Flashback: Durbridge – “Senior Junior”

In RIDE #47 (published in January 2010), we profile a young man who had recently won a few world titles in the junior ranks. His name was Luke Durbridge. Last week (9 January 2012) he successfully defended his national championship time trial title and yesterday (13 January 2012) he became the Australian road race champion. Today we hark back to our story from three years ago to give a bit of background about the first elite male rider to win both the TT and road race titles in the same season.

This is a flashback from 2010.

 

 

On the road or track — a time trial, madison, pursuit or sprint — Luke Durbridge has the determination to win at every level. One of the new generation of champions, he’s made a name for himself even before turning 19. And there’s a lot more to come.

– By Rob Arnold

 

 

 

 

Australia has always produced world-class time trial riders. Starting at the junior level through under-23 to the seniors, the nation has succeeded time and again. The first triple world title in the elite ranks was achieved by Mick Rogers in the TT between 2005 and 2007. The discipline was introduced as a medal event in 1994. The first gold ever awarded in the time trial went to Mick’s older brother Deane, who was presented with the old-style rainbow jersey for juniors – one with the five coloured stripes forming a deep ‘V’ on the front – on 24 August in Quito, Ecuador. A month later, in Sicily, Chris Boardman would win the senior title. But it was an Australian who earned the premier individual time trial world championship.

The next year an Australian won again. Josh Collingwood from Wagga Wagga took gold. Another Aussie who, back then, was embarking on a career as a pro mountain bike racer won the bronze. It was the first time Cadel Evans had raced a time trial bike in competition but it would not be the last.

Since 1995 another three Australians have taken silver medals in the under-19 category – Mat Hayman, Mick Rogers and Mark Jamieson – while Fabian Cancellara, Mikhail Ignatiev and Taylor Phinney have won at least one gold each. In Moscow this August, 18-year-old Luke Durbridge returned Australia to the top step. He started his ride mid-pack on an overcast day. The course was four lanes wide, hot-mixed and “very fast”. He opted to go out quick and build a sustainable lead over the first lap, then hold his advantage through until the end. Restrictions on gearings imposed on juniors meant that his biggest possible ratio could be a 52/14. “I knew my track legs would help on the downhill which needed a high cadence,” said Durbridge.

“I went out hard and after the first lap had the fastest time. When I came across the line I was 50 seconds faster than anyone else and just had to sit in the hot seat for ages. I had to wait for over an hour; it was nerve-racking, but it’s better to be waiting than not. I stayed in my kit and rolled around a tiny square on my road bike because my coach (Tim Dekker) wanted me to warm-down because I had the track events coming up in a couple of days and didn’t want the legs to get heavy.”

During his time in the hot seat and turning circles on his road bike the final wave of riders came into the finish, but none could match his time. The winning margin was small, just 2.2 seconds faster than Lawson Craddock of the US, but his job was done: world title number one. Luke stood on the podium in cleated shoes, received a stripey jersey for the wardrobe and decided he liked the colours. He wanted more of these jerseys!

“I’m still proud of what I did in Quito,” says Deane Rogers who quit cycling in his mid-20s, opened a bike shop for a while but had little to do with the sport except to watch his brother’s progression – under-19, under-23 and senior medallist… three times! Top 10 in the Tour de France. And so on. Deane took a break from the cycling industry for a while but he’s now involved again as the Australian distributor of Hincapie Sportswear. From one rainbow to another…

Success at a young age doesn’t always translate into a healthy and prosperous career in the professional ranks. Collingwood would also retire before his prime. He had other interests. He’s about to complete a medical degree but, like Deane, cannot resist the temptation to check in on the results. Once cycling is in the blood it’s generally there to stay. But first you need that introduction. Luke Durbridge became a rider, quite simply, because he was no good at swimming.

“I was a triathlete and couldn’t swim. I had no interest in learning how to do it properly either,” he said. “Too boring!”

There is no shortage of talent for the Australian team pursuit quartet and Luke Durbridge demonstrated that he might have been worthy of selection for the London Olympics. He leads the winning team during the final at the 2009 World Cup in Melbourne (above).

A lot has changed in the 15 years that individual time trials have been part of the world championship program. Young riders with potential have options and Durbridge soon found himself receiving guidance from people who knew that, just because he didn’t like doing laps in a pool, it was still possible to find a future in sport. “I was good at bike riding and went down and had a ride around and got picked up by the WAIS talent ID program, and it pretty much went from there.

“I live not far from Cameron and Travis Meyer and I train with them pretty much all the time – they are awesome to have around – and also Adam Semple, so it’s great training. I am always trying to put myself against them and trying to race them and get to their level, which I think has helped me.”

Like the locals the young world champion had the opportunity to partake in some celebrations in Russia, but he opted not to go overboard. He had the madison yet to ride. Not even a victory on the track as well could tempt him to raise a glass in Moscow. When a bartender was informed of Luke’s new world championship status, he promptly offered shots of vodka. Both Luke and Alex Carver declined; this is the junior worlds…!

Cycling can consume. From success comes motivation and Luke Durbridge was seen in the corridors deep in the network of tunnels below the Hisense Arena on the night of the World Cup in Melbourne. He had been part of a group that, less than four minutes earlier, had ridden faster than that to win the team pursuit. Together with Rohan Dennis, Michael Hepburn and Cameron Meyer, he beat the Brits by over two seconds.

It was a fabulous team pursuit, the kind of race that attracts people to the velodrome. If you were there that night, would you go back to a track race again? I’d wager that you would. I was in the crowd last November and I saw the race. It was an epic. This is what sport is about; there were so many things happening as eight men and two coaches animated the arena.

Don’t ever take the team pursuit away! Other events have come and gone; the madison, bless its soul, was a beautiful part of the Olympics for three stanzas. It started in Sydney and had the best effect possible: it ignited the passions of the host nation. This was Australia’s showcase in cycling in 2000. Four years later it happened again. Two Aussies got together and smashed out a race that was so quick and so beautiful that the poor old IOC declared it to be too confusing. It’s gone now.

But the team pursuit, it’s art in motion. Watch a coach walk the line or scream from the corner. Follow the action of teams on opposing sides of the velodrome, separated at first by 125m, and essentially presented with the challenge: catch the other team!

If you do that, it’s over. Thankfully, the team pursuit is still part of the program for the Olympic Games. If you care about this competition and it seems many do – although it’s rapidly losing credibility in cycling – then you’d have been intrigued by the circumstances surrounding this beautiful discipline. It was Australia versus Great Britain, once again.

We were the best. But in China they were not only better, they demolished preconceived notions and took the 4,000m event to a new level. Before Sydney in 2000 a sub-four minute ride had never been achieved. Now it’s necessary even to win a round of the World Cup. The number of times a team has gone under four minutes is still low and this is still an enormous accomplishment, but in Beijing when the Brits set the new world record (3:53.314) they were perfect.

In Melbourne they were not. It was quite a sight: relatively even turns by both teams at Hisense. They were close to level, with Ian McKenzie calling for Australia and Dan Hunt on duty for Britain. It was a thrilling contest and then, two and a half laps from the end, there was a collapse. Not a crash but a lost wheel by the second rider in the British line-up. The gap opened and one bend on the track seemed to last an eternity as everyone pondered: will he recover or leave? The rider swung up and, from third position, another was forced to chase down the lead rider. It was over. Their precision didn’t last.

Meanwhile the Australians were still asked to ride for a fast time. The quartet of youth where the oldest – the current points race world champion Meyer – is just 21, clocked 3:59.60. Two are still juniors!

When I first spoke to Durbridge he had just returned from Moscow. He understood the price of losing a wheel. When I first met him, he had just finished a race in which he was part of the winning team and had benefited from someone else losing a wheel. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

“I missed the wheel,” he said of the final in Russia. “It was less than two kilometres to go, the crowd was really loud and Dale called ‘three’ and I didn’t hear it.”

 

 

The incident Durbridge refers to was from the final of the team pursuit in Moscow last August. The Aussies qualified in a new world record time for the under-19 category (4:05.352). The road TT champion joined forces with Hepburn, Peter Loft and Dale Parker and they would progress to the final on the 333m track against a Russian quartet.

The Australians started out strong but were behind at the one-kilometre mark. Then they ripped out a sub-minute second kilo (59.119) but the locals were on fire, posting 57.440 for the same part of the race. The world record was only a few hours old and already under threat, but Durbridge and his mates were not going to concede without a fight. As they attempted to make up for lost ground it all went wrong. “Peter Loft hit the wheel when he was at the back,” explained the West Australian.

“I was at the front and swung up to the top and came down expecting there to be four guys. The noise was intense because the Russian crowd was really getting behind their team; that’s why I didn’t hear either the fall or the call of ‘three’. I missed the wheel. Michael didn’t know so he went through as though for his turn, thinking there were still three in the line-up, but I got blown off the wheel.” It was a comedy of errors not unlike what the senior British team would do in Melbourne.

“It’s one of those things you never want to see but I did and we just have to move on. It was definitely emotional but we had to pick ourselves up because Michael, Alex and I had racing on the next day; we had to put it behind us.”

One of the beautiful things about a team pursuit is that it is perfection. Riding in a group of four and posting sub-minute kilometre times requires it to be absolutely millimetre perfect. One small hiccup can spoil the whole show. The Australians never ended up posting a time. The remaining three were caught and the Russians set a new world best: 4:04.646. Silver would go to the former record holders. Durbridge found a remedy for his disappointment; victory in the madison with Alex Carver the next day helped ease the pain of the close call.

But, I wanted to know, what’s it like trying to chase down a wheel at that speed? “I missed it by about a bike and a half,” Durbridge explained. “When you miss a wheel, even by a metre or two, it’s like trying to bridge a gap of a kilometre in a road race. It’s just so hard without the draft when you are going that fast. Even if you eventually get back on, it’s taxing; you’ve had to put so much effort in and you’re spent by the time you have to do your next turn at the front.

“A common rule of team pursuiting is that your turn is not over until you get back on. Some people think that when you swing up that you can instantly recover. That’s not the case. Some take for granted that it’s just riders swapping off in team pursuiting, but there is so much technique and precision that goes into it. It’s not easy. The guys practise it so much that, at world championship level, they make it look simple.

“When it goes right it’s a wicked feeling. You can hear the wind rushing past and it’s exaggerated by the aero helmets; everything is flashing past really quickly. Then, as soon as you swing up, you can really feel the force of how fast you are going because if you don’t turn to come back down then you will just go straight through the fence.”

At the 2009 Tour of Tasmania, Durbridge picked up a couple of stage wins as part of the Jayco-AIS team (above). PHOTO: Shane Goss

He was part of the winning pursuit team a year earlier. At only 17, Durbridge already had his first rainbow jersey and by the end of the championship in Moscow in 2009, he’d collected another two – the road TT and the madison. Racing will not weary the young, especially when they’re winning. “If Luke has any problem,” said Tim Dekker after returning from Russia, “it’s that he is too enthusiastic. There are times when I’d like him to rest a little bit but he just wants to ride. Still, he has a great attitude and plenty of power. A bright future awaits; I’m sure we’ll hear his name a lot more in the next few years.”

Australia fielded no team in the madison at the World Cup in Melbourne. If Durbridge had been given the opportunity to race, chances are he would have put on a good performance. But he accepted the (cryptic) decision not to enter a duo for the event last November. He was still coming down from the buzz of going under four minutes in the pursuit a day earlier, even though the Russian experience tells us that he can recover well. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have won the madison and taken his second gold medal in less than a week.

“In the final we didn’t take a lap but we won on points,” he said of the partnership with Carver. “The deal was that I was supposed to bridge the gaps and put Alex in position coming into the sprints. There were only five sprints and he did all of them because he has a better kick than me. We averaged 53.5km/h for 33km, which is moving pretty fast. The Russians and Italians were relentless with attacking but I’d chase them down and then go on the attack. Tim Dekker would tell us what to do and it was tactically perfect.”

So, what now for this talented young rider? Of course he’s one of many who can hear London calling, but is that realistic? “I think it is going to be a very hard team to make,” he said about the selection for the track team at the 2012 Olympics.

“I think there are about eight or nine guys vying for five spots. You have Jack Bobridge and Cam Meyer and his brother Travis, Glenn O’Shea, Rohan Dennis, Leigh Howard, Michael Hepburn and hopefully myself.” But first he has got to see how he fares when he eventually reaches the senior level even though he’s done enough to make it clear to the selectors that he’s got his hand up when they make the call for nominations. It’s also a reminder that, eight years on from the Australian blitz at the Athens Games in 2004, there’s fresh talent lining up not just to take on the British at home, but to beat them in what is destined to be a showcase event.

By Rob Arnold

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RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
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Author: rob@ride

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