Following a sensational season to date with 16 podiums with half of those on the top step, Jake Keough heads to Australia for the first time to ride this week's Jayco Herald Sun Tour with a sprint-primed UnitedHealthcare outfit.
Keough who hails from Massachusetts, will join Australian pair Jonny and Hilton Clarke, along with Morgan Schmitt (USA), Boy Van Poppel (Ned) and Adrian Hegyvary (USA) for the five-stage UCI 2.1 event with the hope that the efficacious blue train can add to their 21 stage wins for the 2011 season. It's a challenge that the 23-year-old is relishing having recently finished second on the US National Racing Calendar standings for 2011.
"It's a world-class race," Keough told Cyclingnews. "You look at the list of the past winners and it's really a who's who of current pro cycling. When we realised we had the invite to the race, we picked our squad for the end of the season – it was definitely a target and a goal."
The Jayco Herald Sun Tour marks the culmination of and end of season racing block for the team with the Melbourne-bound riders coming off either some Italian stage and one-day races ending with the chaotic Giro di Padania or the US Pro Cycling Challenge.
"We've all done some really solid training this past two and a half weeks," Keough explained. "I'm coming in relatively fresh even though it's the end of the season."
Keough has been well-drilled by Hilton Clarke on what to expect from the 59-year-old race with the pair rooming together throughout the season and then alternating lead-outs for the sprint on the road. Clarke having tasted plenty of success in the past with multiple stage victories to his name and the sprint classification in 2005.
"For me, as a sprinter hopefully there'll be some bunch kicks and the form's good at the moment too so with good sprint squad and a lead out we'll be able to do something," Keough said. "The Arthurs Seat stage is going to be pretty hard. There's also the wind to contend with; it's going to be a pretty well-rounded race."
In Keough taking on the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, it's another step in his development as a sprinter on the rise, something UnitedHealthcare general manager and directeur sportif, Mike Tamayo alluded to when announcing that the plucky young star had resigned for the 2012 season.
"When I first brought Jake on board in 2010 it was with the idea of making him stronger and faster, something that doesn't happen in one year," Tamayo said. "He had a number of wins in 2011, but more importantly his strength and ability to handle harder races and a bigger stress load has taken a big step forward. Jake is one of the guys the sport will be talking about again next year and in 2013, as he starts to win on bigger stages. I am sure of that."
This season, as the team ventured into Europe with their Professional Continental status, Keough claimed one particularly promising result - ninth in stage 3a of the Three Days of De Panne. He says that it was an important result, "not even from a result stand point, but knowing that that hopefully is the next step that I can make."
This week, that's a notion that will be further tested as Keough pits himself against some of the world's best with Marcel Kittel (Skil - Shimano) , Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo), and Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank - SunGard) all confirmed to race.