Having enjoyed a superb season in 2021, Irish junior road race and time trial champion Darren Rafferty has attracted further attention from top teams within the sport. Rafferty is attending the pre-season training camp of the QuickStep Alpha Vinyl team in Calpe, Spain, having been invited to spend time with the WorldTour squad.
The Belgian outfit is one of the strongest in cycling. It clocked up 65 victories last season and finished first in the WorldTour team rankings. Irish sprinter Sam Bennett competed with the squad for the past two seasons, winning two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 Tour de France.
Rafferty’s presence at the camp is a reflection of his considerable potential. He competed in France last season, winning a number of events, and finished fourth in the junior time trial at the European championships. He was just two seconds off the bronze medal time. He was also 11th in the world championships on a time trial course which didn’t play to his strengths.
His strong performances secured a contract with the American Hagens Berman Axeon squad, a Continental-level youth team. It previously played an important part in the early development of a number of strong professional riders, including Ireland’s Eddie Dunbar.
Notwithstanding Rafferty’s commitment to the American squad, it is possible that QuickStep Alpha Vinyl or, indeed, another big team could offer him a stagiaire (trial) slot later this season. Being invited to a pre-season camp is certainly a positive sign. However his agent Gary McQuaid told The Irish Times it is too soon to know if this will be the case:
“Simply put, Darren and a select few other Under-23s were invited to join a QuickStep camp. Whilst it’s not top secret, the team don’t broadcast it either,” he said. “Darren was asked if he would like to join; we thought it was a nice idea, approved it with his team and that’s it, basically. Some sunny January miles with a WorldTour squad.
“The Under-23s get to guest on camps occasionally, but there’s zero signed with this team, and no mention of a stagiaire (slot). That would only arise off the back of a solid season with Axeon, and could be with any team really. We hope for that (a trial slot), of course.”
Rafferty is from Dungannon in County Tyrone and is 18 years of age. Last year he became only the fourth male rider in more than 30 years to win both the Irish junior time trial and road race national championships. He will compete as a first year Under-23 competitor this season and while there will be a period of adjustment in stepping up, Hagens Berman Axeon team owner Axel Merckx is excited to see what he can do.
“Darren is a young rider that has progressed very quickly through the junior ranks,” he said when the contract was announced. “He has great potential and showed it by finishing fourth at the European Junior Championships in the time trial.
“We’re talking about someone who wasn’t well-known a few months ago and really went for the opportunity that was presented to him. With his aggressive style of riding he is going to be a great asset to the team and I’m really excited about him joining us.”
Rafferty is due to do a training camp with Hagens Berman Axeon between February 2nd and 14th in Castagneto Carducci in Tuscany, Italy. His racing schedule is yet to be finalised but he is provisionally set to make his season debut in the Umag Trophy in Croatia on March 2nd.