A new true blue crew of Aussie cycling champs
It is one of the most anticipated events in Australian cycling. For decades, cyclists, coaches and supporters have dreamt of having a national team at the Tour de France and the other great European races. Now, 98 years after Don Kirkham and Snowy Munro became the first Aussies – and the first non-Europeans – to ride in the Tour de France, an Australian team will join the professional peleton.
The first appearance of the Green Edge team this weekend at the Bay Criterium series in Victoria had been eagerly awaited for months. Although the Bay Crits are a warm-up series for the Australian Road Championships this week at Mt Buninyong, and the first of the World Tour races, the Santos Tour Down Under the following week in Adelaide, they have attracted the cream of the nation’s cyclists for two decades.
As the first races for the summer season, it is fitting that the Green Edge riders are participating in the keenly contested circuit races at Geelong, Port Arlington and Williamstown.
Green Edge represents the meeting of minds of the former Australian road coach, Shayne Bannan, and sports enthusiast, Gerry Ryan. Ryan is the proprietor of Jayco Caravans, and the owner of the Melbourne Cup winning horse, Americain. Ryan has been a long-term supporter of cycling in Australia.
While others have tried to mount an Australian squad for an assault on the world stage, Green Edge finally has the combination of finance, experience, and cycling knowledge to achieve the exacting standards demanded by the Union Cycliste Internationale.
A number of Australian teams have competed in the second tier Continental series, and many Australians now ride for World Tour teams. But never have so many been recruited to ride for an essentially Aussie outfit.
Joining the veterans of the Australian road, such as Stuart O’Grady and Robbie McEwen, are the stars of the future like Cameron Meyer, Leigh Howard and Jack Bobridge in the new team.
Meyer, who won the Tour Down Under in 2011, teamed with Howard to claim the grueling National Madison title on the velodrome in Melbourne two weeks ago.
Bobridge is the reigning Australian Road Champion, having defeated a top field of senior riders near Ballarat last January. Together with Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss, they will make-up the opening roster for the team in Adelaide.
While Green Edge will be the first Australian team in the World Tour, it is not the first team from down under to contest the Tour de France. That honour belongs to four intrepid cyclists, led by Hubert Opperman, who raced in the 1928 edition of the event.
After dominating racing in Australia, The Sporting Globe newspaper held a fund-raising campaign to send Opperman to Europe.
In those days, teams of eight to 10 cyclists contested the Tour. Joined by Ernie Bainbridge, Percy Osborne, and a New Zealander, Harry Watson, the quartet arrived in France expecting to be informed of the six locals who would make-up their team. Instead, they were told that there would be no local augmentation, leaving the four competing against much larger squads.
Although great interest centres on the performance of individuals in road cycling, the team is critical. Without team-mates to stay with the leaders, chase-down breakaways, coax a sprinter over the mountains, collect the water bottles, or form a lead-out train for the final sprint, the winners of the various jerseys would find their task significantly more difficult.
In the 1928 edition, the four interlopers faced an additional disadvantage, as 15 of the 21 stages were team time trials. Bainbridge was forced to withdraw after Stage 15, but the other three finished the race in Paris. Much to the delight of the usually partisan French crowd, the visitors were feted for their tenacity, with Opperman 18th, Watson 28th and Osborne 38th.
Following outcry about the organisation of previous Tours, the format of Trade teams was changed to National teams in 1930. When Opperman returned to contest the event in 1931, the teams commenced together each day, as they do now. Opperman finished 12th in his second attempt.
No Australians contested the Tour again until 1955, when Russell Mockridge and John Beasley joined the Luxembourg-International team.
For 30 years until 1960, national teams rode in the Tour, although there were some teams comprising riders from different countries. Although nice in theory, it had problems. The team owners, who paid the riders, were annoyed that they couldn’t profit from the biggest event of the year.
And riders put together for a national team didn’t always gel. The Italian stars, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartoli, so disliked each other that they refused to cooperate in the World Championship.
There was also national rivalry when teams comprised riders from different countries, as the Australian, Phil Anderson, discovered in the 1983 Tour. Placed third overall as the Tour reached the Pyrenees, and the virtual race-leader on the road, Anderson saw a team-mate, Pascal Simon, attack him to grab the Yellow Jersey.
Strictly speaking, Green Edge is not a national team. Although national teams returned to the Tour de France in 1967 and 68, the ‘Grand Boucle’ has since followed the pattern adopted elsewhere, with Trade teams contesting the events.
Nonetheless, many teams are associated with particular nations. US Postal will always be identified with Lance Armstrong and America, Lotto with Belgium, Rabobank with The Netherlands and Francais de Jeux with France.
Named after its capital city, Astana is clearly identified with Kazakhstan.
And the riders in the bright orange kits of Estkaltel-Euskadi remain a colourful reminder of the Basque region they come from.
For millions around the world, Green Edge now is the Australian team.
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