Aussies are serious players in the world’s biggest bike race
It is a cold, dark evening in wintry Melbourne. As the peak hour traffic thins, a group of cyclists gather at one end of the Kew Boulevard.
Within the space of a few minutes, a group of 50 to 60 riders have gathered for the weekly ‘Tour de Burbs’ – an hour and a half high speed dash through the eastern suburbs adjacent to the Yarra River.
With flashing red tail lights, they set off, reaching speeds of up to 50 to 60 km/h. At the rear are a few 15 and 16 year olds, light as jockeys, but already capable of staying with the older group. As they ride, their dreams are half a world away with the stars riding in the Tour de France.
The scene is repeated in various places throughout Australia. Like the young swimmers who pound up and down pools for years in the hope of becoming the next golden girls or boys, junior cyclists spend years on their bikes, honing their skills and developing the endurance necessary to be considered for a Pro-Tour team.
Only a few will succeed, but it is this work ethic that makes Australians cyclists some of the most sought after in the world. More than 50 Aussies are on the professional circuit in Europe and America, something unimaginable 20 years ago when Phil Anderson became the first non-European to don the yellow jersey.
For three weeks, Australians will follow the exploits of our six compatriots in the ‘Grand Boucle’. Some will have significant roles in this exhausting test of speed and endurance.
This year’s Tour should suit the strong riders and good climbers. Although there are some relatively flat stages, the combination of strong cross winds during the early stages in Brittany, and the undulating roads of central France, will ensure a tough Tour. Then there are the massive climbs in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
Prominent amongst the six Australians is Cadel Evans. Having finished the runner-up twice by less than a minute, including by just 23 seconds to Alberto Contador in 2007, Evans remains hungry to claim cycling’s undoubted mantle.
Evans has had a good season, winning the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie. Whether the 2009 World Champion has the brilliance to repeatedly match the attacks of Contador and Andy Schleck will determine if he can stand atop of the podium in Paris.
His second to Philippe Gilbert in the tough opening stage and BMC’s fast Team Time-Trial put Evans in a good position at the start of the Tour.
Three other Australians will play key roles for the overall General Classification contenders. The Tasmanian, Richie Porte, who successfully switched from triathlons to road racing, will be a key domestique for Contador on the Saxo Bank team. Porte burst onto the scene by wearing the leader’s jersey in the Giro d’Italia and finishing as the best young rider.
Although Contador’s win in the Giro d’Italia makes him the favourite, claims that he used the drug Clenbuterol in last year’s Tour will not be resolved until after the event. However, Contador faces a more immediate test after suffering a considerable time loss due to the crash towards the end of the first stage, and losing more time to some of the other favoured riders in the Teams Time-Trial.
The veteran Stuart O’Grady, riding his 15th Tour, will be a key rider and strategist on the road with Andy Schleck. Along with Andy’s older brother, Frank, Beijing Olympic gold medallist Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt, Schleck’s Leopard-Trek team will be formidable.
Having lost 39 seconds to Contador when he dropped a chain on the climb of the Col de Tourmalet last year, the younger Schleck will be out to reverse the results. After the first two stages, Schleck had over a minute and a half’s lead on Contador, a useful buffer on the Spaniard.
Simon Gerrans, a winner of a stage of each of the three Grand Tours, will be at the side of British rider, Bradley Wiggins, in the Sky team. Like Stuart O’Grady, Wiggins is an Olympic track gold medallist who successfully moved to road racing, finishing fourth in the Tour two years ago. He recently beat Cadel Evans in the traditional warm-up for the Tour, the Criterium du Dauphine.
Bathurst’s Mark Renshaw will be prominent at the finish of a number of stages as he leads out his HTC Highroad sprinter, Mark Cavendish. Although the Isle of Man racer was out of form when in Australia for the Tour Down Under, Cavendish has made it clear he wants to the Green Sprinter’s Jersey this year.
With points awarded for intermediate sprints, as well as stage finishes, Cavendish will have to be in top form to claim the coveted jersey.
The Tasmanian, Matt Goss, is also on the HTC squad for the Tour. Goss demonstrated that he is one of the best one-day riders in the world when he won the Milano-San Remo classic earlier in the season. Some of the lumpy stages where the roads continually rise and fall should suit a strong rider like Goss.
Two Australian cycling icons are missing this year. The three-time winner of the Green Jersey, Robbie McEwen, was not selected for the Radio Shack team. At 39, the brilliant sprinter is in the twilight of his long career. Also missing is the three-time World Time Trial champion, Michael Rogers, who has suffered glandular fever.
With Stuart O’Grady possibly riding his last Tour, this year marks a transition for Australian riders. Waiting in the wings are a group of talented young riders, such as Jack Bobridge, Cameron and Travis Meyer, and Leigh Howard.
With dozens of juniors aspiring to follow them, like the youngsters riding in Melbourne this week, Australians will continue to play a significant role in professional cycling for years to come.
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