I probably should have taken notice a little earlier, but it wasn't till the 2016 Tour Down Under where I was truly impressed by Daryl Impey's versatility.
Two years earlier he'd finished seventh overall, 34 seconds off the pace, riding in support of Simon Gerrans, who won his third title in South Australia. In 2015, Cameron Meyer was the supposed leader but Impey's versatility and, as importantly, consistency, saw him the best-placed Orica-GreenEDGE rider and he was seventh again, ending the race 35 seconds adrift of winner Rohan Dennis.
It's why Mitchelton-Scott, while heavily Grand Tour focused, unquestionably need riders like Impey and should not forget their roots as opportunists, for they create and maintain interest and excitement in the team in the periods between.
It appeared he was good enough to be a leader at the TDU but as long as elder statesman Gerrans was on the team he would not get the chance, it seemed.
Unsurprisingly, OGE went in with Gerrans as leader again in 2016. Super-domestique Impey, a fast finisher in his own right, had also another role to play as their sprinter Caleb Ewan needed a lead-out man and he was it. The man from Johannesburg performed both roles to perfection: Ewan won two stages and the Down Under Classic, Gerrans a record fourth title, where Impey shepherded the latter on the key climbs of Corkscrew Road and Old Willunga Hill.
Such was the intensity of the GC battle between Gerrans and riders like Richie Porte, Sergio Henao, Jay McCarthy and Michael Woods - not to mention the additional workload of leading out Ewan - that Impey had little left for himself. Quite remarkably, he still finished as the second best rider on the team, albeit in 44th place. Impey had executed his job so well for both leaders, I remarked he was not just a man for all season but 'A man for all reasons', and penned him down as potential future winner - so long as he got the chance. Interestingly, another versatile athlete performing domestique duties above expectations was a New Zealander by the name of Patrick Bevin, who finished in tenth place.
In 2017, Orica-Scott brought their revelation from the previous year's Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, Esteban Chaves, with them to Adelaide, so even Gerrans had to take a back seat. Impey, riding his sixth Tour Down Under, was once again a domestique deluxe; Ewan now had both the South African and Roger Kluge as lead-out men. Chaves, although in good form, was no match for Porte on the climbs of Paracombe and Willunga, the Tasmanian fresh off the back of a top-five place at the 2016 Tour de France, his confidence sky-high. The Colombian ultimately finished second overall, 48 seconds in arrears; a chasm-sized deficit in a race that is often decided in single digits.
When the start list of last year's TDU was announced, Chaves was out, Gerrans had changed teams, and Impey was in - yet Mitchelton-Scott made no mention of any leadership role he might have. In fact, one might have said there was none. "In a change from recent campaigns, the team will take a singular rather than split focus into their home and the first WorldTour race of the 2018 season," said the team press release, "focusing solely on stage victories rather than overall honours in what is shaping up to be a sprinters' showcase."
While it wasn't complete BS, as Ewan was indeed their leader for the sprint stages, they were being disingenuous; it wasn't the first time head sports director Matt White has being so when it comes to fully revealing the team's motives. Nonetheless, it was a way to take pressure off Impey's shoulders, as head-to-head against Porte it appeared a lopsided affair. But Impey harnessed all of White's experience, all of his, all the team's, and, of course, all his versatility, to end the race the same time as Porte and win on countback. (Read blog: Best TDU ever?) Only after Willunga did he concede to being "a bit of a protected rider"; only after Willunga did he admit: "I've always had a little bit of self-doubt."
That has now changed - mostly.
This time around there was no obfuscation. "We are ready for the challenge and we have brought a solid team to aid Daryl in his attempt to defend his title," said White in the pre-race press release, "something that has never been done in Tour Down Under history." Nor was their any apprehension in the words of the defending champion, now the undisputed leader of the team: "The biggest change for me, and for the team, is that without Caleb (Ewan) we don't have to worry about his lead out, so I can put more energy into my own goals," he said.
"I don't think Willunga on the last day will change (the race) much. It makes it more exciting, but for me, like last year, I just need to take time where I can and then hope it's enough."
Bevin, riding for the CCC Team, and someone with not dissimilar attributes to Impey, had a near-identical race strategy, and began his campaign for time bonuses as early as Day 1. When the Kiwi beat Ewan and Peter Sagan in a sprint on the next stage to Angaston he was correctly identified as the man to beat - though his buffer to Impey was mitigated when the latter finished third on Stage 3 then won the next day in Campbelltown, after both latched back onto the lead group following the ascent, and perilous descent, of Corkscrew. For Impey, there was still the self-doubt he spoke of the previous year, though as before, it gave him wings: "I was unsure going into the Corkscrew knowing I've had good and bad times. In the middle of the Corkscrew, when I was doubting myself, I was thinking, 'Jeez, you have to keep pushing.' I'm glad I did and I'm a lot more confident now going into Willunga."
It effectively became a tantalising, two man, two team race between two all-rounders... until Bevin, the race leader, saw his chances destroyed in the final 10km of Stage 5. "All it took was a touch of wheels and I went down," he said. It's a shame because it seemed that Impey very much wanted the road, not fate, to decide: "I felt sorry for Paddy (Bevin); it's very unfortunate and I was looking forward to having a nice battle with him," he said Sunday after another stellar performance on Willunga, where he went even better than 12 months previous to finish in the same group as Porte, the undisputed king of the hill. "He was a little bit robbed in the race. He's got guts – coming to the start line today, you could see he was hurting. Definitely, in this bike race, he's been the most consistent and he would have been a really deserving winner."
You don't hear that very often, if at all.
Impey, after his stage win, also spoke of being down in the dumps after one of his best friends died of a heart attack earlier in the month. "The guys picked me up during the week," he said. He dedicated his overall win to retiring team-mate Mathew Hayman, their road captain at the TDU and a professional till the end: "We needed everyone on; every day there was a plan, things to think about, so although I was being pulled in a few extra directions than normal, the number one priority was racing and it's so nice to be able to race to the death," said the 2016 winner of Paris-Roubaix.
While proud of my Australian identity I wouldn't call myself particularly nationalistic, so when I say that no other WorldTour race tests a rider's all-round mettle quite like the Tour Down Under, I'm saying that without bias. It's also why Mitchelton-Scott, while heavily Grand Tour focused, unquestionably need riders like Impey and should not forget their roots as opportunists, for they create and maintain interest and excitement in the team in the periods between.
The TDU is a race which, throughout its 21-year history, has overwhelmingly been won by a jack of all trades and master of none; where winning margins often come in single digits or decided on countback; and from the perspective of tourism and economic benefit, appears to tick all the boxes.
This is a race for the unsung heroes, who, should they win, often go on to being heroes. It's what makes a person like Daryl Impey the quintessential champion.