AARON Donnelly won a legion of fans with his gutsy ride in the 2012 Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic.
The acclaim that came his way couldn’t dismiss the one question that dominated his mind in the weeks that followed — “what if?”
The Wollongong rider, 22, was an admirable runner-up behind Dutchman Floris Goesinnen.
But a bit of luck — which had escaped him all year — and it could have been his name etched into Classic folklore.
“At the time I was stoked with the second place, it was my first big result,” Donnelly said yesterday.
“But a few weeks later you start to think you’ve ridden all that way, you’re in a winning position, what could you have done differently.
“You dwell on it a bit.”
Donnelly faced his first hurdle months before he had contemplated a start in the Melbourne to Warrnambool.
He was in Italy with the Jayco-AIS squad, looking forward to six months training and racing in Europe.
But he broke a bone and tore ligaments in a wrist after tumbling down stairs at his training base.
By April, Donnelly was back home recovering. He didn’t ride for 10 weeks and only raced again in August.
Somewhat underdone, he only committed himself to the Melbourne to Warrnambool in a bid for exposure.
He had few objectives. A top-10 finish seemed ambitious, even more so after he crashed 10 kilometres in.
But the next seven hours, as he rode into second, proved to be among the most defining of his emerging cycling career.
Still, Donnelly wondered what if.
What if he hadn’t used up so much energy to reattach himself to the peloton?
What if his tactics had been better in the final few kilometres?
What if his legs had the power to respond when Goesinnen lunged for the line?
“I had a crash early in the race. I was chasing for about 80 kilometres,” Donnelly said.
“I nearly pulled out of the race at the first feed zone, I still hadn’t caught the front group.
“A friend from another team convinced me to keep riding. We caught the front group.
“Even then I thought ‘it’s my first race, there’s no real pressure’. I would’ve been happy to finish with the front guys.
“When me and Floris got away with 40 kilometres to go, even then I thought this would be a good ride even if we get caught.
“I didn’t think we’d stay away but time kept growing and I got more confident.”
Donnelly will contest his second Classic, but this time as part of a team, for Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisors (HGP)
His ride 12 months ago caught the eye of HPG boss Andrew Christie-Johnson, who signed him up for the 2013 season.
He has since won stages in the Herald Sun Tour and the Jelajah Malaysia, part of the Asia Tour, his career back on track.
But fans will have to wait until Saturday to see whether he chases victory or rides as a worker for his teammates.
“On the day they’ll make the call whether I’ll be a protected rider or a worker for someone else, Andrew will have a plan,” Donnelly said.
“He’ll have a few guys he thinks can get a result. If I’m one of them guys, then I’ll decide on the day if I think I’ve got the legs.”