Since its ascension to the top tier of the sport in 2008, the Tour Down Under has proved to be a fertile ground for first-year neo-pros to make their WorldTour debuts. Current World Champion Peter Sagan's 2010 Tour Down Under being the most obvious example.
In 2017, Trek-Segafredo's Ruben Guerreiro is aiming to kick-start his career in the WorldTour with a strong showing in the Australian six-day stage race but his season objectives will come later in the year with the Ardennes, Tour of California and World Championships.
Interest from the WorldTour team in Guerreiro capabilities goes back to 2014 but ramped up in 2015 and finalised in early-2016 as the 22-year-old recorded several breakthrough performances and results in both one-day and stage races with Axel Merckx's development team, Axeon Hagens Berman.
"My agent told me in 2015 that Trek can be a good opportunity but interest in me was from April last year when I did third in Liege and the day after I went to Amstel Gold Race and talked a little with Luca [Guercilena]," Guerreiro told Cyclingnews of his move to the WorldTour where he joins Axeon Hagens Berman teammate and current US national champion Gregory Daniel.
"I was also interested in the team because of guys like Bob Jungels and Jasper Stuyven and I saw good development for those guys in this team."
Explaining that his move to Axeon was designed around securing a move to the WorldTour, Guerreiro is excited by the possibility of riding alongside and in support of Alberto Contador and Jarlinson Pantano for at least the next two years. With an early-season race programme that mirrors Pantano, Guerreiro is aiming to transfer his good relationship off the bike into a winning one on the bike starting at the Tour Down Under.
"I am in good condition now and I think for the team, we will be strong with [Edward] Thuens in the sprint and [Peter] Stetina and Pantano for the climbs. I will be working to support them and try to be at the front on the climbs," said Guerreiro, who will also race Paris-Nice with the Colombian.
During his U23 career, Guerreiro proved himself adept at both one-day and stage racing. At 22, Guerreiro is still developing and learning where his strength lay.
Third place at the U23 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege hints at Guerreiro's talent in the Ardennes. However, Tom Boonen also recorded a podium result at the Espoir race and will finish his career having never ridden the monument. Making a comment hardly ever heard by a professional, Guerreiro is hoping he "won't be like Boonen", and can be a future contender at La Doyenne.
"I want to win that race. Portugal has never won this race. Rui Costa was close with third last year and hopefully I will be the first winner from Portugal," he said.
Post-Ardennes, Guerreiro will turn his attention to stage racing and bettering his 13th place overall at the Tour of California. A strong season would go someway to securing a Portugal jersey for the Bergen Worlds in late-September having previously ridden the U23 editions in 2014 and 2015.
"I do whatever the team wants and I think for a rider like myself at my young age it is important to learn and if I get the opportunity, for sure I will work hard and try and do my best," he added.
Future of Portuguese cycling
Rui Costa's 2013 world title was a highlight for Portuguese cycling with the Iberian nation gaining greater attention for the quality of riders it produces. In 2017, Portuguese riders are spread across the peloton with Costa at UAE Abu Dhabi, Andre Cardoso joining Guerreiro at Trek-Segafredo, Nelson Oliveira, and Nuno Bico at Movistar, Jose Mendes at Bora-Hansgrohe, and Katusha-Alpecin's duo Tiago Machado and José Gonçalves, who are also racing the Tour Down Under.
"Now, I think the level is going up and it is a really good year for Portugal with eight guys in the WorldTour and the brothers Oliveria [Rui and Ivo, ed] from Axeon and two other guys at Italian development teams," said Guerreiro of the depth in Portuguese cycling in 2017. "We have really good strong guys in Portugal and cycling is going well in our country."
With Portugal winning the 2016 European championships and Christian Ronaldo's status in the world game, the attraction to football is as strong as ever but Guerreiro believes he and his compatriots can help raise the profile of cycling and continue its upward trajectory.
"We have a strong team in football, why not in cycling? It will be interesting to see the next few years but I think it is about mentality because, in Portugal, a lot of people like football and we try and change the mentality and make cycling more popular," he said.
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