepburn will need to change the mind of Orica-GreenEdge sports director Matt White who ruled out an attempt on the UCI Hour Record by Hepburn, stating.
"I am pretty sure he is of the same ability as Rohan [Dennis] and Jack [Bobridge]. But what we have planned for Hepburn didn't align with going for the hour record … in this season," White said in December 2014.
Before any possible Hour Record attempt, though, Hepburn will return to trade team duties post-Rio as he builds up to October's World Championships in Doha, Qatar looking for his first gold medal on the road.
After the Olympics, I'll head to Europe and start preparing for the World Championships in the team time trial. There are a few races like Britain and Eneco, which I'll probably do, so the Olympics won't be the end of my year," he said.
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