When Brendan Canty once struggled to hold his mother’s wheel during the Great Victorian Bike Ride, neither could have imagined Canty junior would soon be riding alongside the best cyclists in the world.
“I do pinch myself,” admits the 26-year-old, who made his racing debut at Hawthorn Cycling Club in 2013. “There are moments when I sit back and have to remind myself that I am at the top level of the sport, racing the biggest races.”
After quickly moving through the amateur ranks, Canty joined now-defunct National Road Series outfit Team Budget Forklifts. A switch to Drapac Professional Cycling followed, before the team’s merger with Cannondale in late 2016 saw Canty earn himself a World Tour contract.
“I cannot take it for granted,” says the Victorian of his surreal ascent. “At the same time, it is my job and I have to do it every day. It is something special, but I have to treat it like I did beforehand. And now it is more demanding, physically, mentally and with the pressure to perform.”
Canty’s debut World Tour season nearly ended in disaster. The climber was midway through his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España, when news broke that his team faced a funding shortfall. Riders were permitted to look elsewhere for 2018 contracts, and for a few days it appeared Cannondale would go bust.
“I was optimistic the team would come through, although you are never safe,” Canty recalls. “If at the end of the day the team did collapse, you want to have some idea of where you might head after that.
“But my preference was always to stay with the team,” he continues. “[Team investor] Michael Drapac has always been really good to me – firstly giving me opportunities to ride with Drapac as a stagiaire, then signing me full-time, then with the merge across to Cannodale-Drapac. I really like the team and the culture, so I was optimistic it would continue.”
Continue it did. Cannondale raised over half a million US dollars (around AUD740,000) via crowdfunding and managed to sign a new naming rights partner for 2018. To Canty, this was the silver lining to a challenging time for the team.
“The amount of money that was raised and the support that came through was ultimately the catalyst for EF Education First to save the team,” he explains. “It is often said that sponsorship in cycling can have great returns for what it costs, with the exposure that companies get.
“But it goes beyond that,” he continues. “If companies invest not just for financial returns but because they have a genuine interest in the riders and the staff and the environment, the long-term relationship can become really strong. I am hoping that will be the case with EF Education First – they have signed for several years and become a majority owner in the team – so they will have a bigger impact than a normal sponsor.”
Just as Canty’s 2017 ended turbulently, his campaign began in a similar manner. The rider was away solo on the penultimate loop of the Road National Championships course in Ballarat when a lap miscalculation saw Canty think he was on the verge of winning. While the rider ultimately finished seventh, he remains hopeful of another chance at Mount Buninyong glory.
“Winning Road Nats would be amazing,” he muses. “To wear the national stripes for a season would be fantastic. But a lot of really good riders have raced nationals and never won it. Do I reflect on nationals from 2017? Yes. Do I think I could have won that day? Potentially.
“But there is a very good chance I would not have won anyway,” Canty continues. “This year the team gave me another good crack [he finished ninth]. A lot of things can pan out and unfortunately it did not work out for us.”
Ultimately Canty, an articulate and thoughtful interviewee, gives a balanced assessment of his first World Tour season.
“There were definitely some tough times in there, a few races that I was happy with and a few I wasn’t,” he says. “Getting the Vuelta under my belt was a really good thing. Finishing in Madrid was a good benchmark, it was my first year, the team had the confidence to put me into a grand tour and I not only made it to the end but had a few good days in the breakaway.
“Hopefully I can build on that experience this year,” he continues. “I have a few of the same races pencilled for 2018, so hopefully I can convert that knowledge and growth into improved performances.”
Canty’s other main ambition for the remainder of this year’s season concerns his contract.
“I signed a two-year deal, so my contract is up for renewal at the end of this season,” he says. “I guess the first step is to get the contract renewal. If I re-sign, then I can start thinking about my longer-term ambitions.
“I am only 26, so I have quite a few years ahead,” Canty suggests. “But you hear a lot about people coming into the sport and not surviving for long, so the focus for now is to cement my position in World Tour cycling.”
If or when Canty does cement his spot at cycling’s top table, one key goal is the grandest of the grand tours: the Tour de France. His team-mate Rigoberto Uran ended the 2017 Tour in second, and while a modest Canty says he is not yet ready for the three-week race to Paris, it remains the ultimate ambition.
“It was very exciting to see what ‘Rigo’ did last year,” says Canty. “Hopefully this year we can see him take the top step on the podium. I know personally I will not be at the Tour de France this year – even if the team wanted to select me, I would probably want to wait a little bit – I’m not sure I am ready.
“The dream is to race the Tour de France one day,” he concludes. “To be part of a team where there is a genuine chance to win the yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées is pretty incredible.”