'I was thrown in deep end and came out stronger' - It's been a season of firsts for Vuelta's Lanterne Rouge Conor Dunne
Conor Dunne may have finished last in the official standings of the Vuelta a Espana, but his breakthrough year with Aqua Blue Sport has been more about his firsts.
The Nice-based Irish rider is still recovering from his first Grand Tour, at the end of his first season with a Ireland's first fully professional cycling team. On Sunday his season draws to a close at the World Championship road race. Not bad for the Lanterne Rouge of the Vuelta.
Not that the 6ft 8in rider's success can be measured in such binary fashion. Holding his own in World Tour races and surviving a three-week stage race have made the 25-year-old, who comes from a strong Irish family north of London, walk a little taller this last week.
"I surprised myself a bit this year, just with the number of World Tour races I got to do. At the start of the year I'd never done a World Tour race and by the end of it I've completed a Grand Tour," said Dunne, who made the step up from the third tier continental level to join the new Irish cycling team in their first season.
"It's been amazing for me, some huge experiences, thrown in at the deep end. I think at the end of the year I've got one of the highest number of race days (64) in the team. I'm quite proud of that. I've had my high moments, got close to winning... I just want to take everything I've learned this year and take it into next year, hopefully make it even better."
He endured the school of hard knocks during those three weeks in Spain and came out the stronger for it, although there were moments when he struggled with the physical and mental challenges of a torturous route.
"It was super tough. And my hardest days were in the first week. I had a few tough moments," admits Dunne, who climbed more metres in week one than the usually more decisive second and third weeks. After a particular brutal 200km on stage six, he struggled to see how he could repeat the daily survival mission.
"I just didn't know if I was going to get through the next day. I was pretty down and I thought that was going to be my Vuelta over. I had a bad moment mentally. I was lucky to have my team-mates around me, they got me back on my bike, kept me going and I was all right. And my confidence just grew and grew as the race went on," he said.
"Adam (Blythe) actually gave me a bit of hug before the stage, told me it would be all right. Those guys know how hard it is, they know what you're going through. It was really heart-warming to see them get behind me and keep me going. It meant so much to me."
After the first rest day, the fatigue levelled out and Dunne began to find his feet. While studiously examining the road-book each night to calculate every opportunity to save energy, the former An Post man was also able to deliver for the team when it mattered.
Dunne played a key role in setting up the breakaway for his Austrian team-mate Stefan Denifl who would go on to win a thrilling stage 17.
"It was unbelievable, in amongst all the suffering and the pain, to hear that Stefan was winning. I played a really small part in it, just helping Stefan get to the front on the flat sections. Riding up the last climb, we could hear it on the radio and when we heard he won, it was just mental, I couldn't even feel my legs anymore."
The whole experience has given Dunne an enormous jolt to his confidence and with Aqua Blue lobbying hard for a wild card invite to next year's Tour de France, he may well have more boundaries to push next season.
"It's given me a lot of belief in myself. Knowing I can go into those places and come out the other side and feel the stronger for it. And now I'm really motivated to train hard this winter and see where it takes me next year."
A year that began in Australia last January comes to end in Norway on Sunday when he takes to the line as part of a six-man Irish team at the World Championships. Some time on his surf board awaits, but Dunne is eager to finish the year on a high.
"I'm really excited about doing the Worlds. I'm obviously really proud to wear the Irish jersey, but also out of curiosity to see what my form can be after doing such a hard race and I wanted to keep going and see what I can do. I think if I stay healthy I can do a good race, to be honest. It's definitely worth it."