The Jayco World Tour Academy has a good track record during its history of turning youngsters with potential into riders that can ride and succeed in the World Tour.
Graduates include established World Tour riders Michael Matthews, Caleb Ewan, Damien Howson, Luke Durbridge (all Orica-BikeExchange), Rohan Dennis (BMC), and Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff). Last year’s graduates Jack Haig and Robert Power both headed to Orica-BikeExchange as highly rated climbers to watch in the future.
Head coach James Victor is currently developing the next generation in Europe with an entirely new group of riders from the start of the season. Expectations weren’t necessarily as high as with a bunch of 21 or 22 year olds, but the fresh faced Aussies outfitted themselves well against strong competition.
Victor spoke to Cycling Central about the how the squad went about preparing for what many consider the biggest race of the youth calendar, the Tour de l'Avenir.
“We had a good training camp in the Italian mountains and then we went and reconned most the Tour de l’Avenir,” said Victor.
“Particularly the hilly stages knowing the group we have and their capabilities, but I’d almost taken GC off the table and said it was more about learning about how to get through a one week stage race, given the last four days were in the French Alps and probably the hardest parcours I’d seen on paper.
“Once the boys had got there they realised just how important it was to do the recon and see what they needed to be able to produce every day to be there. Then we talked about opportunities to try and chase stages, if it meant losing some time on one day and coming back to chase a stage the next day."
The preparation paid off, with a stage 7 win for Nick Schultz, 5th overall for Jai Hindley, 7th for Michael Storer, the King of the Mountains jersey for Lucas Hamilton and the squad taking out the teams classification convincingly.
“They were all pretty motivated after the training block we did, and with their condition heading into the Tour, they were keen to get through the week and show what they could do.
“I’m proud of most of their efforts in the end, given how young most of the group is. The group really gelled exceptionally well and to top it off with a stage win, the mountains jersey and, in the end, an easy win in the teams classification. It was a good reward for everyone’s hard work.”
The squad's lead in to the French race included impressive results in the mountainous Italian one-day classics, with Jai Hindley winning the GP Capodarco and Michael Storer taking out the GP Poggiana.
“I wasn’t sure if the one-day races coming into the Tour de l’Avenir were 100% a good idea, I felt they may have taken their edge off a bit," said Victor.
“But in the end, I think it highlighted the strength of the training camp that we did in Livigno and then the recon on the back of that really prepared the boys for racing really well and with two wins in Italy; that gave the guys a lot of confidence for the Tour de l’Avenir.
Results in under 23 competition are what get riders picked up by the World Tour squads, but Victor remains committed to his principles of development as much about developing the rider in a sporting, mental and physical capacity as racking up wins.
“The bottom line is it’s a development team and it’s important to expose all the guys to different styles of racing. From what I’ve seen, particularly in the last few years, is that we have a lot of really good juniors that have the capacity to leave the bunch behind whenever they want when they’re racing in Australia.
“It was about exposing them to what Belgian racing is all about; big numbers, bigger types of riders and racing aggressively all day. It did take a couple of months for the guys to adapt to that and figure out how to position themselves and race more efficiently in the bunch."
From here, the next big touchstone for young riders is the under 23 Road World Championships where riders inside the top 10 regularly feature in the ranks of the neo-professionals next season. The skinny climbing types of the World Tour Academy aren’t the best suited to what looks like a race for the quick men over the flat terrain of Qatar.
Callum Scotson, a member of Australia's silver medalist Rio team pursuit squad, will join the group for a bout at the World Championships time trial.
Alex Porter, Rohan Wight and Jason Lowndes (Drapac) will add firepower to the road squad. Porter in particular displayed his power and versatility by finishing second overall at the Sam Miranda Tour of King Valley in the National Road Series.
But will these riders confirm their talent with berths and then success in the biggest races in the world? Victor has seen many riders come through the World Tour Academy in his time and shared his thoughts on what this group of youngsters can aspire to in the future.
“The guys who started here have grown and certainly matured a lot. I think they’ve learned a lot about themselves.
“Ultimately, it’s up to them to decide if it’s a career that they want to pursue but they can see it’s not just about the racing and they know that they haven’t touched on the hardest racing available yet. So that’s a part of their ongoing development.
“They’ll come back as a group next year and we’ll adjust the race program to suit some of the strengths that we’ve seen in the last few weeks. We’ll chase some harder tours and get some more race days on the calendar."
Professional cycling is an unforgiving sport to break into with plenty of competition for the few available slots on World Tour squads. Plenty of riders with ability, perseverance and racing nous fail to make the top grade each year, a fact reiterated by Victor.
“It’s not just a six-month process and I think by this time next year we’ll have a much clearer idea of who can move on."
"History has shown us, at least in the seven years I’ve been involved, is that out of the six to nine guys that are part of the program, there’s normally only one or two that have the qualities on and off the bike to make that next step."
“Even then, there’s no guarantees that they’ll have a 10-15 year career in the sport. It’s not an easy sport, but that’s the job.”