• Leigh Howard. (Getty)Source: Getty
Leigh Howard was one of the unlucky members of IAM Cycling who was forced to search for a new home midway through last season.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
1 Feb 2017 - 1:26 PM 

In what remains an employer’s market in an uncertain economic climate he eventually landed with new Ireland based ProContinental outfit Aqua Blue Sport, a move about which the Geelong-born rider is very positive.

“With IAM cycling, it was during the Giro where they said that they weren’t going to continue," Howard said. "That was obviously a bummer, it was a nice team.

"I wanted to keep racing and was searching for another team and I started talking with Aqua Blue Sport in July or August and once we’d sat down and talked about the way that the team envisions being self-sustaining… that appealed to me. I’ve been a part of two teams that have folded now and to be self-sustainable is exciting for me.”

The Aqua Blue Sport setup is an impressive one. Most teams take a while to find their feet as an organisation but it already has a strong digital presence in place, with good social media interaction and motivated backroom staff.

“It was definitely difficult, for a lot of riders I’m sure," he said. "I did have options available to stay in the World Tour but it’s not always the best course of action. Once I’d spoken to the team and heard the idea behind it, I knew that it’s very possible for them to go WorldTour in a few year years.

"Not only that, they’re supporting my desire to go back and do a bit of track racing. Not a lot of World Tour teams were happy for me to do that.”

Howard has a rich history on the track taking two world championships wins in the Madison with Cameron Meyer along with an individual gold in the Ominum. The 27-year-old is coming off a three-week track training block in South Australia with the High-Performance Unit track program.

At the moment, he's unwilling to commit to exactly what events he’ll be riding or goals he’ll be targeting but the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games seems like a realistic expectation.

“I haven’t set anything in stone yet, I sort of want to touch back on the track and get back to where it all started," he said. "I’ll make some more permanent plans in the next six to twelve months. At the moment it’s just getting back on the boards and enjoying it again.”

Howard raced the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean Road Race and will now tackle the Jayco Herald Sun Tour with his new team. The parcours is more suited to climbers than sprinters, though he will no doubt be eyeing the tricky finish to Stage 2 in Beechworth and the Stage 3 sprint into Michelton Winery.

Jayco Herald Sun Tour heads to the mountains
Australia’s oldest stage race received a facelift for its 2017 route, with more hills and mountains on the menu as the local riders take on the likes of Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange).

He was cautiously optimistic about how quickly the combination was coming together with the new squad.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time together yet, we had a brief training camp in Monaco and now a bit out in Australia. It’s been great so far given how little time we’ve been together and it’s our first racing. We’ve gelled quite quickly and I’m genuinely surprised about how fast it’s all come together.”

“There are a lot of good young riders and we’re only a smaller roster, so there’s a good chance that I’ll get to race with all of them over the season," he said. "I’m looking forward to racing with the younger guys, see who can make it at the next level and hopefully I can help them make it there.”

Howard has been racing in Europe since 2009 and is now getting to the stage where he is one of the more experienced guys in the peloton, something he hopes to put to use in developing some of the younger riders on the Aqua Blue roster.

“I’d like to think so, this will be my eighth year as a professional and I’ll be the most experienced guy in terms of years in the pro peloton in this group," he said. "I actually enjoy it from a personal perspective, I love seeing guys that I’ve helped making their way through the ranks. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

While most would regard Howard as a top-tier cyclist, his reputation didn’t get the boost expected from his two wins last year. The first came on a stage that was shortened due to wild winds, while the second came after he and the peloton took a wrong turn in the Tour des Fjords, before he soloed to the win.

“It’s not ideal, in saying that, it got talked up a bit more than it should have," he said. "The way they wrote about the race in Fjords, they made it sound worse than it was.

"It was a small deviation that the bunch made with 10 kilometres to go. I just happened to pop out back on the course 15-20 seconds ahead. I think the way it was written up was I took a wrong turn with 500 metres to go but it wasn’t exactly like that. It’s a strange feeling but at the end of the day, a win’s a win.”

So where will the wins come in 2017? As a ProContinental team, the squad is largely dependent on securing invites to the WorldTour races and with more races of that type on the calendar this season, it means large chunks of his season will hinge upon the whim of race organisers.

“Who knows? That’s always the question, isn’t it? I’ve never won a WorldTour race, a lot of our race invites will rely on wildcards so we’ll have to see what we get and make some more decisions from there.

Our racing program is only confirmed up until March at the moment and I’ll be heading to Belgium next to do some racing.”

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