The 2017 season will be Michael Hepburn's sixth in the WorldTour with Orica-BikeExchange with the 25-year-old totally committed to the road following a return to the track this year which yielded a sixth rainbow jersey, and second silver medal in the team pursuit.
"I had some memorable moments, some great moments with the young guys and I created some new friendships. The programme had changed a lot since I was there a few years ago," he said. "Going into it, I didn't know half the staff or half the young riders. Obviously, I had been with Jack [Bobridge] and Alex [Edmondson] before. In the end, it didn't quite work out as he had planned and hoped but along the way we had some great times with World Cup victories, World Championships, and some really fast rides. Also, some great experiences like what we did at Worlds and the build up with how it came together and how it gelled was really nice to see. It was one of those races where we raced above and beyond what we were capable of because everything came together at the perfect time and that was great.
"Rio was a really nice experience as well. It didn't quite go as we hoped but we did a great time and great ride in the final and there wasn't a hell of a lot we could do," he added. "I look back very proud of that. I would love to get a gold medal some day but maybe it's not meant to be for me."
The Rio team pursuit final was the second of Hepburn's career after the 2012 London Games where Team GB also got the better of the Australians. While the result was ultimately not the one Hepburn his teammates were after, the performance was one he couldn't fault as he explained.
"In London, we were beaten fair and square by a huge margin and we weren't in the ballpark there. In Rio, one, we did a hell of a ride and it was a spectacular ride and it is probably my favourite team pursuit race ever which is weird because we didn't win," he said. "I have also had some great races with GB over the years and Worlds was special but that was just one hell of a race. As it was in the Worlds, it always is with our two countries, and we couldn't have done a hell of a lot different so you have to look back and be proud of it and we are."
Hepburn was one of the few WorldTour professionals racing the track at the Rio games so once the events on the velodrome had concluded, a short break was followed by a return to his day job with Orica-BikeExchange.
"It was really challenging and difficult after the games to keep the head on at the start. So much goes into that year, preparation wise and mental energy as well there is this massive release after the track is finished," he said. "You sort of had a little bit of uncertainty, you don't really know exactly what you want to be doing. I started racing a few weeks later, getting my head kicked in at Tour of Britain, which I expected. It was just really difficult at first to get fit again and get your head around going back to these races when guys have been racing all year and you have put on weight for the track and all this. I always had the Worlds team time trial as a goal in the back of my head so that made it a little bit easier knowing I would have an opportunity at the end of the year to do the event that I love."
Having also raced the Eneco Tour with Orica-BikeExchange to get some road miles into his legs, Hepburn's final race of the year was to be the Worlds team time trial. It would be Hepburn's fourth appearance in the event and despite claiming silver medals at the Toscana and Tuscany Worlds, the bronze medal result in Doha proved to be the perfect send off to season 2016.
"The form wasn't looking great which made it more difficult but eventually on the day it came together really well with the guys and I personally produced a good ride. The team did a great ride and got onto the podium," he said. "We have been on the podium a few times before but it is getting harder and harder every year. I think with what we had, a couple of guys like Alex and myself racing on the track, it wasn't ideal preparation but to be 30-40 seconds off the victory was really nice and I think all the riders and staff deserved that medal."
2017 time trial ambitions and consistency
Hepburn has decided that he is "not going to be touching the track bike or riding the track anymore" with his focus on becoming a more all-around cyclist on the road with the ambitions of improving against the clock, in individual and team time trials, and helping the team build in its successful 2016.
"I'll be racing the Australian summer like all the Australians, it's a pretty important period for our team," Hepburn said of his early race programme which is currently being decided upon in full with team management. "I would love to be in Belgium next year for the classics. The team has come a long way in this races and I would love to do a grand tour. Next year is the 100th Giro so who knows if I will be there."
In 2014-15, Hepburn was a key engine in the Orica squad which powered to opening day team time trial success. With the rise of the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves as genuine podium contenders at the Grand Tours, Hepburn explained the team event is becoming key to overall aspirations and is keen to help the team ensure it remains a strength going forward.
"Time trials are something I have always enjoyed and the team time trial is becoming such an important event now. Not just at the Worlds, look at the stage we won at the Giro and taking the leader's jersey from the team time trial and then a few years back with the guys at the Tour," he said. "It is such an important discipline that all teams are going to focus on that. The individual and the team time trial is something I want to keep doing. I have a long way to go with both time trial and it is something I want to work on and improve on and start consistently getting results.
"I also want to improve on the races in Belgium and become more of a well-rounded rider."
Riding for Chaves
The 2016 Giro, Hepburn's third in succession, saw the team enter the Corsa Rosa with the aim of doing the best possible race for Chaves. The Colombian finished the race in second place overall having also won a stage and worn the pink jersey on the penultimate day. With the team riding for GC, it was a new experience for Hepburn but one that was more "inspiring" and "motivating" than previous Giro's as he explained.
"At the end of three weeks you are beat up and hammered. If you have no job to do you are riding along in the bunch, feeling sorry for yourself, you want to go home," he said. "But when you have a real important job to do, and you are working for a big leader and a champion guy, that certainly helps a lot and helps you stay switched on in those tougher times."
For many people, 2016 was the season they were introduced to Chaves and his infectious smile. For Hepburn though, it's been over five years since he first crossed paths with Chaves at the Tour de l'Avenir, the 'race of the future', were both riders enjoyed success.
"I first met Esteban at the 2011 Tour de l'Avenir, a race he won and was a big breakthrough for him," said Hepburn of the race where he won the prologue. "Then he had his accident and had a lot of bad luck. For a long time, a lot of people didn't know he was going to ride his bike again. I didn't have much to do with him in 2011, we raced against each other, but then think I met him at the end of 2013 and didn't know a whole lot about his story. Obviously, the team was checking him out and interested in him and he was a big talent.
"Right from the start you could see his determination and will to come back. I don't know if that is just him or from those tough experiences that came. An absolutely fabulous guy, very determined and a great character to have around. He will take time out his day to go through things with each of the riders. He doesn't expect people to work for him, it is definitely a two-way street and he doesn't think he is any better than the guy who is riding on the front for him or anything like that. He has definitely started to shine the last year or two and so he should. He is an absolutely great rider and I think he is an unbelievable guy as well. I think he will go on to some big things."
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