Dunbar poised to seize chances heading into year two with Axeon Hagens Berman team

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He’s seen as a promising young talent for the future, an aggressive rider who has fired off a salvo of long-range attacks in recent seasons and who is moving closer to a big win.

As the days tick down to the start of his season in next week’s Volta ao Alentejo, Eddie Dunbar says that he is looking to step up a level in 2017, with greater consistency a big target in achieving that goal.

“In terms of targeting events, I am just going to go into every race in the best shape I can,” the 20-year-old Axeon Hagens Berman rider said. “And hopefully perform well for the team and pick up some results.

“What I would like to do this year is obviously help the team out in any way I can. I think last year the team rode so well that performances were never an issue last year….even if we didn’t get a result in a race we were always there or thereabouts performing.

“In that sense [the aim] it is just basically do whatever job I am asked. But if Axel [Merckx, team owner] tells me to do something, go for it – whether it be to work for someone to help someone win a race or maybe get an opportunity myself – I will certainly take that.”

Dunbar had a solid first season with the team in 2016, clocking up sixth place in the European Under 23 TT championships, ninth in the equivalent event at the world championships, fourth in the An Post Rás plus top 20 GC finishes in the Volta ao Alentejo, the Tour of Utah and the Tour of Alberta.

The Irishman may have achieved more but for two factors. Firstly, he willingly rode for teammates when they were in a position to win, which happened often in 2016. Riders such as Adrien Costa, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Gregory Daniel were in fine form and he gave them necessary support.

Secondly, he suffered a fractured collarbone in April. That injury put a brake on the momentum he was building early on, even if he won a stage and finished fourth overall in the An Post Rás just over a month after his crash.

“The main thing for me is just to stay upright,” he says, speaking of 2017. “Not breaking a collarbone this year would be a big help, just to get a few extra races in rather than taking four weeks at home in a sling.

“I will just race as much as I can and make the most of the opportunities I get.”

Merckx was encouraged by what he saw last year, even if Dunbar’s crash meant he was held back in the first half of the season.

He has expectations that 2017 could bring some good results and help his progression.

“Eddie has proven already that he is a solid rider,” he told CyclingTips. “He is really talented and really strong. He got some pretty interesting results last year already. He just got slowed down a little bit because of a couple of crashes.

“I think with those out of the way, he will have bigger chances to be consistent throughout the season and get stronger also for the main races.”

Polishing a diamond

Dunbar showed his talent in 2014 when he won the Trofeo Karlsberg Nations Cup race. That helped secure a contract with the NFTO team in Britain for the following season.

He then put in some very aggressive performances in 2015, including a solo 110 kilometre break in another Nations Cup event, La Côte Picarde. Although he was caught by a chase group, he had the strength to go with counterattacks and remain out front for another 12 kilometres before being hauled back.

Eddy Merckx was in a car behind Dunbar and, suitably impressed, congratulated the rider after the race. He recommended him to his son Axel for the Axeon Hagens Berman squad, but the latter had already set his sights on him and brought him on board for 2016.

Part of his work with the rider was to increase his tactical awareness in terms of attacking, and also to help him gain general strength.

In terms of the 2017 season, Dunbar’s programme sees him begin in the aforementioned Volta ao Alentejo, then ride a single-day event in Portugal. After that he will do the under 23 Gent-Wevelgem with the Irish squad, the Tryptique, the Circuit des Ardennes and then four one-day races in Italy.

His schedule after that will become clearer closer to the time. Right now he’s keen to get racing again and to see how things have progressed since last season.

After a later than expected end to the season due to a call-up to the Irish world championship squad, Dunbar took a break and then knuckled down to training again. He attended an Axeon Hagens Berman training camp in California in January and caught up with his teammates plus the incoming riders there.

He felt that there was a noticeable difference between then and the corresponding period twelve months earlier.

“Compared to last year I definitely feel a lot more relaxed,” he said. “Obviously you know all the staff this year coming back in. You still have eight guys who are there. It just feels nice to come back into a team where you are familiar with the setup and you know a lot of the people.

“There are a couple of new guys on the team…actually, half the team is new. They are all really good guys. I have known Chris [Lawless], who I am rooming with as well, since 2011, because we actually did the European youth Olympics together.

“He was racing for GB and I was racing for Ireland. And of course the Oliveira twins [Rui and Ivo], I know them from racing in Europe quite a bit last year. The same as the others – I got to know them very well, and they seem like really good guys.

“It will be nice to maybe pass on what I have learned maybe over the last two years in Under 23 down to the new guys and help them in any way I can. They seem like they are really motivated and they are really good guys, so I am really looking forward to this year and racing with them.”

Dunbar talks about being more at ease in the team. This is something that Merckx has also noticed, and is encouraged by.

“He has totally opened up,” he said. “As shy and quiet as he was last year, he was way more open and way more comfortable in his environment. That was really cool to see because he feels like he has his home. He feels comfortable in this team and he knows what to expect from the team.

“We are 100 percent behind him. There is no learning any more about how the team functions. It is just like going back to work and going back to a familiar environment also.”

Looking further ahead

Dunbar may feel at home, but his aim must be, and will be, to move up to the WorldTour from there. That may be possible for 2018, or it could take longer. He is still just 20 years of age and time is on his side.

Should things go well this season, does Merckx feel that Dunbar should ideally step up to pro level for 2018, or might another year with the squad be beneficial?

“It depends on how his season is panning out this year,” he answered. “It is hard to for me to tell if in one more year he should be ready. But part of crashing (like he did last year) is also part of the experience of racing to avoid those things.

“Of course you need good luck and at the same time it is learning to ride the group and holding your own there. So for me, whether he can manage that all in one season, I don’t know. If he can, why not?

“If he can prove that he can have the results and prove he can hold his own moving up, then I won’t hold him back. But at the same time, he also has to evolve on his own.”

Dunbar is a talented rider, and also a very ambitious one. He has already made clear that he ultimately hopes to fight for Tour de France titles, and will give his utmost to progress. If everything comes together 2017 could be a special year for him and for the team.

Expect plenty more eyeballs-out, aggressive riding along the way.

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