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A conversation with GreenEdge’s Mitchell Docker: To Hell and back

For someone whose three-year track record in The Hell of the North goes like this – DNF, 47th place, 15th place (and the last time, in the 2011 edition, just 47 seconds behind eventual winner Johan Van Summeren) – you’d probably expect him to tell you: ‘I think I can be a leader in Paris-Roubaix. I think I can do at least a top-10, maybe top-five… Yes, I deserve to be a leader.”

Yet when I ask Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Docker the question, there is not the slightest hint of braggadocio. Instead, from the mouth of the Skil-Shimano-turned-GreenEdge-newbie, out comes an answer that is refreshingly self-effacing.

“A top-10 in the future (perhaps)… I don’t know (about this year) because I think my role will change a lot,” Docker tells VeloNews.

“The thing with Skil (-Shimano; now called Project 1T4i – Ed.) was, take your opportunities – go for the race (win). If I was still with Skil, I would’ve said, yes, try and go for my own result again, top-10. But, now, with the team, I’m waiting to hear what my instructions will be for that kind of race… and that could mean riding some of the earlier secteurs (of pavé) on the front.

“That’s the thing that I’m looking forward to; actually learning how to race these races as a proper team, a really functioning team. So, if it means that I’m sacrificed earlier, I’m more than happy to do that, because we’d be going for the win.

“It’s a big difference,” he says, “than just trying to get top-10 results.”

A fortnight before last year’s Paris-Roubaix, Docker finished a promising sixth place in Gent-Wevelgem. Four of out the five who preceded him – Tom Boonen, Daniele Bennati, Tyler Farrar and André Greipel – were top-notch sprinters. In Roubaix itself, coming into the finish at the Roubaix velodrome, Docker was in a group of 12 riders, and sprinting for seventh place.

He was first in the group to enter the velodrome and being somewhat of a sprinter himself, he thought he’d fare okay. But later admitting he “buggered up” the sprint, he managed only ninth-best, which placed him 15th on day and left him ruing what might’ve been.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, this week in Victoria, he’s one of the members of GreenEdge racing the Bay Cycling Classic criterium series, to rediscover some lost speed in his legs. Speed he might need at the end of a 260-kilometer exercise in attrition and self-flagellation.

The four-race series finished on Wednesday with team-mate Allan Davis (who was racing for another squad the team fielded) taking the overall title. Though surprisingly for GreenEdge, they walked away without an actual race win. Instead, a 17-year-old amateur by the name of Caleb Ewan took two victories, with the other races won by Greg Henderson and a domestic-based pro, Anthony Giacoppo.

“Those sort of sprints (at the end of Classics)… they’re funny, they’re really tired sprints. Tactically, I buggered it up (in Paris-Roubaix). Physically, I probably had enough to do something, if I had put myself in the right position.

“In terms of improving my own sprint,” Docker says, “I think I’m going to try and improve a different type of sprint now. I really want to improve my longer sprint, so that I’m a much more useful guy for the bigger sprinters, like (Matthew) Gossy, Allan Davis, (Robbie) McEwen…

“Those guys, they need a really great lead-out guy and someone that can deliver them well, so I think it’s more suited to my style than trying to spike up my punch because, ultimately, I don’t think I’ve probably got it at the end of the day.”

I put this scenario in front of him: It’s April 8, 2012 – race-day at Roubaix. Stuart O’Grady, one of the designated leaders and the 2007 champion, gets a mechanical; Goss, the other leader, is also out. Crucially, Docker’s made it through the Forest of Arenberg in the front group, and is now the leader on the road for GreenEdge. 50km from the finish he’s still in the front group. It’s up to him.

What does he work on between now and then to keep himself as fresh as possible for those final kilometers, to keep in contention, and to stay calm and collected?

“Physically, I just try and build up again every year. I’ve noticed that I’m getting stronger. Even coming back in the gym, you start at a weight you finished at the year before, rather than going back and building up again – you start there and build up from there. You just get stronger every year, and you see with the older guys in these races, as you get stronger and stronger and stronger, you have more success.

“So, one is building up some more strength and getting through the longer, harder races in the build-up to it – that’s a big point, to actually get through those (lead-up) races, (and) finish them – and another thing would just be experience. And you can only get that from racing it.

“I think another year in the race will give me that (experience) again,” he says. “Racing with these guys (at GreenEdge) will be like doing four (Paris-) Roubaixs with Skil… I can get that experience in one year.”

From what Docker says, one gets the impression Skil-Shimano, whilst providing ample opportunities, isn’t the best environment for a young professional – particularly if your thing is the Classics. Yet the now 25-year-old, who first turned pro with them, stuck it out for three years. So, was it a nice team?

“Was a nice team, yeah; it was really good. The thing I loved about the team was that they gave me a lot of opportunities but there were still a lot of good riders coming through. So you had that chance to learn from a lot of guys, like Marcel (Kittel) – he showed us a new way to prepare a guy for a sprint.

“But I felt I was coming to a point where I needed to go to a team where there was a lot more experience; where I could just sit back and grow. GreenEdge came along at a great time… and yet there was probably a situation where I could’ve stayed at Skil. It turns out they’ve signed some great guys… But when I had that contact with GreenEdge, there wasn’t a second thought.”

Is it the team he’s always dreamed about riding for, then?

“Probably not always dreamed about… (I) always dreamed about first getting into the (professional) peloton, and when I got in there,” he says, “I began to realize what the dream team would be.

“Being able to work with Aussies, being able to catch up with them the whole time… Now I’ve worked out this could be the best situation for me, and with all these guys the last few weeks, it’s turning out to be the dream team.”

With their first training camp out of the way, their first race done and dusted, it’s now off to the first stop on the WorldTour calendar: the Santos Tour Down Under, which begins January 15, on Sunday week.

Docker won’t be a part of GreenEdge’s seven-man line-up – which gives him more time to focus on being good in mid-February and March, when the spring races begin, then even better in April. ‘Till then, he can reminisce a little about his breakthrough Roubaix of yesteryear.

“Getting in the break was a cool feeling, because it’s such a long fight, and when you look back, you think, ‘I don’t think they’re going to chase – yes! – I’m in, I’m finally in.’ It was really important for us to have a guy in that break. That was a real highlight moment.

“There was probably one (more) moment towards the end. (I was) just looking around at the group, seeing the quality of riders there, thinking, ‘I’m still in this group’ and almost like, ‘What am I still doing in this group?’ Just realizing this is the finishing group now, it’s no longer people to be sorted out – these were the big guys.

“And another great, final, moment was having my girlfriend there with seven secteurs to go. I just looked across, saw her there at the end of the secteur … and I thought, ‘Great – keep on going’.”

Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan

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