If the name Leigh Howard — Wednesday’s 20-year-old field-sprint winner at the Tour of Oman — sounds familiar to VeloNews.com readers, there are several reasons why.
Maybe you remember hearing about his 2009 world omnium title, won in Pruszkow, Poland, when the young Aussie was still only 19.
It could that be you recall his near-stage win at last year’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour, when he and Garmin’s Tom Peterson were caught just 100 meters from the finish line — a stage won by Peterson’s teammate Chris Sutton. Garmin director Matt White said that it was a no-brainer that the team would try to bring Sutton to the line to fight for the stage win rather than roll the dice with Peterson against Howard.
“I told Tom he had to drop him on the climb or we were going to have a sprint behind,” White said. “We have to be realistic, Tom’s never going to beat Leigh Howard in a two-up sprint. Leigh Howard is one of the fastest kids in the world. (Sutton) would have a hard battle against him, let alone Tom, who’s a climber, not a sprinter.”
Howard was awarded most aggressive for initiating the day’s breakaway, a small consolation prize. “It is a bit unfortunate to be caught so close to the line, and I am very disappointed. We went a long way out. At 15k to go we thought we had it and we probably slowed up a bit too much,” Howard said. “And then there was the obvious change of tactics from Garmin. I understand why they did it. They won the stage.”
In the February 2010 issue of VeloNews, which featured an 11-page section on Australian cycling, Howard was featured as one of “Five Aussies to Watch.”
Aussie Scott McGrory, a 2000 Olympic Madison gold medalist, coaches Howard, and feels Howard can develop into a potential Tour de France green jersey contender who also climbs well enough to perhaps win a race like the Tour of Flanders. “He’s super competitive, he gets on a bike and he gets that white-line fever, out there on the road, he just wants to win,” McRory said. “But in the team environment he’s sensational, always talking to the guys, keeping them motivated, keep them moving as a team.”
Regardless of where you heard it first, Howard’s is a name you’ll want to remember. On Wednesday the 20-year-old Columbia-HTC rider was the fastest in a group of about 40 riders, ahead of Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step).
Howard said he had not been feeling well earlier in the Tour of Oman, but Wednesday “was different.”
“I’d been working for (teammate Bernhard Eisel) all week, but today with about 30 kilometers to go after the split had happened, I told him I was feeling really strong,” Howard said. “Some of my teammates were caught out when the split happened and the front group got away, but we powered across the gap in about a kilometer. After that, I felt confident I could go for the win. (Eisel) took me to about 500 meters to go to the finish and I went for it. I think it being a smaller group of riders like at today’s finish was an advantage for me because I’m not so used to the big bunch sprints. That should come in the future.”
It’s a future that looks brighter by the day for the 20-year-old in the white-and-yellow HTC-Columbia kit. And now there’s no good excuse for not knowing his name.