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An interview with Allan Davis
Hitting the big time
What's a foreign rider gotta do to get a ride in Spain's number one team? Australian young gun Allan Davis, ex-Mapei espoir and latest Cyclingnews diarist, talks to Anthony Tan about his meteoric rise to the top echelon of the sport and finally hitting the big time with ONCE.
IT MAY APPEAR Allan Davis' rise to the top of the cycling tree has come overnight, but in actual fact, it has been the product of seven years' hard work, punctuated by moments of brilliance.
Asked about his initial foray into Europe at 16 years of age, Davis laughs - though not your bellowing type of laugh - more one of disbelief as to how he made it through a gruelling initiation period with the Australian junior team. "I copped an absolute flogging in my first three years in Italy. The first year was the worst, but then it started getting a little bit better each year."
It was a learning curve for both Davis and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), the latter making the decision to base their entire road program in Italy after former AIS road coach Heiko Salzwedel paved the way to success in the early to mid-nineties.
"I think that was good for me though," says Davis. "To get really, really beaten and flogged and realise how much work you have to do to get up to that level."
But the way Davis describes his apprenticeship in Europe, you can't help but crack a smile, even though you know he's been to hell and back.
"It's been a bonus for me getting my arse kicked," he says, trying his best not to laugh again. "Just realising what you have to do to make it in this sport, you have to be really switched on 12 months of the year."
The smallish (even for a bike rider at 172cm) 22 year old comes from a strong pedigree of cyclists, his father Greg a more than competent track and road rider and his father before him a professional track star, racing in the same era as Sir Hubert Opperman. With his elder brother Scott signing for Panaria-Fiordo this 2003 season, the Davis' might as well have come from Lombardy than Queensland.
Greg Davis developed the cycling bug much the same way Allan and his brother did 20 years later, traveling with and watching their Dad race at the local Christmas track carnivals and regional road events.
But only watching. "My Dad didn't let Scott or I race till we were 10!" says Allan, who later tells me he was annoyed at the time but in hindsight, it was quite clearly the right decision. "We started off really easily with no pressure, just the local [track] carnivals and road races around Queensland and northern New South Wales, and progressed from there."
To be supportive but at the same time not overly pushy - even though both sons exhibited oodles of promise - must have been a hard task for any father, however, Greg Davis did his job as a coach and a father to perfection until it was time to let go.
Both Allan and Scott weren't your typical 16 and 17 year olds. Before heading 15,000 kilometres north to Italy, both had already experienced the sensation of winning and winning big - Allan a touch more so with his national championship victories in the points race and individual pursuit.
It was most likely this sense of cunning that he learned on the boards which enabled Allan to hone his skills as a roadie quicker than most.
National Under 23 men's coach, Brian Stephens (and brother of former ONCE professional Neil) believes so. "The first time I saw him race I figured he had a fair bit of talent," says Stephens. "Having raced quite a few international championships on the track, he acquitted himself very well as a junior and he's now developed into a very cunning rider."
So after two national titles and participation in the 1995 Junior Worlds, was a career on the track ever an option?
"Australia was really dominating the world track scene and I thought that was all there was," says Davis about his naivety as a junior.
With riders like Stuart O'Grady, Brett Aitken, Shane Kelly and Brad McGee breaking world records like it was going out of style, Australia couldn't have done much better as a track nation. Not surprisingly, their success was a contributing factor behind Davis' tunnel-visioned outlook on the cycling world.
"But in my first year as a junior on the road in Italy, I got a taste of what it [road racing] was all about and started watching races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France over and over again. And ever since then, I wanted to be a professional road cyclist," he says.
Which is exactly what Brian Stephens and head coach Shayne Bannan groomed Allan into.
With funding and technical support from Italian cycling's godfather, Georgio Squinzi, the AIS road program began churning out top quality neo-pros year after year, soon becoming the envy of many other nations' development programs.
Explains Stephens, "It started back in 1999 and it's grown stronger every year. The more we had to do with them, the more they liked us; they liked the riders we were producing and they liked our style."
In return, all Squinzi asked for was to have the first right to offer Australia's most promising riders a non-binding contract - non-binding in the sense that should any other teams wish for the same rider's services, Mapei were to be notified first before any deal was signed. When the world's number one team offers you a place in a market flooded with an oversupply of talent, however, the offer is generally not refused.
"They keep an eye on all the riders we have, but they were particularly interested in Allan," says Stephens, referring to Davis' last year with the AIS in 2001.
At 20 years of age, Davis had his best year ever, winning a prestigious one-day race called the Grand Prix Pesaro in northern Italy, beating many of the country's best amateurs, then rounding out his stellar year with 6th place at the Under 23 World Championships in Portugal. However, it was more Davis' consistent results that secured his spot at Mapei. "Anyone's going to be interested in a rider who keeps popping up in the top 10 in most weeks, and that's what he was doing," Stephens adds.
Shayne Bannan agrees, and tells me Allan Davis' work ethic was so good, there were periods where he actually overtrained.
What followed was a barrage of questions to his mentors as to why a corresponding increase in results was not forthcoming, leading to a few moments of self-doubt during his time with them. Interestingly, Davis tells me earlier he knew 100 per cent he wanted to turn pro, but physically, he wasn't so sure - which may explain the overtraining to compensate for a perceived lack in ability.
"He went through some rough patches as any young person goes through, but in our hearts, we knew he had the potential to become a professional cyclist," says Bannan proudly.
This year, Davis will be racing with the really big boys, so it's likely he may go through a couple more rough patches as he adjusts to competing with best pros in the world. Taking a glance at his early season racing schedule, he'll certainly have his hands (or should that be legs) full: Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix - quite the schedule for a neo-pro.
Davis is realistic though - his goal is to gain as much experience as possible "while I'm still in the race, doing my job and doing what I'm told.
"But to get a win - just one - would be nice," adds Davis.
Not that Davis had any problems at Mapei, but less than one month into the new season, everything's going hunky-dory. "I was just saying to Neil Stephens the other day that the organisation in this team, the team morale and the guys on the team really suit me, so I've fitted in a lot more easily [than Mapei]."
His relationship with Saiz and ONCE is so good in fact that Davis is already thinking of wearing the yellow and black strip well into the future.
"I would love to get another contract with ONCE after this one [Davis has a two year contract with ONCE until 2004]. From what I've seen so far, it's unreal and I want to stay here for as long as I can," he says.
When I communicate Davis' ambitions to his old coach Brian Stephens, Stephens likes what he hears.
"He's got to serve his apprenticeship as a domestique and it's good to see he's happy to do that, because I think he's still got a lot of growing and maturing to do as a rider," says Stephens.
"But he could win some big one-day Classics - probably more so than Tours - because he's got a lot of cunning and he's also got some speed. If he can make it to the end of a bike race with a group of 15 or 20 guys, he'd be one of the favourites in a bunch sprint."
Greg Davis has a slightly broader although equally rosy dream for both his sons. "Just to be good professional cyclists really. I hope they have a big career ahead of them - another ten years would be great - and to ride any of the big tours such as the Tour de France would be a big honour.
"I like to think I could go over and watch them in the Tour one day," he says simply.
Editor's note: Allan left for Spain the day after the Tour Down Under, and will send his first diary update in February once he gets settled into that awful Mediterranean lifestyle.