Racing on European roads was the dream for Leigh Howard seven years ago when he turned professional with then sprint powerhouse HTC-Columbia.
His 2010 signing with the brash stable that boasted the prolific Mark Cavendish ended a formative track career, the realisation of top-tier road racing far more rich and glorious.
But Howard has turned back on that notion, though not through a forced hand.
The 28-year-old wasn’t at a loose end with no other options in front of him; settling on a full-time return to the velodrome wasn’t a desperate, clutching manoeuvre.
In fact, Howard prematurely terminated a deal with Aqua Blue Sport to follow an impulse that could be regarded as risky given his age (track is typically a younger man’s game), previous Olympic Games non-selection and because the road is still where the money is predominately at.
“I had a two-year contract so it was a difficult decision," Howard said. "Because coming back and racing on the track, honestly, I don’t get financed for any of that, so I’m living on a tight budget at the moment."
“But when you have to weigh-up making yourself happy or just doing things for the money, I made the decision to make sure I was happy doing what I was doing.
“The last couple of years I was still enjoying the road but I wasn’t as passionate about it as what I was four, five, six years ago. I was just training and racing without much hunger, it was more of a, what’s the word, it was a bit more of an obligation than a desire so to speak.”
The signs that Howard had lost a once unquenchable thirst were there well before Aqua Blue Sport announced their amicable split last month.
Howard clocked just 21 race days with the Irish-registered Pro Continental squad in the 2017 season, his last competition in May at the Tour of Norway.
Following fledging success at HTC, which went bust, Howard went ‘home’ and spent four years at the Australian-registered Orica-GreenEdge (now Orica-Scott) team where he somewhat plateaued. Between then and now, this also included a stint at the now also defunct IAM Cycling, the former Madison and omnium world champion started to feel like the metaphorical flogged horse, more than growing sprinter.
“I kept trying to improve on the road but it was pretty stagnant from 2012, 2013 onwards,” Howard said. “I had some ups and downs but more or less it was quite stagnant and I never quite kept moving forward and that was hard for me, to keep the motivation.
“I made the long-term beneficial decision to take quite an extended break in June, I just needed to.
“I knew that I wanted to come back and focus 100 per cent on the track, but it was also an opportunity for me to take a real break from cycling and just be a normal person for two or three months.”
Howard verified his call last month as part of the quartet that overcame New Zealand to win team pursuit gold in a scorching 3:52.421 at the Oceania Track Championships, after just a few sessions back on the boards with the national squad.
The Geelong-born cyclist plans to relocate home to Australia with his Spanish partner and dog within the next 12-18 months, as track commitments increase.
The team pursuit, which Howard has previously failed to crack into, will be the primary objective, despite the Madison and omnium, two events he is proven in, being back on the Olympic program.
“I was always there or thereabouts in the team pursuit but I was never quite strong enough to make a real big impact so it was difficult,” he said.
Howard believes this time around his tale will end differently with general track developments suited to more to his style, and a renewed, singular focus.
“Coming off the road, I always had the ability to be strong and fast but I could never combine racing on small gears,” he said. “It gets a bit technical, this side of it, but the new the style of racing and training on the bigger gears suited my style a lot more and I think that showed straight away.
“I enjoyed it [the team pursuit] a lot more than what I thought I would because it wasn’t a constant strain every time I went to a training session. Years ago, every training session, every meet, every race was a real struggle and I was always that last man and not sure if I’d get selected. Now, I’m a lot more confident in myself that I can go fast, making day to day life a lot more enjoyable because I’ve got more impact.”