There were times during a mountainous last week of the Giro d'Italia when Michael Hepburn could have felt the Olympic Games were a long way off; as he continued to finish in the grupetto after working for his Orica-GreenEdge team leader Esteban Chaves.
Despite the labour of his three weeks in the Giro -started with limited road racing in his legs due to commitments as an Australian team pursuit squad member training for the Rio Games, Hepburn still found motivation and strength to help Chaves as much as he could. The Colombian climber finished second place overall and won stage 14 win to Corvara and wore the leader's ‘maglia rosa' - or pink jersey - for a day.
After the Corsa Rosa Hepburn's clear head and own drive to win an Olympic gold again prevailed. He knows the Games are now only two and half months away.
"They are coming quick. The last four years has flown by," Hepburn, 24, told Cyclingnews.
"I knew for while that this year was going to be a big year, combining [track and road] … and with the Olympics there this is the biggest goal of all. But in a race like the Giro - and when you are suffering away - it's great to have a guy like Esteban … and someone [like him] who is fighting for the overall position. It really helps the head and it does make it a lot easier and able to do your job."
The Giro was a hard slog for Hepburn and fellow Australian team pursuiter Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo) who also raced it off the back of little road racing and placed last of the 156 finishers, five hours down on overall winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Since the Tour Down Under in January, Hepburn's only road race before the Giro was the Tour de Romandie. For Bobridge, it was Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour de Romandie.
Asked how his track legs adapted to the road, Hepburn smiled.
"It's certainly been different. I could feel on the big mountains that I just [hadn't] done the work. I was suffering a little, early with Caleb Ewan [in sprints] and then with Esteban. One of the big differences having a general classification guy, rather than chasing stage wins or certain days, is that we have to be ‘on' every day. But Esteban is a fantastic guy. Everyone loves working for him."
How a pursuiter helped a GC contender
Hepburn explained why there is also a plus to having a purpose each day and needing to "be on."
"If you are focused and have a job every day, it is a little bit easier on the head," Hepburn said. "Physically it can be more challenging, but you have a reason to be out there."
And it helps when a leader like Chaves delivers with top results, as Chaves did by winning stage 14 to Corvara in the Dolomites five days before claiming the pink jersey the Alps. Hepburn was riding in the grupetto when he learned of the Colombian's stage victory.
"I heard it on the radio. I was coming through the 25km to go sign actually," Hepburn revealed.
"It was a bloody hard day, raced aggressively all day and with 5500m of climbing. "We were in the gruppetto chugging along, getting to the finish. I wasn't at all surprised. He is a great rider, was in great conditions and really took the race on that day. Hats off to him."
As a pursuiter, and at 76kg one of the larger riders on Orica-GreenEdge, Hepburn's main role during the Giro was focused on helping Ewan and his lead-out rider Luka Mezgec get in position for the sprints along with New Zealander Sam Bewley and Canadian Svein Tuft; or, again with Bewley and Tuft, protecting Chaves on the flatter or early parts of every stage.
"The reality is that when the road goes uphill we were not going to be able be there for Esteban," Hepburn said. "So on flat days, that is when it is most important for us to be on our game and looking out for Esteban – keep him out of the wind, always be aware if there are cross winds, or if there is something happening. We do our job, sit up [as the climbs come] and try to recover for the next day. Whether we finish 10 or 30 minutes down, it's not really relevant. We have a job to do. After that it is about recovery for the next day."
Re-focusing back on the track and Rio
Hepburn returned to the Australian track program last November with a view to racing for Olympic gold after leaving it for a sabbatical in 2013 as an individual and team pursuit world champion. He is confident that racing 3463km at the Giro d'Italia will reward him and Bobridge in Rio where Australia will be one of the favourites in the 4,000m team pursuit.
"Physically it is a massive road block – a massive strength block," explained Hepburn of the Giro, which he also finished on his debut in 2014 (154th overall) and again last year (160th). "You need that base, and after that you can freshen up and start to work on the intensity."
"There is a lot of work to be done in the next couple of months. This is a completely different effort. The Giro is riding five or six hours a day below or at threshold and getting that aerobic system strong. But the team pursuit is less than four minutes, and it's about massive, massive power. The Giro provides a good platform for the next couple of months."
Hepburn said after taking a post Giro recovery at his European base in Girona in Spain, the plan for he and Bobridge is to "join back up" with the Australian track squad at the end of the month for a training camp in Arizona.
While the pair are on different road teams, during the Giro they often caught up "every day out there in the peloton" for some team pursuit chat.
"We have had the same preparation and spent a lot of time together in the last couple of months, and will be in the next couple of months. We have got some good work done and I look forward to the next few months," Hepburn concluded.