Faces of the Future: Australia’s next crop of superstar climbers

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For years now, the Jayco-AIS WorldTour Academy has provided young Australian riders with an important stepping stone on their way to the highest levels of the sport. Many of the country’s best male pros came through the setup, not least Michael Matthews, Rohan Dennis and, more recently, Caleb Ewan.

This year’s crop of WorldTour Academy riders mightn’t have grabbed as many headlines in the early season as their predecessors, but at the Tour de l’Avenir last week, the hardest U23 stage race on the calendar, the Australian team shone brightly.

The squad notched up several impressive results throughout the eight-stage event, courtesy of Nick Schultz, Lucas Hamilton, Michael Storer and Jai Hindley. It all points to an exciting future for Australian cycling.

With that in mind, just who are these riders we should be keeping an eye out for? What have they achieved thus far? And what might the future hold?

The Tour de l’Avenir

The Tour de l’Avenir (the “Tour of the Future”) is the biggest and most prestigious stage-race on the U23 calendar and the race where all prospective professionals want to post a strong result. A good performance at this race is often a strong indicator of future potential and past winners include Esteban Chaves, Bauke Mollema, Miguel Angel Lopez and Nairo Quintana.

The race is usually hard enough, but with four uphill finishes to close out this year’s edition, WorldTour Academy road coach James Victor described it as “the hardest Tour de l’Avenir I’ve seen in seven years.”

The Australian team went into the race with little concern for the general classification, instead aiming for stage victories when the road tilted up. The team was quiet in the opening stages, the flatter terrain not suiting the Australian climbers, but when the race headed into the Alps, the green and gold started to come to the fore.

Michael Storer took second place on the uphill finish to stage 5, Nick Schultz took a big solo win on a mountainous stage 7 with Jai Hindley in third, and Lucas Hamilton was second on the final stage. Hamilton also became the first Australian ever to win a jersey at the Tour de l’Avenir, winning the mountains classification. Jai Hindley finished fifth overall and Storer seventh, helping Australia to victory in the teams classification.

So who are the riders of the WorldTour Academy that performed so strongly at Tour de l’Avenir; the riders that we’re likely to be hearing plenty about in the years to come?

Michael Storer

Nineteen-year-old West Australian Michael Storer put the Tour de l’Avenir field on notice when, less than a week prior, he won the GP di Poggiana solo, more than three minutes ahead of second place. His second place on stage 5 at the Tour de l’Avenir only confirmed that big things lie ahead for the two-time junior Oceania time trial champion.

Storer

“Michael’s got solid physiology,” James Victor told CyclingTips. “He’s a little bit untapped as far as where his speciality’s going to be. He can time-trial, he showed that he can climb, he’s a little bit bigger-built than a Jai [Hindley], but that lends itself to his ability to be able to time-trial as well. He climbed exceptionally well, I thought, for a guy that’s come straight out of juniors last year.

“I think down the track [he could become] a GC contender, but whether it’s going to be over big stage races or one-week stage races, that remains to be seen. There’s probably another 12 months to anywhere up to three years before we’re going to see where he starts to specialise.

“He’s certainly a big talent and he’s still got some big races coming up before the end of this year that I think we’ll see a lot more of Michael as well. I think he’s got a big future ahead of him.”

Jai Hindley

Twenty-year-old Jai Hindley spent the first couple months of this season racing in Australia with the Taiwanese-registered Continental squad Attaque Team Gusto. He then joined the WorldTour Academy outfit, posting an impressive second overall at the An Post Ras stage race in Ireland.

Two days after Michael Storer’s win at the GP di Poggiana, Hindley, too, hit the winners’ list for the first time in Europe. The West Australian outsprinted Italy’s Edward Ravisi (who would go on to finish second at Tour de l’Avenir) to win the hilly one-day race GP Capodarco, marking him down as one of the riders to watch.

Image via Jai Hindley's Instagram page.
Image via Jai Hindley’s Instagram page.

“The way he races reminds me a little bit of the Yates brothers from back in 2013,” Victor said. “He’s just got that same sort of style. He’s not a standout motor that can time-trial well, but he races really well, he puts himself in a good position when he has got good form.

“I was quite confident he was going to climb at least in the top 10 with any of the European climbers that were coming to l’Avenir.”

Hindley did just that, finishing fifth overall after taking sixth, third and 11th on the final three mountainous stages of the race.

Lucas Hamilton

Twenty-year-old Victorian Lucas Hamilton got the attention of the Australian road cycling community in January this year when he finished second in the U23 men’s road race at the Australian Road National Championships, narrowly beaten by his namesake Chris Hamilton (no relation) after the pair rode away from the rest of the field.

That result earned Hamilton a ride for the national team at the Santos Tour Down Under before making the journey to Europe to join the WorldTour Academy squad. Like Hindley, Hamilton rode strongly at the An Post Ras, finishing third overall. And then he posted a solid fourth at GP Copodarco in the lead-up to the Tour de l’Avenir.

Lucas Hamilton in action at the 2015 Tour Down Under.
Lucas Hamilton in action at the 2015 Tour Down Under.

“[Lucas] is a second year; but had some knee issues last year and really only had three months of racing back in Australia,” Victor said. “[He] had always shown that talent through his junior years, that once he got his injuries under control, that he was going to have an impact in Europe.

“The Belgian racing didn’t really suit him in the first three months [of his stay in Europe], but it was clear what we were targeting at the back end of the season and the work that we put in to have him ready for the Tour de l’Avenir and his ability to climb. He worked exceptionally hard to be ready for that.”

Hamilton got sick in the opening stages of the Tour de l’Avenir but was able to nurse himself through, recovering in time to finish second on the final stage.

“He was certainly targeting the opportunity to try and win the stage, and as much keeping an eye out for Jai and Michael for the overall and how they were coping with that last climb up the [Col de la] Croix de Fer,” Victor said. “Another 500m and the stage win was his as well, but [it was] certainly a huge bonus and a great reward for him to pick up the mountains jersey.”

Nick Schultz

At 21 years old, Nick Schultz was the veteran of the WorldTour Academy’s Tour de l’Avenir squad. After three years with a French club team, Schultz joined the Continental SEG Racing Team for 2016 and has picked up some impressive results since. He won the final stage of the Tour de Bretagne and finished second overall at the Oberösterreichrundfahrt, earning him a stagiaire ride with Orica-BikeExchange at the Vuelta a Burgos.

“He’s just kept chipping away. He hasn’t done anything special on the grand scheme of things but his stage win in l’Avenir certainly put everyone on notice that he has talent and does work very hard,” James Victor explained. “He’s a good leader of the group on the road over the week of l’Avenir, just to keep everyone’s heads on and keep everyone focussed about the job at hand.

“We’ll see more things from Nick over the next few years. He wants to keep pursuing bigger and better things, and he works hard and he’s a good role model for the young guys.”

An eye to the future

Having been at the helm of the WorldTour Academy for seven years now, James Victor has seen many young riders make the intimidating step up to the highest level of the sport and excel once they got there. To him, it’s the trio of Michael Storer, Jai Hindley and Lucas Hamilton that fans of Australian cycling should keep an eye on in the years to come.

“I think they’re probably the standouts and they raced together at the Junior World Championships in Ponferrada in 2014,” Victor said. “So they’ve been a good group coming through.

“Of course there’s teams already talking about those three young guys …”

Victor also points to Australian U23 time trial champion Callum Scotson as a rider of great promise.

“I haven’t had final discussions with Callum and the track endurance group yet but I see Callum looking for some opportunities next year to do a bit more on the road. And where that leads to as far as his abilities in time trials and stage racing and any of the classics in Belgium …

“I can see Callum progressing really well through some of those Classics-style racing in the north of Europe as well.”

The 20-year-old South Australian has ridden alongside his brother Miles (himself a former U23 national TT champion, and WorldTour Academy rider) with U.S. Continental team Illuminate in 2016 but will join the WorldTour Academy in the lead-up to the Qatar World Championships in October.

The rest of the year

When CyclingTips spoke to James Victor he and the WorldTour Academy team had left France and were up in Andorra for a training block. The plan had been to return to Italy, but after consulting with Andorra resident Simon Gerrans and other Orica-BikeExchange riders, the team headed to Andorra with the hope of avoiding the unpredictable September weather in northern Italy.

The team now turns its attention to the Olympias Tour, a week-long Dutch stage race that has been moved from May to late September and turned into an U23 event (from a 2.2) to give the aspiring pros riders the best chance of a solid lead-in to the later-than-normal world championships.

Being in the Netherlands, the Olympias Tour is considerably flatter than the Tour de l’Avenir, acting as a perfect opportunity for young Australian riders to force their way into the U23 team for the sprinter-friendly Qatar Worlds road race.

“I haven’t seen a stand-out sprinter — there’s no Caleb Ewans in our group at the moment that are winning bunch sprints consistently,” James Victor said. “So it’s an opportunity at Olympias Tour with the likes of Alex Porter coming over. Rohan Wight, and Jason Lowndes from Drapac [are] going to join the group as well.

“[Lowndes has] been racing consistently through Europe this year, without having any wins but he’s raced at a very high level with Drapac in .1 and .HC races.”

So as the end of another season inches ever closer, will we see any of this year’s current crop of WorldTour Academy riders get the call up to the WorldTour? Or will the likes of Jai Hindley, Lucas Hamilton and Michael Storer be better served by another year or two in the U23 ranks?

Regardless, if the past few weeks have shown anything it’s that the future’s bright when it comes to the next generation of young Australian riders.

The feature image shows the Australian team for the Tour de l’Avenir. From left to right: Michael Storer, Nick Schultz, Jai Hindley, Dan Fitter, Sam Jenner and Lucas Hamilton.

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