Neil van der Ploeg's first year with the Continental Avanti Racing Team provided enough evidence for the 27-year-old to see that he is on track for bigger and better things. Van der Ploeg started off the season with 20th place at the Australian national championships to earn selection for the Tour Down Under, his first appearance at a WorldTour event.
Fifth overall at the 2.1 Jayco Herald Sun Tour was followed by stage wins in the National Road Series (NRS) before a stint of racing in Asia with third overall at the 2.1 Tour of China I to capping off his longest season yet as a professional.
"There were some positives to take away from the year," van der Ploeg told Cyclingnews how he saw his 2014 season. "I had some pretty good form for a lot of the races I targeted like the Tour of China and Korea but I reckon generally, it was a trend of getting really close and then just missing out on the opportunities that were there. It was a bit frustrating from that point of view but I had a much better year than 2013 when I had a tendon operation.
"I had good health and pretty good form but I just didn't get the results I was hoping for last year. It was a pretty good year overall and hopefully I can do a similar thing in 2015 with a bit of luck."
Prior to 2014, van der Ploeg's only previous racing experience in Asia had been the Tour of Timor mountain bike event but his performances at the Tour of Korea and the Tour's of China I and II suggest that if race invitations are forthcoming, and the parcours favourable, he can build on those results in 2015.
"It's difficult to plan for Korea and China as we don't know what the stages will be like," he said. "Traditionally, Korea is a pretty good race that I could target for GC but this year there was a mountain top finish so that tilted the GC toward a climber. I'll definitely be on the hunt for those types of races which are flatter but still have a few challenging stages but I'll see how it goes really, but it would be good. I think a teammate like Pat Bevin, who is a similar rider to me and is climbing extremely well at the moment, plus he's pretty fast, will be targeting those races as well.
"Something like Tour of China I would be great to target for GC if the chance arises but you have to be in the right form, get in the right move and be on the hunt."
First up though for van der Ploeg in 2015 is the national championships which he'll enter with the dual aim of posting a good result and securing another appearance at the Tour Down Under with the UniSA wild card team.
"I'm not necessarily targeting an individual race at the nationals," he said. "The road race is obviously pretty hilly but if we do well there then there's the chance of getting another spot at the TDU so I am just trying to get as fit as I can and race both the criterium and road race to hopefully do enough to get into the UniSA team."
In the last three years, van der Ploeg has finished 20th, fourth and 20th at the nationals and the fast man believes that the green and gold jersey is a possibility despite the course being better suited to the characteristics of rival riders.
"It depends on how the race pans out but there is an outside chance I could come away with a win there and that would probably be better than getting a start at the Tour Down Under but you have just have to try and get yourself as fit as possible, give yourself a chance and see what happens," he said of the hilly circuit in Buninyong.
At the 2014 Tour Down Under, van der Ploeg make it into the stage 1 breakaway which then had him on the back foot for the remainder of the race due to the effort he put in as he explained.
"Tour Down Under was really good in terms of the quality of the race, the amount of spectators and the buzz of the race," he said. "The actual race was pretty hard as well and an awesome experience. After getting in the break on the first day I was cooked and it went downhill a bit as I was just grovelling."
It wasn't all suffering though as van der Ploeg managed to work on his bike handling skills to the delight of the crowds.
"I was doing a few consolation monos off the back [of the peloton]. I started doing that on the second day but I did a few too many in the end which was a bad sign [laughs]. It was hard not just too enjoy so I thought why not just pop a few monos for the crowd," he said.
Looking beyond January and explaining his goals for the year, van der Pleog has set himself the target of winning at higher quality races with the aim of attracting the interest of WorldTour teams.
"I'd like to get a few wins in 2.1 events, it's a bit difficult to know exactly what we'll be invited too, but hopefully we'll get invites to Korea and China again," he said. "I think we're aiming to go to a few early-season races like the Tour de Langkawi. I'd love to get a few stage wins on board and if I can win a 2.1 race, that would be best case scenario. Then hopefully I can move up to WorldTour level but it's just playing it by ear really."
With Avanti having provided seven riders to the WorldTour over the last few seasons, van der Pleog is in the right place to get noticed for doing the right things but a ride at the top level of the sport isn't the be-all-and-end-all as he explained.
"It sort of depends on how the season goes," he said of aims for a WorldTour ride in 2016. "If I ride really well and make a few improvements and there is an opportunity, I'd certainly go for it but it's not my sole ambition. I won't be peed off if it doesn't happen at the end of the year. I am trying to do as well as I can and if it presents, then it would be awesome."
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