The natural: Jimmy Whelan isn’t riding like a WorldTour rookie

The stitches came out of Jimmy Whelan’s chin two days ago. You can still see where the chainring lodged itself in his face at the Aussie Road Nationals earlier this month but the wounds seem to be healing well. It’s looking like he won’t have a scar which, as Whelan notes with a smile, is “great”.

He speaks softly as he reviews stage 3 of the Tour Down Under for a small group of journalists. He’s just played an impressive support role in what many have dubbed the toughest stage of this year’s race. That’s some feat given the 22-year-old is in his very first WorldTour race in the first month of his first pro contract.

“It worked out pretty well,” he begins, casually. “The main aim was to get in the break in the first place. [I] ticked that off and then I managed to get to the [finishing] circuit and we had a bit of time [over the peloton].

“The guys [Whelan’s teammates] could sit back in the bunch and not worry too much.”

It’s not unusual to see young riders in the break at the Tour Down Under, chasing KOM points or TV time. But it’s rare to see such a rider attacking from that break at the business end of the race. But that’s what happened on Thursday.

With about 35km to go, Whelan’s teammate Alberto Bettiol bridged the ever-shrinking gap from peloton to breakaway, giving EF Education First two riders out front.

“I didn’t even realise until he tapped me on my shoulder,” Wheland says with a wry grin. “He’s like ‘hey buddy’ and I was like ‘oh ok’.

“There was one point on the second last lap going up the climb [where] he was the only one that could hold the wheel. So I just went.”

It was a striking sight. Two EF Education First riders in full flight, riding with the sort of intensity we’ve barely seen so far in this year’s Tour Down Under. Together they extended the gap from under 30 seconds to beyond a minute. That neo-pro Whelan was helping to drive that break, after well over 100km out front, on a hot and hilly day, spoke volumes.

After all, there tend to be very few expectations placed on WorldTour neo-pros, particularly those in their first race at the highest level. That’s not just to shield those riders from unnecessary pressure; it’s a reflection of just how hard it is to step up to the big leagues.

But Whelan’s not sitting back and letting his first WorldTour race pass him by. Rather, the former runner is taking a far more proactive approach.

Whelan finally blew up with about 20km to go, leaving Bettiol on his own as the peloton closed in from behind. The Italian would be caught by the bunch just after starting the final, 14km lap, and was promptly spat out the back. He finished more than 10 minutes down.

Whelan, meanwhile, was able to stay with the ever-thinning peloton as the pace increased in the final lap.

“I was surprised, yeah,” Whelan says. “When I came back to the peloton there was a lot of guys that were really struggling, as much as I was. So when I was holding back in the wheels I was like ‘If they don’t go too hard I could stay on here.’”

Whelan was only dislodged when his team leader Michael Woods attacked the reduced peloton with a little over 2km to go. The Australian crossed the line just 26 seconds behind stage winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the 36 other riders in the front group.

“It was important for me to still get through and not lose massive amounts of time, just as a backup option,” Whelan says. “Obviously we’re going all in for Mike but it’s always good to just make sure that I’m somewhat up there.”

This is noteworthy. In his very first WorldTour race, Whelan is EF Education First’s GC backup — no mean feat, given team leader Woods is a World Championship bronze medalist, Vuelta a España stage winner, and a genuine contender for the TDU overall.

And Woods himself is full of praise for his young Australian teammate.

“This is his first WorldTour race, he’s our neo-pro, our rookie here and he’s proving that he’s a bit more than that,” the Canadian says. “He rode super-strong today. We wanted him in the break just because he is such a danger man. He’s got a great punch. And man, [he] got in the break no problem.”

Whelan is no stranger to performing well immediately after stepping up. In his first season in Australia’s National Road Series Whelan very nearly won the 2017 Tour of Tasmania. And in his very first race in Europe, competing for the Australian U23 National team, Whelan took a stellar solo win at the U23 Tour of Flanders.

And it’s all happened very quickly — in the space of less than three years, he’s gone from his first bike race to the WorldTour. He was picked up by EF Education First-Drapac for a stagiaire role late last year but didn’t end up racing — a crash at the Tour de l’Avenir put him out of action for the next few months.

But while his rise has been rapid, Whelan doesn’t look out of place in the WorldTour peloton. Of course, it’s still very early days. He knows he’s got a lot to learn, and that it’s unlikely to be smooth sailing all the way through.

“I’ve just got to expect the unexpected,” he says. “I’ve got my first bit of a race program so I know roughly what I’m doing for the first part of the year but I’ll take everything as it comes basically and try and learn as much as possible.”

After the Aussie summer races Whelan will head to Europe and race the Tour du Haut Var and the Coppi e Bartali. His biggest races of the year are likely to be Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine.

EF Education First doesn’t have any specific expectations for Whelan this year and there certainly won’t be any pressure to win races.

“They understand that I’m really green,” he says, “and that just participating in the events and helping the team and playing my role is enough in itself.”

He does have some personal ambitions, though.

“Obviously for this race here [TDU] I’d love to be somewhere high up on GC,” he explains. “I think I’ve trained hard with Nationals and I’ve got the form in the legs to do well. But with regards to Europe I don’t want to really put any results on the board but I’d love to give a good showing at the Dauphine.

“But again, I don’t know what the standard is yet.”

***

Interview complete, Whelan goes and sits down with his new teammates to review the stage. Mitch Docker offers a brief assessment of Whelan’s ride. “That was awesome mate, really good.”

He’s right. It was a strong ride from a WorldTour rookie on a hard stage in tough conditions. And it might not be long before we get to see Whelan come to the fore again. Tomorrow’s stage 4 and Sunday’s stage 6 both suit him even better than stage 3, thanks to their decisive late climbs.

No sooner has Whelan sat down than he’s up again, picking his way past his teammates to be interviewed for TV by Jens Voigt. It would seem the German breakaway specialist approved of Whelan’s ride today. It’s hard to blame him.

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