Trying to get to the front at 90kph made me realize that I was really quite out of my comfort zone.
The finish line of any bike race is full of emotion. A stage race? The emotion multiples. Everyone feels it: riders, team staff, fans, event organizers. It’s the crescendo. For that feeling was further heightened at Jimmy WhelanSantos Tour Down Under by his rookie status. Many riders spend years dreaming of completing their first WorldTour race Not Jimmy. He only started racing a bike a couple of years ago, and possibly that makes his entry to the sport’s top level even more overwhelming.
Like his Tour Down Under team captain Mike Woods, Whelan is a former runner turned cyclist. He lacks the fortune of a decade of amateur racing in his legs to help him bridge the gap between the U23 ranks to the WorldTour. A healing wound on his chin that he endured racing the Australian nationals the previous week, is a daily reminder of how unforgiving bike racing can be.
On a fast-track learning curve, it’s not only about knowing how to hold your nerve whilst careening along sweeping roads at 90kph, surrounded by a ton of carbon, metal and bodies. It can be as simple as making sure you do everything you can to keep yourself healthy. It’s acclimating to the art of navigating feed zones. It’s claiming position within the peloton. Everything is amplified in a highly stressful race environment, and inexperience can be frustrating.
Despite his recent entry onto the Australian racing scene, Whelan is a rider that the cycling community has noticed. Back in 2018, when he left Australia for Europe, his first European bike race was one of the most prestigious one-day-spring-classics – the U23 Tour of Flanders. He won. Early success can burden a young rider and saddle him with high expectations. Whelan’s managed the pressure well. As he crossed the finish line atop Willunga Hill on the final stage, he had a lot to process from six days of racing in his homeland.
For the first time in the last seven days you’ve woken up and don’t have to race, how are you feeling?
After the nationals I was quite run down after my crash, so I was monitoring my health and obviously keeping our team doctor, Kevin [Sprouse], up to date. I’ve just managed to get through the week without getting proper sick. I’ve got a blocked nose this morning, and it’s as if my body knows I’m not racing today and it’s deciding to go into shutdown mode.
Over the week I’ve had to understand that a crash can have a big toll on your body, you can suffer from adrenal fatigue from the shock. At nationals I was in great form, and when you’re leaner your immune system is suppressed. Then crashing puts your body under extra stress, which isn’t ideal when you’re getting ready for your first WorldTour race.
I think it can be as overwhelming mentally as it can be physically.
How did that feel?
I think it can be as overwhelming mentally as it can be physically, so I was just trying to stay as relaxed as possible. When I came to Adelaide I was feeling somewhat rundown, but once I was on the bike my pedaling was still fine. I just had to understand that there would be some mornings when I’d wake up feeling quite average and have to deal with it.
What feedback have you had from race director, Tom [Southam]?
I think Tom at the start of the week had no expectations. He knew that I was on good form, but you see young Australians at this tour do really well, even with little experience. So he wasn’t putting any pressure on me at the start of the week and nor was the team, but obviously I have been here to play a support role for Mike [Woods]. That was a new responsibility and task that I hadn’t done before, and I think Tom was happy with how I went. I mean, I haven’t asked him directly in person, so maybe when we’re in a private room he’ll give me some constructive criticism, which is what I really need. I don’t need someone just saying that I did a good job.
Go back to the Corkscrew stage, how does it feel to reflect on that?
Personally I didn’t play my role that day because I was out of position coming into the left-hander leading onto the Corkscrew. Trying to get to the front of the peloton with really experienced guys at 90kph made me realize that I was really quite out of my comfort zone.
I found myself quite near to the back, and then I tried to get back to the front and I just couldn’t. So when we hit that left-hand bend onto the Corkscrew, I was too far back to help Mike out up the climb. That was frustrating for me, because when I got to finish I hadn’t played the role that had been given to me in the morning meeting. But that’s how it goes sometimes, I learned a lot that day.
What was it like in that moment racing into Corkscrew?
It’s trying to work out how to get to the front and how to stay there, and it’s also really dangerous. That road, we were going almost 100kph around sweeping corners, and everyone is really, really close, and I’m not used to that. In my U23 races it wouldn’t be as hard to move up. Usually I can just use my legs to get over the other riders and get to the front, but here you can’t, not in the WorldTour. Here you need to be smart with how you roll your way through the bunch. That part of the race was probably the most stressful 15 minutes I’ve ever had on a bike by far.
What have been your highlights from the race?
The highlights of the week have probably been meeting the staff, meeting [soigneur] Soso [Roullois] was pretty cool, and just getting going. Getting the new kit. Then the launch. There was a fair bit of hype around it. I just feel the team has had this great energy.
Then obviously we had a bit of bad luck with Dan [McLay] getting caught up in the final in some of the early sprint stages. But it was pretty cool on stage three to be able to have good legs and be at the front of the race. To get a pat on the back from Tom at the end of that stage, that personally was an awesome day.
The day when you were in the break?
Yeah! Then when [Alberto] rode across and we went up the road as a duo, that looked pretty cool on replay. It was also cool that I got to ride back with my old man that afternoon after doping control, that was nice. Bettiol
How did you and Alberto make the move and drop the other riders in the break?
When on that circuit we went through with two laps to go and Bettiol was increasing the tempo up on a small climb on the circuit. I started to notice that the other riders were getting dropped. With two laps to go there was just one rider left and myself, so I said to Bettiol, “I’ll go on the front we can drop this last guy and we go as a duo”. He said: “Sounds good” and then at the top of the climb we were alone together. That was really cool, and Tom [Southam] was pretty stoked over the radio.
How did you feel leading Mike up Willunga Hill on the final stage? He said after the race that some people race ten years and aren’t able to do as good job as you did.
It was so cool to have him [Mike] on the radio essentially guiding me through the first part, and then I think he realized that I was doing it all right, leading him into the climb. To get the reassurance I did at the end of the race, especially from someone like Mike, I mean, it’s not often I get compliments from someone like that. I look up to him a lot.
She wouldn’t ask how I was going ahead of the race, she would just tilt her head so she could see the scar on my chin
Your parents have been here watching you race this week, how has that been?
They were watching at the Willunga stage, and Dad, obviously being a cyclist, he thought it was a great week. My Mum thought it was a great week because I stayed up right, that’s her biggest concern. When I was at the start line she wouldn’t ask how I was going ahead of the race, she would just tilt her head so she could see the scar on my chin and see how it was looking. That’s just mums for you.
It’s been pretty surreal for me to be racing the Tour Down Under, because the last few years we’ve been coming to Adelaide, we’ve watched it from afar. It’s also good for them to see me racing, because obviously they won’t get to see me racing in Europe this year for the whole season. So they had the chance to see what it’s all about, get to meet a few faces of the people who I will be talking about. It’s great they’ve been here and been a part of it. It’s been a massive week. A lot of anticipation has lead up to it and I’ve had a blast.
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