In 2016 Damien Howson emerged as one the top climbing domestiques in the professional peloton, helping Orica-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves to podium finishes at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana, plus an Il Lombardia victory.
At the time, the signings of Ewan, the Yates brothers and Chaves from 2014 looked like forming the back bone of the team with the addition of Howson notable for the fact he was the 2013 U23 world time trial champion. Having spent the 2014 and early-2015 seasons finding his feet in the peloton, Howson came to the realisation that his cycling career relied on specialisation.
The 24-year-old decided that being the last man in the high mountains as a climbing domestique was his calling, duly excelling across two Grand Tours in 2016 after his breakout 2015 Vuelta that earned a contract extension with the Australian team. Last year the team showed its belief in Howson by offering a new extended two-year deal, taking him through to the end of 2018.
"I just take it year-by-year and constantly put that pressure on myself to take another step forward," Howson told reporters last week. "Last year was probably one of the biggest steps I've taken.
"I'm happy with that and likewise for this coming season - I've had a good pre-season. I'm ready for this large Australian block of racing."
Howson's last stage race on Australian soil came at the 2016 Herald Sun Tour where he was second to Chris Froome on the queen stage up Arthurs Seat, elevating him to third overall. Froome will be going to head-to-head with Chaves at the Herald Sun Tour on a route designed for the two climbers, but first Howson will be aiming to help either Chaves, or four-time winner and teammate Simon Gerrans to Tour Down Under success next week.
"I've targeted that now as my specialty and something I'm really going to continue to work on," Howson said of his role as climbing domestique. "There are plenty of other guys in the team and there will be plenty more guys coming on the scene in future years who are going to have a similar role to myself.
"So it's a matter of focussing on what I can do, getting the best out of myself and also for the team, to utilise us riders in the best-possible way."
Grand Tour ambitions
The 2016 season was Orica-Scott's best to date since its 2012 debut in the WorldTour with stage wins at all three Grand Tours, two monuments and a smattering of wins and classification jerseys. The less tangible results of the year were things like the development of Howson into a Grand Tour domestique so that when the South Australian looks back on the season, there is no specific highlight.
"It's just been a progression thing - so getting a taste in my first Grand Tour of what it could be like, being a major helper in the mountains, to actually being there right at the death on the final climb with the best riders in the world," he said. "It's just a matter of continuing that progression. The more years I have under my belt, the more experienced and stronger hopefully (that) I can become.
"So it's a matter of focussing on what I can do, getting the best out of myself and also for the team, to utilise us riders in the best-possible way.
While Orica-Scott is yet to confirm which rider it is backing at the Giro and Tour for general classification, Howson is simply happy to race either of the three week races and get Chaves onto yet another podium.
"Every boy dreams of being able to ride the Tour de France," he said. "So if 2017 is my year to debut in the race, I'd be really thrilled to be there and support Esteban. But we have to see how the calendar plays out.
"I will just mark it as a little goal of mine ... and if I am there, to do what I've done in previous years, if not better it."
Whether he spends his career as a climbing domestique specialist or moves into Grand Tour leadership, Howson is excited by the promise and unknown of the future. With compatriots Richie Porte and the now-retired Michael Rogers as role models, Howson is also in no rush to take on a leadership position knowing that time is well and truly on his side.
"I'm not ruling it out, I'm only 24 now, and the progression I've made over the last couple of years, if it keeps going up in this direction, it could be a potential way that I can go,” he said of Grand Tour leadership. “But for now, I'm really happy with the role that I'm doing and if I can continue to do what I do now to the best of my ability, and live through the successes of others, I'm well and truly happy doing that.
"People on the outside, they can make their own assumptions on what could happen to each individual. It's ultimately the rider himself who knows this is the direction I want to go, the motivation I have to get there."
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