When Australian James Whelan crossed the line with his hands aloft at the recent U23 Tour of Flanders, it raised a few eyebrows, particularly among European journalists.
“A few of them couldn’t believe it,” a still excited Whelan said when he sat down with CyclingTips later that week. “They were confused as to how I had won my first race in Europe!”
Winning your first race in Europe is no mean feat. It often takes Australians years to get used to the aggressive racing, the huge bunches, and the tight roads, especially in Belgium. What makes Whelan’s win even more impressive is the fact this former runner has only been riding for 18 months.
“I think the biggest thing was the fact that it was an U23 race with everyone trying to keep at the front,” Whelan said of navigating one of the world’s biggest one-day U23 races. “Everyone was always so edgy and that just created a pretty stressful day mentally, trying to hold positions and figure out what places were safe to be.”
After a strong ride from Whelan’s teammate Cyrus Monk in the breakaway, Whelan hit out with 20km to go and held off a chase by a slim six seconds. The Australians topped off a dominant team effort with Robert Stannard sprinting to third and Monk rolling in for 10th. It was a performance not unlike QuickStep Floors’ showing at the elite men’s Tour of Flanders.
Whelan’s win was extremely impressive, not least because his battle started long before he arrived on the cobbles of Belgium.
Last year Cycling Australia announced cuts to its road program with the aim being to strengthen the track team for Commonwealth and Olympic Games. This meant that the WorldTour Academy team, amongst others, would cease to exist. The extremely successful program, which has sent talents such as Jack Haig, Luke Durbridge and Michael Matthews to the WorldTour, was the stepping-stone for many of the country’s up-and-coming cyclists.
The team’s closure left Whelan in an awkward position. He’d had a great start to the year — silver in the under 23 nationals road race, sixth in the time trial, then a win in the Oceania U23 road race — and he desperately wanted to represent his country in his final year as an U23 rider. But without the WorldTour Academy it was unclear if Australia would field a team in U23 races around Europe.
“In terms of this team [ed. the national team at Flanders] existing, it was basically Cyrus [Monk] and I contacting a few key figures and basically saying that we’ve had some good results this season and were hoping to race in Europe,” Whelan said. “I got in contact with [former WorldTour Academy manager] James Victor and [long-time Victorian and Australian coach] Dave Sanders and they sort of helped mediate my process into getting into the team.”
It was a bold move by a 21-year-old who had never raced overseas. He was determined to head over to Europe though and desperately wanted a start at Flanders, even if it meant self-funding his way there.
“Basically they ended up saying ‘Yeah, if you can get yourself over here, we’re happy to take care of you.’”
It was through his own self-belief and will that Whelan even managed to get a start with the national team at Flanders. Now all he had to do was let his legs do the talking.
“The nature of that course was always going to be good for me if I [could] make it to that finishing circuit,” he said. “I knew guys were going to be in the red and I’m usually pretty good at going hard at the end of four hours on climbs.”
Whelans’ win puts him in very good company. Previous winners of this race include current professionals Rick Zabel, Dyan Groenewegen as well as the only other Australian to win this race, and current national champion, Alexander Edmondson. Historically, winning the U23 Tour of Flanders is a good step to earning a professional contract — nine of the previous 12 winners rode on the WorldTour the season after winning, while the other three rode at Professional Continental level.
Whelan burst onto the national scene when he almost pulled off an unlikely victory at the notoriously difficult Tour of Tasmania in 2017. Riding as an individual against some of the best teams in the nation, the odds were always stacked against him. But, astonishingly, after finishing third in the prologue, third on stage 2, and fourth on stage 3, Whelan went into the final stage leading three of the four classifications, including the race overall.
However, on the final day of the tour, he learnt the harsh realities of racing without a team.
“Unfortunately due to lack of teammates and support, I lost two of the jerseys because I missed one of the breaks and that was that,” he said. “At the time I still hadn’t ridden with a team so I didn’t actually realise how important it was.”
That was less than six months ago, which shows how much Whelan still has to learn in the sport.
A former runner with a self-confessed “exercise addiction”, Whelan turned to cycling after an achilles injury forced him to have some time off his feet. From there the Melbourne local’s progress was rapid, quickly rising through the cycling ranks by dominating hotly contested local criteriums.
This led to his signing with National Road Series team Inform MAKE in 2017 before making the switch to Drapac EF in early 2018. Whelan had his choice of teams coming into the 2018 season, including the Mitchelton-Scott Continental team and Australia’s best domestic team, Bennelong-SwissWellness.
“I think I chose Drapac purely off the fact that I wanted to finish off my university degree and particularly [because] they have a really supportive program, helping out with university considerations and extensions,” Whelan said.
Not only that but the team’s primary sponsor, property and real estate giant Drapac Capital, is a nice fit with Whelan’s study area of urban planning.
“If I can study and have the opportunities to perhaps get a career pathway through Drapac whilst riding my bike it’s an awesome security to have and obviously with a fantastic company.
“I couldn’t see myself here if I wasn’t with Drapac.”
As Whelan’s stock continues to rise, he has a clear schedule in mind for the next couple of months.
“I’ll go back home on Monday and we do the Grafton to Inverell [ed. a National Road Series race],” he said, “and we’ll do a few of the VRS [Victorian Road Series] races before coming back to Europe in June for seven weeks to do some of the UCI races with the team during university break.”
Whelan is hopeful about getting a WorldTour stagiaire ride in the second half of the year. He’s also got his eye on a start at the Tour de l’Avenir — the world’s top stage race for U23s — and eventually the hilly world championships in Austria.
The obvious question for Whelan is whether he will be ready for the WorldTour next year.
“A lot of people have provided commentary on that topic and given me tips,” Whelan said. “They’ve all basically said that if you get given the opportunity, it would be pretty difficult to say no to it, but at the same time if you’re going accept it, you have to make sure you are ready for it.
“But you look at guys who have come through the sport pretty quick and have gone to WorldTour, one would argue pretty prematurely, and they’ve done pretty well.”
At the moment Whelan is just focussed on doing the small things right and trying to soak up as much knowledge as he can. Even though he is still trying to figure exactly what type of rider he is, it is pretty clear his potential is limitless.
“All I can really do is try and ride my bike fast.”
About the author
Matt de Vroet was an editorial intern at CyclingTips in 2017 while working towards a journalism degree at Monash University in Melbourne. He has raced for Van D’am Racing in Australia’s National Road Series and is currently living and racing over in Belgium.