“It’s a bit of a blurry line when I crossed over into road bikes,’ van der Ploeg told Cycling Central.
“I did a few years cross-country skiing and mountain biking after high school; skiing in winter and doing mountain-biking in the summer. I went overseas for a few years skiing, then came back when I ran out of money!”
In 2009 he won the inaugral Tour de Timor mountain bike stage race, an experience which lead him to spending more time on the tarmac.
“I really enjoyed it, having a team and sharing the experience with the group. That was a catalyst to get into doing more road,” he said.
“In that same year, 2009, I also did my first NRS [National Road Series] race. Me and a mate, Scott Liston, we entered the Tour of Gippsland and did it completely solo. We borrowed my brother’s car because he had roof racks and went for a bit of an adventure, booking accommodation on the fly and following team cars to the start line.
“That’s where I met Peter Shandon from Search2Retain, it was his first race as well I think, and as he started growing the team he asked if I wanted to come on board. It was sort of a funny circumstance, Search2Retain and myself were growing at the same time. It was a really good team to be a part of.”
Fast forward to 2016 and the 28-year-old rider from Avanti IsoWhey Racing has a growing reputation as a cyclist that could take that step up into World Tour ranks.
Entering the peloton at a mature age has likely disadvantaged the curly-haired rider in reaching the top of the sport but, as van der Ploeg explains, racing at the top level is still an achievable goal.
“I think it’s much easier if you’re a junior and you do well. There are a lot more opportunities to progress if you go that route but I came across a bit late. I missed that boat a little bit.
“I was lucky to have teams like Search2Retain and Avanti IsoWhey Sports, with Andrew Christie-Johnson realising that there was a gap with people transitioning over from other sports.
“Richie Porte is a good example, coming from a triathlon background and not being part of that junior system. Cycling, it’s not like gymnastics, you don’t have to peak at 14 years old, you can be 32 and be riding the best you’ve done.” - Neil van der Ploeg.
There’s the conventional way, and then there’s the way van der Ploeg does it. And age won’t stop the improvement process.
Van der Ploeg is keen to keep on developing, taking his cycling to the next level as he looks to breach the barrier to the World Tour. The Victorian knows that he’ll have to prove himself, but there’s a self-possessed nature about the way that he approaches each challenge that will stand him in good stead as he looks to take that step.
“At this point I’d definitely like to have a chance. I don’t like making long-term predictions like that, but to race those bigger races at the top level, that’s the goal.
“You’ve obviously got to keep developing. I’m not fully polished as a rider. I’m focusing on managing my weight a bit better, it can fluctuate a bit, and I’m working on my sprint, getting into the gym.
“In road cycling, it’s full of little nuances, and there’s always things you can improve on, like decision-making in the last stages of the race. That strategy is a really good thing about being at Avanti IsoWhey Sports, you learn so much from guys like Pat Shaw, and of course Andrew Christie-Johnson has such an in-depth knowledge of cycling.” - Neil van der Ploeg.
With the conviction that he can succeed in reaching the top level van der Ploeg now needs to work on getting himself noticed by the big teams.
“The plan at this point is to focus on this summer of racing, have a good national championships and hopefully gain selection for the Tour Down Under again,” he said. “Then Herald Sun Tour and Cadel’s race are probably the biggest races we’ll have in the year. Hopefully I get myself into some fitness to get some results there.
“At the moment I’m looking at getting an agent to get through to that top level, but until you get the results, there’s only so much an agent can do. I’m probably borderline at this point, if I can get a few more then an agent will be the way to go.”