The second pro season for Garmin-Sharp's Jacob Rathe literally blew into action on the windswept roads of the Tour Mediterranean this week as the former Paris-Roubaix Espoirs podium finisher begins his preparation for the upcoming semi-classics.
Rathe started his season Wednesday by finishing with the same time as stage 1 winner André Greipel in a mass sprint. He was surrounded near the top quarter of the bunch by potential Garmin overall threats Andrew Talansky and Michel Kreder, who was runner-up at last year's race.
The chaotic racing in the crosswinds of Southern France turned into a thrown-into-the-deep-end start for a rider who hopes to shake some cobwebs loose in the early season leg openers and hit the Northern semi-classics in stride.
"Obviously the goal - my favorite race last year was Flanders; I learned a lot from that race and it was a pretty special day - so my goal would be to do Flanders again," Rathe said last month in an interview shortly before before he appeared with teammate Tyler Farrar at a publicity event in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. "But a race of that distance isn't very realistic for me at this point, whereas a semi-classic is a reasonable distance, and I could make the selection at the end of a race that goes to the line."
Focused on improvement, opportunities
But visions of sprinting for a win in a cobbled semi-classic aside, Rathe said, his working goal this season is continued improvement. His early season efforts last year earned him a spot on Garmin-Sharp's Classics squad, and he got a full platter of the northern races during his debut season, culminating with rides in both Flanders and Roubaix. A tangle with a traffic-marking sign ended his Roubaix effort early, but he finished Flanders alongside Farrar as the winner, Tom Boonen, was spraying champagne on the podium girls.
He also raced the Tour du Haut Var, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, races he is anxious to take part in again this year.
"Last year I could hang in a semi until 30km to go," Rathe said. "Now I want to be there at the end. Continual progress is all it takes."
He saw some of that progress last season as he was able to adjust to the higher intensity efforts for longer periods that are required for the fight to the end of a WorldTour-level race when the top teams are working to bring back any breakaways.
"It's a whole new level of speed," Rathe said. "There's just horsepower that's not in the lower levels. So when it's fast, it's very fast. You kind of have to gut it out a little more and a lot longer. Later in the year the speed and the longer, faster periods didn't phase me as much. You don't notice it after a while."
Rathe, who will turn 22 in March, is the second-youngest rider on the team this year. Only 2013 neo-pro Lachlan Morton, who just turned 21 in February, is younger. The other two neo pros joining Garmin-Sharp this season are Steele Von Hoff, 25, and Rohan Dennis, who will turn 23 in May. Rathe said that although he couldn't pinpoint any specific lessons from last season that he'll take forward, he's happy to have his neo pro season already under his belt.
"There's much less uncertainty and I'm a little more relaxed this year," he said. "The first year is definitely a little bit more daunting."
Aside from having already made the adjustment to living in Girona, Spain, during the season, Rathe also has a clear idea of what it means to be on a truly professional team.
"On a pro team you're expected to sacrifice unquestionably for teammates," he said. "Where at other races, U23 or with the national team, you go into the races more open, which is fine because everyone should have the opportunity to show themselves at that age. But now the roles are more defined at it's harder to work your way up, that's for sure."
Rathe put in the work last year in stage races like the Tour of Qatar, Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Tour of Denmark and the Tour of Britain, among others, and he hopes to earn Grand Tour spot this year.
"I like the idea of a Grand Tour," said Rathe, who in 2011 snagged one of his biggest wins by taking stage 9 of a very difficult Tour of Portugal. "The race forms itself and then there are always opportunities to be had going into the end, which I feel like I can take advantage of. I've always recovered well. I've always done well in stages races day in and day out. I think one of my strong suits at this point is my ability to recover and my consistency. That's something I plan to continue."
Rathe found several opportunities toward the end of last season during the Vattenfall Classic and the Tour of Denmark, where he was allowed a freer hand to try his luck. He threw himself into promising late-race breakaways and rolled the dice on success.
"Nothing came of it," he said. "But I think that's exactly what I need to do - take advantage of those opportunities."
The team Rathe spent his rookie season with was not without controversy. Team founder and manager Jonathan Vaughters and three veteran riders played a role in USADA's investigation of Lance Armstrong, testifying about Armstrong's and their own PED use while on US Postal. Tom Danielson, Dave Zabriske and Christian Vande Velde were all sanctioned for six months and will return to racing in March.
But Rathe said the rest of the team was relatively unaffected by the revelations from within the Garmin or the firestorm that grew up around them.
"I don't think the younger guys were appalled or anything," Rathe said, adding that he was actually on a short break from racing when news broke about his teammates' testimony and suspensions. Nevertheless, the picture painted in the USADA report was pretty bleak. Like many riders of his generation, Rathe believes the culture within cycling has changed.
"It's certainly disappointing to see where the sport was, but we're hopeful about what has happened to change it so we won't have to make the same decisions," he said. "It's in the past."