In the team car with the Australian National Team at the Tour d’Azerbaidjan

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by Matt de Neef, CyclingTips Editor

Of the 25 teams at the 2014 Tour d’Azerbaidjan, eight are ProContinental, 16 are Continental and just one is a national team: the Australian National Team.

Australia has sent a representative team to all three editions of the race now known as the Tour d’Azerbaidjan (it was the Heydar Aliyev Anniversary Tour in its first year, 2012). In the previous two years the Australian National Team was almost entirely made up of young track riders looking to gain experience on the road. The team’s results in those two races didn’t provide much to write home about.

While this year’s team is young as well — all the riders are under 23 — only one is a track rider: Josh Harrison. Of the six riders on the team, four come from the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy team (Alex Clements, Josh Harrison, Brad Linfield, and Robert Power). The remaining two riders (Samuel Spokes and Nicholas Schultz) ride for teams in Belgium and France respectively.

The World Tour Academy team is currently split between this race and the Olympias Tour which is about to get underway in the Netherlands (where Caleb Ewan will make his return after crashing in the Tour of Flanders).

Speaking with team director sportif Brian Stephens (brother of Orica-GreenEDGE DS Neil Stephens and a man with more than two decades of experience as a coach) it’s clear there are some differences between working with U23 riders and more established pros.

For a start, the younger riders lack the conditioning to be able to provide consistent and reliable performances day after day. You can’t tell U23 riders in a UCI2.1 race (which the Tour d’Azerbaidjan is for the first time this year) to sit on the front of the bunch and drill it all day to catch a breakaway. As a result, the tactics need to be a little different.

The team is at the Tour d’Azerbaidjan riding in support of West Australian Robert Power. At 19 years of age (it’s his birthday today) he’s only a first year U23 rider and according to team staff there’s much he still has to learn about pacing himself and when to make the right moves. But according to team staff, he’s also extremely strong and has a very bright future ahead of him.

After three stages of the race Robert was just 10 seconds down on GC. On stage 4 the plan was to have as many guys around him for as long as possible. According to Brian there were, realistically, only a couple of guys in the team that could hang on with Robert beyond the day’s first two climbs, but the idea was to ensure Robert had to do as little work as possible. When it came to the final climb of the day, the 22km hors categorie ascent to the finish in Pirqulu, Rob would mostly be on his own.

The Australian National Team team car is 14th in the long line of team cars that follow the peloton. Before the first stage the directors sportif drew a number out of a hat to determine the order of the cars. On subsequent stages the order is determined by the highest-placed rider on each team. The team with the overall leader has the privilege of being first in the team car convoy, and so on.

While all the professional teams get paid to come to Azerbaidjan to race, the national team doesn’t. They do, however, get their flights paid for, which means the only substantial costs to the team are getting all the riders together in Europe before they fly to Baku, and paying the staff that come along to support the riders. In that case the only question is whether the team thinks the young riders will gain valuable experience from being in the race. And given they’ve sent a team to each edition of the race so far, it would seem that they do see it as worthwhile.

Thanks to Brian Stephens, the riders and the rest of the staff attached to the Australian National Team for their hospitality.

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