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Stagiaire in Utah, Damien Howson aims for rainbow stripes in Florence

September 21, 2013
Damien Howson (center) at the front in the Cedar City, Utah finishing circuit, 2013 Tour of Utah stage 1

Damien Howson (center) at the front in the Cedar City, Utah finishing circuit, 2013 Tour of Utah stage 1

Damien Howson’s bio on the UniSA-Australia Team website indicates he practices at least one race day ritual: wearing “a brand new pair of socks before time trials.” He pulled on a new pair in early August in Cedar City, Utah, but for a different reason. Howson had joined Orica-GreenEDGE as a stagiaire at the Tour of Utah, a prelude to beginning his first professional year as a member of the team in 2014.

Assuming this ritual holds, he will put on another set of new socks on September 23 in Pistoia, Italy where he’ll represent Australia at the U23 time trial UCI Road World Championship race that ends in Florence.

Utah teamwork

The afternoon before Utah’s stage 4 in Salt Lake City, Howson described the days before the race with his new teammates – including Aussie legend Baden Cooke and others he hadn’t raced with before, as a “relaxed and enjoyable” environment. With that atmosphere he started stage 1 carrying only the weight of his personal expectations to perform well on his shoulders. The opportunity to do just that quickly surfaced; the day’s finish suited teammate and sprinter Michael Matthews.

“Stage 1 was a tough one spending a lot of time on the front there bringing back the break or two,” he said in Salt Lake. Howson had entered the first of three finishing circuits in Cedar City crouched low over his handlebars, pulling at the front of the field with teammate Sam Bewley to try to catch two riders ahead of the bunch.

Three days later Howson appeared extremely composed and focused on the task at hand – helping Matthews cross the finish line first on stage 4. “The start of the tour’s been tough the last three days,” he said, “but I have a job to do tonight in the crit around Salt Lake City and I’m looking forward to the challenge…I’m really enjoying my time with the team and obviously learning a lot as well on the way.”

Riding on a World Tour team differs from the U23 racing he’d been immersed in until Utah.

The primary difference? Teamwork. Howson noticed his teammates riding together and communicating about how they saw a race unfolding as the kilometres ticked away on the road. The stagiaire described objectives as more team-focused as well. In Utah that meant aligning the team’s resources behind Matthews for stage wins. By contrast, Howson said, U23 riders focus more on general classification results in a tour.

Damien Howson's blue-laced Giro shoes in Brian Head, Utah

Damien Howson’s blue-laced Giro shoes in Brian Head, Utah

Howson found a personal way to express the meaning of team in Utah. He rode with silver Giro Empire road shoes. Blue laces crisscrossed the tops of the shoes, which likely means he swapped out the stock neon green ones. The shoe’s new color accent combination – the neon green brand decal and blue laces – coordinated with the blue and green stripes on his new Orica-GreenEDGE socks. Every piece of clothing reflected the new team he now represented.

Talent times two

Competing in Utah in his first professional kit was a big experience for Howson, but the realization of his dream began months prior with the completion of his first professional contract.

“Signing for the team earlier in the year was a big step in my career,” he said, “something I’ve been aiming for the last seven years ever since I started riding a bike…”

Howson’s first choice in sport before first racing a bike at age 14 was basketball. After playing in the national basketball championships, the South Australia talent ID program tested his physical capabilities. As Howson explained, “the State Institute of Sport recognized that I had potential to become something big I guess in cycling. So I gave it a go and persisted with two sports until I enjoyed cycling enough to let the basketball go and try to see how far I could get in the sport of cycling.”

He’s come a very long way since the C-grade contests in his hometown of Adelaide. Just recently 21 years-old, he won the Oceania U23 time trial championship three years in a row. This year he won the Oceania road race as well as the national U23 time trial championship. More victories followed: first at Trofeo Alcide Degasperi and then in the Thuringen-Rundfahrt U23 prologue.

Florence beckons

In an update on the Orica-GreenEDGE website, Sport Director Matt Wilson called Howson the strongest climber of the seven riders going to the Tour of Utah. Wilson’s comment points out Howson’s versatility as a rider, because he excels in the race against the clock. But he didn’t always, he said. As a younger rider he focused solely on climbing.

“Over the years I’ve slowly progressed in my time trialing to now saying that’s probably one of my stronger areas,” he said. Strong enough to net a bronze medal last year for the six foot one inch (186 cm) tall man in the U23 world championship time trial. “That’s another focus for me at the end of this year, to try and win that and wear a rainbow jersey for the first time.”

Working on climbing as a young boy may pay future dividends. He hopes to compete for the GC in a grand tour, in particular the Tour de France. “It would be a massive honor to win that one as well as world championships and Olympic titles,” he said. “They’re all huge.”

But other races rank high too. “I guess being a part of the team,” he added, “any race along the season is a big success if you can get across the line first.”

Now, late in this season, a line in Florence is calling him, together with a new pair of socks.

————–

This story is the third and last in the ProVéloPassion stagiaire series. See also the story about Fu Shiu Cheung.

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