When Damien Howson debuted in the Santos Tour Down Under in 2013, he was a 20-year-old aspiring professional on the Australian national team then sponsored by UniSA.
For the Adelaide rider, the race was a pivotal starting ramp for a professional career. Howson gleaned all he could from that tour through the experience of a then-seasoned Australian professional, Zack Dempster. The education set Howson up for his first season as a professional with the Australian Orica-GreenEDGE team (now Jayco-AlUla) in 2014 and the rest of an 11-year career that last season saw him join the Swiss Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team.
Fast forward to today, and Howson is back at the Tour Down Under, and again on the Australian national team. But it’s now Howson, 31, who is in the one passing on the sage advice and experience to the next generation of Australians wanting to impress on the world stage.
Howson is one of two riders on the Australian national team with WorldTour experience. The other is Michael Storer, 26, a two-time Vuelta a España stage winner who spent six years on WorldTour teams before this year joining the Swiss Tudor Pro Cycling team. The others are Declan Trezise, Tristan Saunders, Luke Burns, Liam Walsh and Jackson Medway.
In what the Australian team’s sports director Matt Wilson dubbed as one of the strongest national teams to compete in the Tour Down Under, Howson is excited by what might evolve in coming days. “They’re definitely enthusiastic and talented. That’s why they’re all here,” said Howson in Tanunda on Tuesday before the 140 km first stage of the race.
“For a lot of these guys it’s their first WorldTour bike race. To experience mixing with the pros is what they’re here for … to learn and gain experience and keep striving for that, as their goal in coming years is to make [it into] one of these teams they’re racing against today.”
Aside from teach, Howson and Storer could also figure in the overall classification, as another Adelaide rider Patrick Jonker did in 2004 when he was the seasoned professional on the UniSA team. He started with the aim of passing on guidance and advice, but went on to win the tour overall.
Although, Howson said his priority this week is also to help his younger teammates: “This is a great opportunity for me to race on the home roads and give back to the younger guys.
“I was on the UniSA team 11 years ago as one of the young guys. I remember having Zack Dempster as the experienced leader of the team. I learned so much. This is now an opportunity for me to give back that experience, and hopefully guide these guys and give them a bit of direction. They’ve got the talent. Let’s see what they can produce.”
For all the uncertainty that these younger riders face over the coming days in the Tour Down Under, what is likely is that they will animate the tour. Aggressive, opportunistic racing is a part of the team’s DNA. They have always been a team that is willing to dare; no matter that it means having to cope with some big brother “argy bargy” from other teams.
Even Howson and Storer are likely to come in for some rough treatment from riders on other teams not accustomed to seeing them race in the WorldTour in national jerseys.
“That’s bike racing. No matter who you are, there’s always going to be a little bit of argy bargy about it,” Howson said. “Everyone in WorldTour teams is here to perform. The national team is here year after year. They know what to expect from the Australian outfit. “
Matt Wilson knows his riders will have to fight for their place in the peloton, let alone for opportunities to jag a stage win or overall result, and to impress the WorldTour teams.
“They get pushed around a lot in these races. Having that national jersey on the back is a bit of a target,’” said Wilson.
“Even the WorldTour guys in those jerseys get less respect. When you’re fighting for position in a race that’s all about positioning and not getting much respect, that’s difficult. But if they ride as a team and prove themselves they’ll garner that respect.”
However, Wilson also says the pride of wearing the Australian jersey does provide riders with the strength they will need. “It’s an honour to wear the national jersey,” he said.
“To be here in front of the WorldTour teams is a massive step in their development, and an opportunity to show themselves to these teams. They want to get out and do that.”
Wilson rates this year’s Australian team highly. “I actually think it’s probably one of the better national teams that we’ve fielded in the Tour Down Under in a long time,” he said.
“Damien Howson and Michael Storer have been on the World Tour for quite some time.
“And the younger riders that were put in here are really in form. And barring Jackson [Medway], who’s brand new, everyone else is actually quite experienced for a young rider.”
Wilson said the team are prepared for a week of aggressive racing, and to be the instigators.
“We’ve got leaders for each day with an eye on potentially a top 10 on GC and with a bit of luck, a stage result,” he said.
“A win would be amazing, but let’s keep it realistic. We’ve got a team that can animate the race and justify our spot in the tour.”
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