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Every second counts for Luke Durbridge

Young Aussie misses Olympic selection, but looks back on his break-out rookie season and forward to his chance at a grand tour

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At a tender 21 years of age, Australian neo-pro Luke Durbridge is one of the youngest riders in the WorldTour peloton. In his debutant pro season, Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge) is rapidly marking himself out as one of the hottest prospects around, especially when it comes to racing against the clock. He’s also showing noticeable signs of developing into an extremely promising all-around stage racer.

Durbridge is another prime product of the Western Australian system that also reared his long time training partners and Orica teammates, the Meyer brothers (Cameron and Travis), who, like Durbridge, are multiple-time world track champions and elite Australian national champions on the road.

Just a couple of weeks back “Durbo” sprung to attention when he took out the prologue time trial in the Critérium du Dauphiné, a race that is widely considered a dress rehearsal for the impending Tour de France. This is where the big guns come out blazing to prove their form and status as contenders for the great race; hence this victory was truly something special.

“I was shocked to win! I know the Tour contenders are all out for this race, and that it’s an important Olympic selection race too,” said Durbridge. “When I saw Wiggins taking every corner full-on, I knew they were really going for it.”

The victory wasn’t something he’d been targeting.

“I’d had good form in the Tour of California, but had taken a week off to get over the jetlag,” he said. “I’d been out riding a couple of times and didn’t feel too bad. I knew I’d done a good ride, but for me that would have been top 10. They kept coming through and not beating my time, I was shocked.”

Durbridge’s victory couldn’t carry him through the entire race, however, and he retired from the Dauphiné, suffering from a recurring Achilles problem. Durbridge welcomed the break, having raced straight through since the Australian championships in early January.

“I took some time off, I needed a rest. It’s been a really heavy season for me so far and I just needed that rest. I hadn’t really had a break since November last year,” he said. “It may not be huge compared to more experienced pros, but for my first pro season it’s been full-on for me. I’ve just started training again, at altitude in Livigno (Italy), and it all seems fine now.”

Stepping up to the WorldTour level is a huge jump for any neo-pro, even if you are the reining u23 world time trial champion, yet Durbridge has already taken three victories against the clock, as well as an overall GC title (Circuit de la Sarthe). The overall at Sarthe came as a surprise to Durbridge, who had ridden onto radar screens at the Three Days of De Panne earlier in the spring. He said he rode through the spring with no pressure from his team, particularly after his Achilles began to flare up.

“My Achilles had been pretty bad. I was having real trouble and really didn’t think I’d even finish the race, although the stages hadn’t been super hard so I managed to stay in the front group,” he said. “When I got the jersey, I had to keep riding. I took the lead when I won the ITT. There were two days left and I only had two teammates left in the race, and it was pretty hilly too.

“It was a bit of a laugh really, unrealistic to keep the jersey. But I kept in the background and we just stayed out of trouble and with the lead group and won the GC.”

Taking on such a heavy road program hadn’t been part of Durbridge’s original plan when he signed up for the new Australian team.

“My focus and aim had been on the Olympics, the team pursuit. Even before turning pro that had been the plan. I hadn’t really thought about anything else,” he said. “But, after riding a World Cup I sat down with the team coach and we decided that I wasn’t at the level I needed to be. I didn’t need to hear it twice.”

Despite being a former world champion in the discipline, the abundance of top-line riders fighting for those prized Australian Olympic slots forced a premature end to Durbridge’s track career — as it did with the Meyer brothers’.

“I decided there and then to hit it full-on with the road, and try to get Olympic selection there. The team gave me a road program, and pretty much every race had a time trial in it, so I decided to focus 100 percent on my time trialing, and it’s worked out pretty well for me so far.”

But with a sprint finish anticipated, and only five road race starting spots available to the sport’s top nations, most federations are building their Olympic selections around fast finishers and veterans, including the Australians. Cycling Australia announced its men’s Olympic road team on Monday, and Durbridge was left outside. It’s a move that didn’t come as a complete surprise. (The two starters for the time trial, Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers, come from the five-man road race squad.)

“The road race focus will be on maybe Matt Goss or Simon Gerrans, so the team will be built around that,” he said before the selection. “They need strong riders to make the race for them, and I might be a little out of my league there. I’d like to get selected for the time trial, but there are only five places, and the time trial slots have to come from that road race selection, so it’ll be really tough for me to get a ride.”

With his non-selection for the Games, Durbridge will likely turn up at the Eneco Tour in August, where he’ll be out for a good showing in the stage 2 team time trial to earn a spot in Orica’s TTT squad for worlds, and the stage 6 individual time trial. From there, he said he would target the world championships and the Tours of Beijing and Hangzhou. (A trade team time trial debuts at the worlds this year.)

Evans (BMC Racing) and Rogers (Sky) will be coming off the Tour de France ahead of London, and could both factor in the TT, but having ridden close up with most of the contenders for the title, Durbridge sees Wiggins, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

“I haven’t seen the course in person, but I was looking at the profile, and it seems similar to the world championships course in Denmark last year, but maybe less technical,” he said. “We saw what Tony Martin did there, and Cancellara is really good at preparing for these occasions, too. But there are not many riders who are as well prepared as Wiggins, and if he comes out of the Tour in good shape he’ll be hard to beat.”

When looking at his career path to date, and his physique, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Durbridge and Wiggins, who has developed from a pure time trialist and pursuiter into the top favorite ahead of the Tour de France. With the Australian system renowned for its long-term planning, Durbridge says he sees riding for a grand tour overall in his distant future.

“It took Wiggins and these guys 10 years or so to develop into Tour contenders, and I’m just 21 and in my first season,” he said. “It’s not out of the question, and in California I had my best climbing legs ever, although for the moment I intend to concentrate on my time trialing. It’s what I’m best at.”

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