For Oliver Kent-Spark (health.com.au-search2retain), the 2014 Tour of Toowoomba will be a watershed moment in his cycling career. The young Australian claimed a maiden National Road Series (NRS) win having instigated the winning breakaway on the chaotic stage 4 which saw cross-winds wreak havoc on the bunch and overall NRS leader Joe Cooper (Avanti) fracture his pelvis.
A stage win was just reward for persevering in Toowoomba for the win, but it wasn't the only podium visit that Kent-Spark enjoyed during the four day race.
In five stages, Kent-Spark was the most aggressive rider three times — one of the stages was a team time trial — which secured him the most aggressive overall prize while he also managed to take home the points and mountain classification jerseys for good measure. His only blemish was winning the stage in the most aggressive jersey and not his team kit.
The stage win was the culmination of several years of hard work as the Victorian explained to Cyclingnews.
"It was a wonderful tour both personally and also for the team," said Kent-Spark who made his NRS debut back in 2009. "I can't really believe it with everything just falling into place and it's something I've been working towards, putting a consistent tour together and it's great to finally to see the fruits of my labour."
In 2012 Kent-Spark spent the European season racing Belgian Kermesses with an amateur team, an experience that "accelerated my learning" and led him to "discover things I didn't think I could do physically and race tactically … [it was] a great experience."
Having spent the 2013 season with the Target-Trek NRS team, Kent-Spark signed on for the health.com team and is repaying the team's faith for the opportunity.
"There is a greater level of support from the team and a more rounded group of guys in regards to ability," he explained. "With Target-Trek we had a lot guys who were working full time and that makes it hard to put the big hours in.
"With the team, a lot of guys are younger riders like myself so we're fortunate to have the support of family and friends which allows us to train a little bit harder and everyone is bit more motivated putting in the all hard work. Plus, we all have so much confidence in each other."
Breakthrough stage win
On the Saturday morning of the Tour of Toowoomba as teams were completing the team time trial stage, riders and sports directors started to notice a stiff crosswind. Kent-Spark explained that on the start line there were rumours and murmurs that "as soon as the flag drops, it's going to be in the right hand gutter because of the wind coming from the left hand side."
A crash in bunch, which involved Kent-Spark's teammate James Hepburn, saw a split occur and from there on, "the pace was just on. Everyone in that front bunch was just driving as I think BudgetForklifts were caught behind the crash so there was a lot to race for."
Kent-Spark and Michael Cupitt (BudgetForklifts) snuck away when another crash left the peloton wondering what was happening and their move would prove to be the winning break. The duo would be joined by Brodie Talbot (BudgetForklifts) and Morgan Smith (CharterMason Giant Racing) but as Kent-Spark explained, it was a nervy finish to the day's racing.
"We thought it was curtains with 7-or-8km to go and the time gap was coming down, I think at one point it was down to as little as 15 seconds, but we just kept our heads down and kept on riding and miraculously, we stayed away.
"Till the sprint on the line, it was touch-and-go especially with the peloton chasing so hard. It was just amazing."
Like many Australian cyclists, Kent-Spark's goal is full-time racing in Europe and it's a goal that he's more than willing to work hard at so he can "mix it up with the big guys" but he is both humble and realistic on turning dreams into reality.
"I have to earn my stripes and keep on chipping at it away until I get the opportunity. It's just a matter of continuing on and having a successful year with the team.
"If you're consistent enough it correlates to getting opportunities down the road."
The NRS is in the midst of a mid-season break and resumes again at the Tour of the Murray and concludes with two one day races at the end of the year.
Kent-Spark is looking to close out the 2014 season with a good ride at the oldest Australian one-day race, the Melbourne to Warrnambool, before playing a support role at the Grafton to Inverell. Depending on how his season pans out, he may just be packing his bags for another stint of racing overseas.
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