After spending much of his first two years at Orica-GreenEdge on secondment to the Australian track programme, 2014 marks something of a fresh start for Michael Hepburn as he turns his attention exclusively to the road.
On the boards, Hepburn has reached the summit of his art, claiming the world title in the individual pursuit in Minsk last year, as well as being part of the Australian quartet that took silver in the team pursuit at the London 2012 Olympics.
On the road, however, the 22-year-old has understandably yet to make a major impact at professional level, but with the Rio Olympics still two and half years away, the time was right to step away from the track. Hepburn's first full road campaign began in earnest with the Tour of Qatar on Sunday, but the early signs from the Australian summer were promising, as he claimed the national time trial championship ahead of teammate Luke Durbridge.
"It feels like a bit of a new beginning. I've never started this early but I think Qatar will be good preparation for the next few races," Hepburn told Cyclingnews in Al Wakra on Sunday.
By his own admission, beating his contemporary Durbridge provided Hepburn with "some much-needed confidence" ahead of an important year in his development. "In terms of the track, I'm not really sure of what lies ahead, I'm just looking forward to racing with my teammates on the road a bit more this year," he said.
While Hepburn lost over 16 minutes on the windswept opening stage in Qatar, he has the potential to shine on Tuesday's 10-kilometre time trial around the Lusail motor racing circuit, although he warned that much would depend on how he came through the first two days of the race.
"It's definitely something that I've looked at and I've done a few sessions to prepare for it, but in this race, it's not like you can just take it easy for the first couple of days and arrive at the time trial fresh," Hepburn said, adding that his priority in Qatar and Oman is simply to get a solid block of racing in his legs.
"In terms of my development as well it's important for me to race every day hard and take as much as I can from guys like Mat Hayman. The time trial is a goal, but I'm really looking forward to testing myself in these racing conditions as well."
After his 12 days of racing in the Persian Gulf, Hepburn's first European outing of the season will come at Paris-Nice, before he heads north for a stint on the cobbles. A place on the GreenEdge roster for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix may be beyond him at this early juncture, but the Brisbane man is keen to clock up some more experience in Belgium.
"I'm not down for Flanders and Roubaix, but I'll do some of the semi-Classics before them. Last year, I did Dwars door Vlaanderen and De Panne, but they were my first races of the season so I was a little bit underdone," he said. "Still, I really enjoyed the racing and the style, and I think it's the type of racing I can do well in one day. The more racing I do there now, the better."
A Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España is a distinct possibility at the tail end of the year, but Hepburn's priority for 2014 is simply to accumulate by osmosis the experience that comes from putting together a full campaign on the road.
"I haven't picked any particular race or day that I would like to win, although I'd like to ride a Grand Tour, ride the team time trial at the Worlds and keep progressing in the Belgian races," he said. "There are a few goals but there isn't really one day that I'm looking for in particular."
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