Harper and his move to Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma was an open secret since the news leaked in the Netherlands months ago, but true to his nature, the South Australian hasn’t put the cart in front of the horse, continuing to better himself in the interim.
A theme of Harper’s career is consistent development; from a rider who was one of many battling in the National Road Series (NRS) on his parents’ sponsored team, SwissWellness, to one that takes on and beats the world's most promising climbers.
“It’s been quite a slow thing, I’ve had to get better year on year to this point,” Harper said. “Maybe not just physically but mentally as well. Believing that you’re actually capable and getting smarter with other things whether that’s race nutrition or riding good position. This year it’s come together pretty well for the races I targeted.”
The 24-year-old makes the leap to the top level of cycling a bit later than most, but does so with a background of ticking off major milestones in domestic racing and in Asia, before impressing in one of the biggest non-WorldTour races in Europe for climbers.
Australian viewers are familiar with Harper after successive national road race podium placings in 2018 and 2019, finishing tantalisingly close to dramatic wins on both occasions. Add to that top performances at the Herald Sun Tour and the win in the Oceanias road race in 2018, wins in Asia at the Tour of Japan and you begin to get a picture of why the tall South Australian attracted so much attention from Jumbo-Visma.
“This year I felt that I was starting to put together some good results and I just hoped people took notice and that I’d have the opportunity to step up,” Harper said.
The one result he credits with securing his ascension to the elite ranks is his first place overall and two stage wins at Tour de Savoie, a European race that also saw teammate and fourth-place overall Dylan Sunderland secure his own WorldTour contract with Dimension Data (next year racing as NTT).
“If you take the four hardest stages of the Tour de France and put them all in the one Tour, that’s pretty much what that race is,” Harper said. “It’s always a race with some strong teams, Pro Continental teams and good, strong Continental teams. Historically, you look at riders that have done well at the race and where they are now… a perfect example is Egan Bernal, who won it two years ago.”
“Probably about this time last year was when I decided with Andrew (Christie-Johnston, Harper’s coach) to try and target the race. The previous year I’d wanted to go win it as well, but I made a few mistakes in training, over-trained a bit and got sick. That added a bit of fuel to the fire this year and I wanted to go there and give it a good crack.”
Harper's talent was recognised after overall victory at the Tour of Bright in 2016, earning him a call-up to then-named IsoWhey Sports team, the Andrew Christie-Johnston that has seen a number of Australians reach the WorldTour.
Harper’s parents, Rick and Melinda, also made the switch across to the team as co-naming sponsors, and became a regular presence as roadside soigneurs for Chris and the team.
“They’ve been incredible throughout my cycling career,” said Harper of his parents. “They’ve always supported me and given me the opportunity to give cycling the best crack I can. I don’t think without them that I’d be in the position I am now.”
“The team has a good history of pushing riders into the WorldTour, you’re always hoping that you’re the one that can make the step up. Racing is a constant up and down, so you never really know.”
IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness changed into Bennelong-SwissWellness, then morphed into Team Bridgelane for 2019, as Andrew Christie-Johnston moved more into the background and Tom Petty took over the running of the team. But a step into the background hasn’t diminished the Tasmananian cycling development guru's impact on Harper’s career.
“I’d like to thank everyone that has supported me over the years, all the teams that I’ve ridden with, all the sponsors of those teams that have given me a chance to ride my bike all over the world,” said Harper. “A big one goes out to Andrew Christie-Johnston as well, he’s been pivotal in helping me achieve the results I have this year and step up to the WorldTour.
“Obviously Bridgelane is the same structure as what Andrew Christie-Johnston put in place and he’s still involved behind the team. He’s also coached me for over a year now.
“The team has always given the rider a race platform, that, if you want to become a WorldTour rider it gives you that opportunity. I don’t think there’s another organization within Australia that gives you that opportunity.
“Not only going to Europe, but going to the right races, where directors from other teams notice the results. A lot of riders do the Euro thing, but maybe it’s not the right races to get them noticed. This a structure where if you’ve got the form and work hard, you have the opportunity to show yourself on a big stage.”
The gangly climber recognises he will take a massive step up next season to WorldTour star squad Jumbo-Visma, with the team bursting at the seams with Grand Tour-winning talent in Primoz Roglic and Tom Dumoulin, a top-tier sprinter in Dylan Groenewegen and one of the most promising talents in world cycling in Wout van Aert.
Harper fully anticipates being thrown in the deep end, especially as domestique for the likes of Roglic and Dumoulin in 2020.
“For sure, I hope to be,” Harper said. “That’s the best way to learn, from the best. The team’s coming off a successful season and it’s only going to get better.
“You look at the roster and it’s full of quality riders, not just GC guys but sprinters, time-triallists and classic riders as well. It’s a super good mix, but for me, someone who wants to develop into a GC rider, there are so many good riders to learn from. How they prepare for and race the biggest races in the world.
“It gives you a lot of confidence in the team. They obviously know what they’re doing. It’s very motivating as well to get out on your bike and get in condition for the races, knowing that everyone else is doing exactly the same thing.”
If there’s anything clearly repeatable as a strategy for getting better at cycling, hard work is top of the list. Talent comes and goes, but the top riders put in the hard yards and deliver consistently. Harper has learned this lesson over and over again, reaping the rewards of a steadily developing trajectory racing alongside the best in the world.
“There are obviously super talented bike riders out there even at 18, 19 years old,” said Harper. “Look at Remco (Evenepoel) the other day, you wouldn’t pick that he goes straight into worlds and is on the podium.
“I don’t necessarily think that because you come through a bit later that it’s a bad thing. Everyone takes their own to time to develop and find their legs. Everyone progresses at a different rate and you have to wait and see what happens over a rider’s career.”