by Aaron S. Lee
After two months of racing in China, H&R Block Pro Cycling’s Travis Samuel has his sights set on the potentially race-deciding seventh stage at the 2017 Tour of Hainan (UCI 2.HC).
The 23-year-old from Peterborough, Ont., hopes he can continue the relatively hot hand his Canadian-registered UCI continental team has enjoyed thus far at the nine-stage Asia Tour road race around the tropical Chinese island located in the South China Sea.
The team already boasting three top-four sprint finishes from fellow Canadian Marc-Antoine Nadon, as well as a top-10 from Slovenian Jure Rupnik, along with back-to-back standout breakaway performances from Montreal’s Alexis Cartier, the latter of which earned him the “most active rider” honour on Stage 6. The showing is not bad for a unit that rolled up to the opening stage start down two riders due to injury and visa issues.
While the Peterborough Cycling Club member, who caught on to cycling at age 11 thanks in large part to his mom, who worked at Wild Rock Outfitters at the time, is 21st on general classification at 56 seconds down on Italian sprinter and current race leader Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia), Samuel is keen to take his shot to climb the ladder on the queen stage on Friday.
“Tomorrow is the day,” Samuel told Canadian Cycling Magazine following the Thursday’s finish in Sanya. “All the teams here are teams we met throughout the year. We are talking [professional continental] guys, but they are not WorldTour, so I think we can handle our own if we put up a fight, which we always do.”
Samuel has amassed several top-10 finishes this season, most notably a fifth overall at GP Saguenay (2.2) in June, ninth on GC at the Cascade Cycling Classic (2.2) in July, and most recently a third in the youth classification at the Tour of Taihu Lake (2.1), which was won by Mareczko earlier this month.
“I had a really good run with a ninth-place finish at the Hong Kong Challenge [Criterium] earlier this month,” Samuel said. “I showed some really good form late in the year, which is kind of surprising since I’ve never raced this late in the year before.
“After that race, my goal was to get the best young rider in the prologue at Taihu, but missed it by one second. I tried to put up a good fight, but Mareczko showed he’s on another level.”
According to Samuel, the current racing block in Asia has both him and the team primed to compete for late-year results, which is an impressive feat considering the squad’s anonymous start to the season.
“Over the course of the whole year, the team has grown significantly,” he explained. “If you look back at the Joe Martin Stage Race (2.2) in April, we had no team camp and we were trying to just figure out who everybody was on our own team. But over the course of the year, we’ve stepped up our game. You see on the results sheet: it’s not just one guy hitting results here. It’s everyone on the team.”
The former Start-Trigon stagiaire credits first-year sports director Maxime Martin for the huge change in the team’s personality and performance.
“Max has been a big influence on our racing,” said Samuel of the former French pro. “He’s brought a European style to our team, and opened the door for us to compete abroad here in Asia. The North American scene seems to be formulaic, in that every race is 180 km with a break in the first 20 km. A team sets tempo and brings it back in the final 10 km. In Asia—and Europe—I think it’s a bit more undecided. You have guys attacking 150 km from the finish.”
Martin shared equal praise for Samuel.
“Travis is full of quality, but he needed electro-shock to understand his real quality during the season and that was my role to do that,” Martin explained. “Now he really understands cycling, and he continually improves race after race. He is the leader, but also when it’s not for him, he knows how to be the teammate. I am sad to lose him for next season, but I hope he continues to develop into one of the best young Canadian riders.”
Samuel told CCM he will be signing with a new squad for 2018, but could not yet disclose the name of the team. However, he did say an official announcement was imminent.
“For next year, I don’t quite know my program yet, but I’m hoping to target Utah and Colorado for results,” he said. “Maybe in the next three years go pro conti and maybe rack up more days racing against higher competition like here in Hainan more consistently.”
Samuel is consistent with his individual time trial abilities. Aside from a 10th-place finish at nationals, Samuel has placed fifth at the prologue at Volta a Portugal (2.1) and eighth at Taihu Lake.
So while his interest in the Canadian road race is dependent on the course selection, he says the TT is definitely high on his bucket list, as are higher results across the board.
“I am very much interested in the nationals, especially the time trial,” admitted Samuel. “I’ve been consistent on the TT bike and hope to dial that in further.
“Over the course of the past two months, the bar of suffering has increased significantly, which is nice,” he concluded. “I’ve seen a lot of top-10s this year and would like to change them to top-fives—or even podiums—which I think is a reasonable ask.”
Aaron S. Lee is a pro cycling and triathlon journalist at Eurosport and contributor to Canadian Cycling Magazine.