Leigh Howard (Orica GreenEdge) didn't grow up aspiring to tackle the cobbled classics of Belgium and so the results so far acquired in his first campaign of his four-year professional career have come as somewhat of a surprise.
"San Remo's the one classic that I do want to win and think I can win one day," he revealed to Cyclingnews. "It's my style of racing but in saying that, now that I'm getting a taste of the Belgian-style classics, I'm enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would."
Howard's results at Dwars Door Vlaanderen where he was 26th and at Gent-Wevelgem where he was 25th might not look much on paper apart from consistent however, it's when you consider his inexperience that the race eventualities comes into their own. Had it not been for some bad luck at Dwars Door Vlaanderen as he hit the Oude Kwaremont with another rider dropping their chain just ahead, forcing the Australian off-road and bringing his momentum to a grinding halt, Howard believed the result could have been better. Missing the split at Gent-Wevelgem proved costly otherwise, Howard had been attentive at the front of the race. It's that constant battle for position, that Howard is finding that he's enjoying but as a rider who tends to take a fairly analytical approach to racing, there's more to it than that.
"They say that from kilometre zero right through to the finish you have to fight for position," he explained. "I find that in a sense that's true but there's one decisive point in a race where it really splits up and if you're in good position then, the fighting becomes a lot easier and it comes down more to the legs. That's the part that I enjoy a lot more."
A definitive sprinter, this time of year is exposing Howard to a style of racing that he doesn't encounter any other time. Given in previous seasons Howard had just wrapped up track world championship campaigns, where he claimed two rainbow jerseys with Cameron Meyer in the Madison, the timing had never been right to take on the cobbled classics. And so Howard put his hand up for this year's races, with the aim of banking experience for the seasons ahead.
"I thought I wouldn't quite have the strength and the endurance but it hasn't seemed to be an issue," he admitted. "I've certainly had good legs."
A podium at the Tour of San Luis, followed by two race wins in Mallorca, and then another podium at Paris-Nice is proof that Howard's efforts to really step up and be counted in a team that boasts more than a few fast men are paying off. Training in the hills has taken a backseat; more time has been spent behind the motorbike. It's given Howard an extra "10 to 15 revs" and finding top speed comes a lot more naturally.
"When I look at the training I've been doing it's almost the opposite - it's very specific to my sprinting and not so much the classics style, long endurance kilometres," the 23-year-old explained. "It's a mix of just having extra power on the shorter climbs as well as just maturing, getting older. This is my fourth year professional so I'm getting a few years under my belt now so they're slowly building up in the legs.
"I've been sprinting a lot better. Last year was difficult - I only won one race [at the Tour of Britain, ahead of Cavendish - ed.] but I spent a lot of the year helping out teammates in the lead out which was fine by me, but it's good this year that I've got a bit more responsibility and I've been given the opportunity straight away from Argentina and Mallorca and I was already winning races."
This week, Howard is racing the Three Days of De Panne and with targets like the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of California just over the horizon, he's keen to get an indication of just where he's at in relation to some of the best sprinters in the world.
"When you look at the field it's basically every sprinter that's going to be at the Tour de France," he said. "If I can pull a result in the next two or three days then it shows that I'm certainly where I need to be as far as my sprinting ability goes."
As a sports journalist and producer since 1997, Jane has covered Olympic and Commonwealth Games, rugby league, motorsport, cricket, surfing, triathlon, rugby union, and golf for print, radio, television and online. However her enduring passion has been cycling.
Jane is a former Australian Editor of Cyclingnews from 2011 to 2013 and continues to freelance within the cycling industry.
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