Leigh Howard has designs on being reborn as a WorldTour sprinter following a “dismal” number of race days in his final season with Orica-GreenEdge this year.
The 25-year-old has already begun training for the 2016 season, which he has predicted will be a transition year with new team IAM.
Howard is focused on finding his way back to being the sprinter he was groomed to be. Within the past 18 months, the Australian has been more a pilot at Orica-GreenEdge working for neo-professional Caleb Ewan in tours, or aiding Jens Keukeleire throughout the spring classics.
Howard realises he won’t be able to walk into a new team environment and ask for race leadership but is hopeful he can work towards that while also pairing with new team-mate Matteo Pelucchi.
He estimates the task will be not just a mental challenge but also a physical one having raced just 36 days in a season he concluded early at the GP Quest France – Plouay in August.
“I’m trying to build-up a good foundation in the gym and I’ve got an extra month to get that, really work on some power and get a bit more speed back because I just haven’t sprinted this year,” he told Cyclingtips in a phone interview from Spain.
“I’ve been working for Caleb, which was great but I’m a sprinter at heart and I’d like to do my own sprints as well.”
Howard, following Plouay, went travelling through Africa for three weeks with his girlfriend but is now back to training, which has been an overly familiar exercise for the former track world champion this year.
He said his early end to the season was not an example of contract politics, as can sometimes be in the case in cycling, rather a reflection of a year in which his team didn’t have a calendar to cater.
“It was just the team gave me hardly any racing this year. I haven’t even counted my race days, I’m scared to look, but I don’t think I cracked 40,” he reflected. “It wasn’t so much just me either there was quite a few, even guys like Mat Hayman.
“If you’re on the Tour program, you’ve done the Giro as preparation, or the Giro program had other stuff for preparation,” he added.
“I crashed in [the February Tour of] Qatar, which knocked me out of Oman and then I missed Tour of Turkey because I had tendonitis so two races there, which was a bit annoying. It was a pretty lean season.”
Howard’s transition from sprinter to pilot ironically went some way in securing him a deal with IAM. Australian national champion and IAM captain Heinrich Haussler saw his compatriot support Keukeleire during the spring classics and from that backed the transfer that agent Dries Smets oversaw.
However, pilot, or workhorse, is not what Howard wants to be wholly defined as yet.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start,” he said. “I’d say early last year I started the season what I thought was quite well. In Oman I ran second two times to [Alexander] Kristoff and [Andre] Greipel, so I’m running close seconds to some of the best sprinters in the world, but I wasn’t winning.
“The team saw that and then I had quite a bad period between Catalunya and Dauphine where I really lost a bit of focus and that was the turning point. After that I had to sort of try and prove I was still capable of winning races and to do that I had to start helping out the other guys.
“It’s hard to prove your worth when you don’t get to sprint. And then if you do good lead-outs and the other guy does win then you’ve done a great job and you’re going to keep doing the same thing because he won,” he continued.
“It was just really hard to stop. Unless you stand-up and completely ignore team orders, and that’s not who I am, and go solo in the races then it’s pretty hard to prove yourself.”
Howard’s best result this season was a sixth place finish at the 200km Ride London – Surrey Classic in the UK where he has previously marked career success winning a stage and leading the 2012 Tour of Britain for a stint with Orica-GreenEdge.
“Basically from the classics in April I trained until that race, with just [the Tour of] Korea in between, and I had to send myself to Belgium to do some kermesse racing,” he said.
“It showed in London where I had good condition but didn’t have the racing in the legs to finish off a 200km race – just off training.
“Between the classics and Tour Korea, for example, I had two months training and then from Korea to London was another two months so it was sort of a lose-lose situation where I had to train so hard for just one small race in Korea and then again the same thing. You can’t get maximum condition out of just training, you need racing. I went there trying to go well but it was a bit hard to be at my best without racing.”
Howard emphasised several times that he was not being critical of ‘home’ squad Orica-GreenEdge, which he has been with since its inception in 2012, in his summation of a quiet year.
The imminent start at IAM, where he has compatriots in Haussler, David Tanner and staff, will however provide opportunity he may not have otherwise had, especially with the direction Orica-GreenEdge is reportedly taking.
The squad has an accomplished versatile sprinter in Michael Matthews, developing pure sprinter in Ewan, classics man Simon Gerrans and an increasing focus on general classification competition with the Yates brothers, Chaves Esteban and a host of rookie pro signings coming along nicely.
“I think if I stayed I was going down a path that wasn’t moving in the direction I wanted,” Howard said. “I’m not ready to settle down into a pure lead-out or pure working role. I still have more to give than just settling down for that and if I stayed with GreenEdge that’s the role I would have slotted into.
“In order for me to keep moving forward I needed to change. Hopefully with this change it’s a clean slate and I can keep moving forward instead of stagnant or downhill.”