Neil van der Ploeg makes no bones about it: â€śBorn on planet earth but lives in the Cosmo, join me!â€ť It is one of the few messages that he has diffused on the Internet. VDP would rather collect chestnuts than remain slave to his computer screen. But it is true that he is on another planet. On YouTube we see him take the wheelie position to complete a climb in Goulburn, New South Wales. Or joke with his teammates about his curly hair, so recognisable under his helmet and which â€“ according to him â€“ makes everyone in the peloton jealous but which his grandmother adores.
Van der Ploeg came back to planet earth the 13th January, in a big cloud of dust. That was the day he finished fourth in the national road championships, amidst a squad of Orica-GreenEdge riders and other stars of the UCI WorldTour. On the finish line in Buninyong, he finished third in the bunch sprint, behind Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp), but in front of Chris Sutton (Sky Procycling) and Jay McCarthy (Team Saxo-Tinkoff).
His comment at the finish : â€śThis is surrealâ€ť.
Thanks to this mighty result, VDP is at the top of the UCI Oceania Tour ranking, until February 25th. With 24 points, he leads two New Zealanders, James Oram (16 points) and Julian Dean (12 points).
Nevertheless, Van der Ploeg, 26, does not come entirely from Cosmos. At the 2012 Australian Championships, he had already finished an encouraging 20th. â€śI didnâ€™t have a coach and was training myself,â€ť he remembers. â€śThis year I got a coach, trained a little differently and lost 1kg of body weight and about another kg of bike weight. Two kgs makes a very big difference on that course!â€ť He omitted to say that he sacrificed his curls for the occasion and raced with his neck free to the wind.
His endurance qualities and his sprinting fibre also had a lot to do with his performance. VDP used to do cross-country skiing then mountain biking â€“ two sports that his hometown Mount Beauty, in Victoria, is particularly known for.
First of all ski because his older brother had come close to a serious cycling accident. Member of the Australian team, he abandoned the snowy slopes in 2008. Direction mountain biking: cheaper, more compatible with his university studies in physiotherapy and more possibilities for results at an international level. In 2009, VDP won the Tour dâ€™East Timor, an event not registered on the UCI calendar.
"Mountain Bike riding is FUN, and involves more skill and bike handling which I love,â€ť he explains. â€śThe challenge and feeling of riding down gnarly terrain as fast as possible is a great rush. I will always ride the mountain bike for these reasons.â€ť
Despite everything, Van der Ploeg tries road cycling. He is enamoured by the tactical side and racing as a team. His current team ? He has quite an odd contract: he fills the gap left by two injured riders in exchange for his accommodation.
His first place in the UCI Oceania Tour is not the be all and end all. VDP will not settle for that. Above all because it is provisional: absent from the New Zealand Cycle Classic at the end of January, he will most certainly lose his place at the top of the ranking but is counting on reclaiming it at the last event on the calendar: the Oceania Championships, which will take place March 14th to 17th in his own country, in Canberra.
After that, Van der Ploeg hopes to enter the UCI WorldTour. At the end of January, he missed out on a place in the Santos Tour Down Under as a member of the regional team (UniSA Australia Team). With humour, he blamed his non-selection on his abundant and curly hair. But he has promised to keep working in order to clock up more successes and straighten out the peloton.