After riding at the Continental level for six years with a number of teams, including Axel Merckx's development program, 5-hour Energy and Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Mannion put in a consistently successful 2015 campaign to earn his move to the next tier.
He started the season second overall at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, then followed that up with another podium finish at the Tour of the Gila. He slipped a bit at the Tour of California, finishing 34th overall, but rebounded with a sixth-place finish at US nationals after surviving into the final kilometres of the race.
His versatility was in display with a podium finish at the Winston-Salem criterium in June, but he really shined at the USA Pro Challenge just a month after finishing third overall at the Cascade Cycling Classic. Mannion finished fourth in Colorado and was near the front in every mountain stage finish, with the exception of stage 2 to Arapahoe Basin. His form was obvious during his fifth-place finish in the Breckenridge time trial, only 39 seconds shy of eventual winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing).
"Obviously, I've known that I could perform like that occasionally, but last year it was good to be on the podium from Redlands [in April], and then my best result was probably [USA Pro Challenge], and that was at the end of August," Mannion told Cyclingnews from Austin, Texas, where he was training briefly with friends Lawson Craddock and Nate Brown before leaving for Australia on Wednesday.
"I think that being able to race consistently is one of the most important things when moving up to the Pro Continental level or higher. So I'm definitely looking forward to the challenge, and last year does give me a boost of confidence that I'm capable of racing at those levels."
Mannion, who will soon be able to mark Australia off his "bucket list" of places to travel, will join his Drapac teammates and staff for the team's first training camp later this month. He said they'll start in Melbourne with meetings, press duties, bike fitting and the like, before moving the camp into the mountains near Bright.
"The pictures I've seen of the area we're going are beautiful, and it's summer time there, so I can't complain too much," he said.
Although his and the team's race program is still somewhat up in the air this early into a new season, Mannion said he's hoping to start 2016 in his first WorldTour event at the Tour Down Under, followed by the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour. It will be an early start to the season that he hopes quickly takes him to Europe.
"Their program is good; they race a lot," Mannion said of his new team. "This year they're going to be trying to break into Europe, so that'll be good because my ultimate goal is to race at the highest level, and I think that mainly occurs in Europe. If I had the opportunity to target a race in Europe or something, it would be nice to go top 10 or top five in GC in a big race outside of America. That would be a good goal for me."
After speaking with Drapac director Tom Southam, Mannion said he's confident the team understands that his strengths lie in "GC type stuff," although he happy not to suffer under the pressure of being the team's sole designated leader.
"We have a few other guys who are really good at that," Mannion said. "Lachlan Norris won a stage at Tour of Utah last year, so he's obviously a great rider and really good at the same types of things as me. We have another younger rider, Brendan Canty, who was on the Budget Forklifts team, and he'll be another GC guy. So I think we have a few cards to play, and obviously we won't always be doing the same races. But I'll definitely be kind of in a GC type role at most of my races this year."
Aside from the early start and the potential to race for his own results in Europe, Mannion is hoping to return with his new team to the US and have an opportunity to attempt all the big North American events again. Drapac raced at the Tour of the Gila this year, as well as California, the Philly Cycling Classic, the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge. The team also contested the late-season WorldTour races in Quebec and Montreal.
"Obviously, Drapac has a pretty good relationship with the races in the US, but with Tour of California being run by ASO now, I think that's more up in the air," he said. "Hopefully Utah and Colorado go on. I would imagine we'd attend those. I've done OK at those in the past, so I'd love to race those again on home soil."
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