Having revelled in the successes and wins of his teammates in his crafted role of a domestique, Damien Howson now knows the sweet taste of personal success.
The Orica-Scott rider proved his multi-faceted characteristics in defending the Herald Sun Tour yellow jersey he took on Thursday through to Sunday as he claimed overall success. The success was made all the sweeter by the fact that three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) finished down in sixth place.
The final stage circuit in Kinglake was Howson's final test in the leader's jersey, and the 24-year-old, who had never led a professional race before this week, passed the test with aplomb. In doing so, Orica-Scott claimed a third GC victory at Australia's oldest stage race in four years.
"It comes with a lot of honour," he said of joining a collection of winners that includes the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Froome, Robbie McEwen and Simon Gerrans. "There are a lot of prestigious names on that list so just looking at the trophy there on the presentation. I am really happy to join that list of guys. To get my first win only a couple of days ago and to continue all the way through and keep the yellow jersey on the final day, it's my first overall win ever. It is also nice to break into new territory for myself."
Midway through his second season as a neo-pro with Orica, Howson decided his future in the pro peloton rested on him becoming a specialist. The former U23 time trial world champion has since crafted out his niche as a domestique and key wingman to Esteban Chaves in the high mountains.
Third overall at last year's race, Howson started the 2017 edition as a domestique for the team with Chaves and Gerrans as the two leaders. He also spent the Tour Down Under last month as a workhorse on both flat and hilly stages. A stage 1 victory atop the 29km Falls Creek at the Herald Sun Tour was a coming of age for Howson, but there were still three days of racing to come before the job was done.
Despite the stress, he passed the test of the following stages with flying colours and in doing so, suggested his future potential as a general classification rider. He also added that his usual domestique role would be enhanced by greater understanding of what the job requirements are for leaders.
"You can never limit yourself on what you can accomplish in your career and it is always nice to get a win and I am happy to go back to that support role," a modest Howson explained. "I have gained a new amount of experience from being a leader and a new perspective that I can then take further knowledge into the races coming up when there is another leader and what they are thinking, what they are feeling with the pressures of the jersey on their shoulders. So I can then learn from that and ride more intelligently myself."
Orica-Scott has a packed squad of young GC riders led by Chaves and the Yates twins with Rob Power and Jack Haig next in line. Howson's win proves the versatility and depth the organisation has built up since 2014 and suggests there may be yet another talented GC specialist among the team's ranks.
"I think it has opened a new opportunity for myself. [It's given me the] confidence that I can win races and I can help when I need to but also if my time comes, I can step up to the plate," he said. "I am really looking forward to this year and future years to come and I guess everyone has to wait and see how far I can actually take it to the sport."
Regardless of who Orica sends to the Grand Tours, be it Chaves or the Yates twins at the Tour, for example, Howson will be riding in his domestique role. Outside of the three-week races, Howson could be granted opportunities to continue his own development as a GC rider. For the moment, however, Howson simply wants enjoy his victory rather than gaze into the crystal ball.
"We work together closely with the staff here at Orica-Scott and there is opportunities for me throughout the year. I have known that for a while and it is a matter of capitalising on those chances," said Howson, whose capabilities are suited to both time trials and the mountains. "We have such a strong team throughout the roster that there is so many winners, so many dynamics to the team that if I do get that opportunity, like every race, you do have to take that chance."
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