Search2retain powered by health.com.au head into the coming season bolstered by several new signings and the increased motivation of some established faces that will not only diversify their options when it comes to race tactics, but also add to the support available for 2012's stand out performer, sprinter Neil Van Der Ploeg.
The team essentially having all their eggs in Van Der Ploeg's basket last year took a toll on the 25-year-old.
"Hopefully it takes a little bit of the pressure off," he told Cyclingnews. "I felt bad a few times. [The points jersey] It's a really hard jersey to get and it wraps up a lot of the resources but this year, particularly for the hilly races we've got a really strong team. Stu [Smith], Cal [Britten], Cam [Bayly], and Eric [Sheppard], Tim [Guy] - we've just got a ridiculous number of hill climbers," he said of the 2013 roster.
"It will be good to do a domestique role for those guys on the hillier stages."
January's Jayco Herald Sun Tour proved to be a real eye opener to the quality of the National Road Series ranks with some of the best domestic talent taking on an Australian team made up of Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss, Simon Clarke, Stuart O'Grady, Nathan Haas and Jay McCarthy. While the WorldTour regulars may not have been at peak form, the savvy required to defeat the National team on the road was considerable.
While Van Der Ploeg again pushed for yet another points jersey - he was second only on a countback to Aaron Donnelly (Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers) - it was the performance of Cal Britten which signaled that search2retain powered by health.com.au may be on the verge of having another card to play in terms of their race tactics for the coming season.
The 25-year-old had been plugging away quietly over the opening three stages but while he wasn't troubling the top-20 across the finish line, word from within the team was that he was on form. They were right. As the four-day stage race reached its conclusion with two crests of the nasty Arthurs Seat climb, Britten was not far off the mark, eventually finishing 53 seconds off the winning time of Nathan Earle (Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers) in 15th place in what was a defining moment, not only for the former mountain biker, but also for the team.
"When I was mountain biking the goal was always to become a professional and I had my mind completely set on that," Britten told Cyclingnews. "When that ended and I first started doing more of the road scene, that kind of evaporated a little bit. It's a solid result and it definitely brought back a bit of self belief."
To suggest that Britten was successful off-road is a bit of an understatement, twice runner-up in cross-county at the under 23 national championship, representing Australia at World Cup and World Championship-level. In fact, it was the transition from mountain bike to the road of Nathan Haas, who on the way to his contract with Garmin Sharp won the NRS in 2011, that has really spurred Britten on.
"Nathan and I raced mountain bikes together for a long time," the Bright-native said. "He's made that step up and almost made it look easy, but Nathan is a super-talented guy. Eventually it's what I'd like to do and this is the year to do it."
Up until now, Britten's results on the road have been largely inconsistent and with new coach Mark Fenner on board (who is also coaching Van Der Ploeg) it's hoped that he can realise his full potential.
Confidence the key for Bayly
The following weekend at the Cycling Australia Road National Championships, where Van Der Ploeg finished fourth in the men's road race in the best result for any of the domestic riders in the field, it was Cam Bayly who spent much of the 195.6km in the spotlight.
The Adelaide-based all-rounder followed through with pre-race team tactics, riding his way into the race-defining seven-man breakaway. The 22-year-old then took maximum points on the first six KOM's of the day. Virtual leader in the competition, Bayly was eliminated by commissaries with just a handful laps to go despite not being in danger of being lapped out on the Mt. Buninyong course. It was a controversial end to an otherwise standout performance - something that he says had led to increased motivation for 2013.
"Nationals wasn't a big target for me, and I thought that it was a good option for me to go for the KOM jersey," Bayly explained. "To do reasonably well that early in the season, it's given me a good confidence boost, but also to not get the result, has also driven me a little bit more and a I really want to do well this season."
With search2retain p/b health.com.au earning starts at the Tour of Iran and also the Tour of Singkarak, there's added incentive for Bayly, who is currently coached by Pat Jonker.
"It's going to be hard [to get the overseas rides]," he admitted. "Last year we had a good team but we didn't quite have the depth that we have this year. That's definitely a little bit more motivation, that competition within the team to do well. I think the team's going to do really well because we're all going to feed of each other."
It's also thought that the changes to the format of the NRS will work in search2retain's favour, with less focus on criteriums and more on traditional road stages. Bayly, heading into his second season with the team, believes that now that there is a better sense within the squad of just what can be achieved, results will follow.
"That was the biggest thing with us at the start of last year - we didn't have the confidence," he explained. "We did have some good riders and as soon as we started to get a few close results, we started to get that confidence and start to believe that we could mix it with some of the best teams. This year we're going in with high hopes.
"The changes n the NRS this year will be good for us," he continued. "Last year when you look at our results, we did well in the road stages and struggled a bit more in the crits - we lost a bit then made it back up in the road races. So with more of a focus on the road, we could do really well."
Sheppard set for impact
The recruitment of Eric Sheppard by search2retain was a shrewd one, and gives serious credence to their plans to diversify. The 21-year-old is a proven climbing talent but the decision to sign with the Melbourne-based outfit was not just about plugging a gap in the roster. Sheppard, who makes his return to the NRS after a season racing in Italy as an amateur where the highlight was finishing with a top-10 placing at the Memorial Davide Fardelli, has a year to go in his university studies where he is doing a Bachelor of Commerce.
"I wanted to find a team where I could still do my uni and they wouldn't put too much pressure on me to come to every single race that they're doing," the Victorian Institute of Sport graduate told Cyclingnews. He's now hoping to complete his degree as quickly as possible to get on with racing.
If he can manage it, a return to the Asian racing scene that will come with search2retain's rider exchange deal with UCI Continental outfit OCBC Singapore, is certainly on his agenda. In 2011, the same season that he finished as runner-up to Rohan Dennis in the Australian under-23 road championship, Sheppard was fourth on GC at the Tour of Thailand and later in the year won a stage at the Tour of Indonesia on the way to claiming the overall.
"I really like racing in the heat and like racing in Asia," Sheppard, who is known for his aggressive race tactics said. "Racing in Asia with the longer stages and less crits, it's definitely more suited to my kind if riding. I really like to have smaller teams with five or six riders so it's a lot more suited to me. Yes I can climb but I prefer to try and get in breakaways and that's the only way to win there because you can't control the race."