In case Cadel crashes…
Saturday sees the Tour de France roll out for another year, and once again the nation’s hopes for an inaugural maillot jaune (yellow jersey) in Paris will rest the same place said jersey would sit – Cadel Evans’ shoulders.
His lead-up has been solid, with two victories and a second place, and more importantly his team (for the first time in recent memory) is just as solid.
Cadel learned the importance of a strong team in 2007 and 2008 – the two years in which he was runner-up – not because his team was bad but because the teams of the men who beat him were better.
In 2007 Cadel came second in a race won by Alberto Contador riding for Team Discovery Channel, while Levi Leipheimer, also of Discovery Channel, came in third.
The following year Cadel was pipped for prime place in Paris by Carlos Sastre of Team CSC Saxo Bank, who was supported by teammates Frank Schleck (5th place, after Bernhard Kohl was retrospectively stripped of 3rd for doping) and Andy Schleck who won the white jersey for best young rider.
The efforts of teammates win individuals the maillot jaune but the efforts of these men behind the team leaders are also one of the most exciting aspects of the race.
Which is why Australians should not be disheartened if Cadel crashes out of contention like he did last year (before bravely battling on to finish the race with a fractured elbow).
Two Australians will be in the mix right up until the penultimate stage in Grenoble – Richie Porte and Stuart O’Grady.
Tasmanian Porte announced himself to the cycling world last year when he won the white jersey for best young rider at the Giro D’Italia, coming in 7th overall and wearing the race leader’s maglia rosa (pink jersey) for three race stages.
This season Porte is riding for Team Saxo Bank-SunGard as a domestique for Alberto Contador but is held in such esteem that he would have led the team had the Spaniard been denied entry to the tour (a distinct possibility for much of the year due to Contador testing positive to clenbuterol during last year’s tour).
At 37 (turning 38 within a fortnight of the Tour’s completion), Stuart O’Grady is an elder statesmen of the World Tour and is assured a place in history as one of Australia’s greatest cyclists.
His career began in 1992, and during his 20 years in the saddle he has won Olympic and Commonwealth gold, worn the maillot jaune in both the 1998 and 2001 Tours, been runner up in the Tour’s sprint category on four occasions, and became the first Australian ever to win a major classic by claiming the famous Paris-Roubaix in 2007.
Over the years he has reinvented himself more times than David Bowie, going from track cyclist to sprinter to domestique and, despite coming 149th in the General Classification, would possibly have been the only Aussie to walk away from last year’s Tour content with his efforts for one simple reason – he did his job.
Well, almost – as a domestique for Luxembourger Andy Schleck, O’Grady would have been disappointed his man left with second place for the second year running, this time missing out on the maillot jaune by 39 fateful seconds to Contador.
While there have been closer margins between first and second over the years (Cadel’s second place to Contador in 2008 was by a mere 23 seconds) the 39 seconds separating Contador from Schleck in 2010 was almost poetic.
During Stage 15, Schleck, wearing the maillot jaune, lost his chain while climbing the Port de Bales in an incident which saw him lose exactly 39 seconds to his Spanish rival.
Obviously incidents like this occur in sport and there will always be debate as to the sportsmanship (or lack thereof) Contador showed by attacking his rival during technical difficulties but the point is 39 seconds would have been much closer if not for a slipped chain.
Contador and Schleck have different qualities and strengths but are virtually inseparable as individual cyclists in talent and ambition. The strength of their teams will dictate who finishes higher on the podium in Paris.
O’Grady’s job will be much the same as it was last year. He will sit at the front of the peloton on the long flats, particularly leading in to the mountains, thundering along at a pace aimed at wearing down Contador’s team and negating their ability to attack in the mountains.
This job will leave him exhausted when the mountains do come and, having worn himself out, he will drop to the gruppetto – the group of sprinters and spent pacemakers who ride behind the peloton, working together to ensure they are not eliminated from the tour by taking too long to complete the day’s stage.
Despite the fact O’Grady is unlikely to be in any breakaway group competing for a stage win, watching him out the front of the peloton for up to an hour at a time is enough to get the patriotic blood pumping.
Porte on the other hand is a bit of a dark horse given this is his maiden Tour and so far his 2011 results have been unimpressive – 22nd in the Paris-Nice is his best, while he came 81st in the Giro D’Italia.
Where he has been impressive is in these races’ individual time trials, particularly the Giro’s final stage – a 31.5km trial – where he finished fourth overall. This year’s Tour has two time trials – the penultimate stage is an individual trial, while stage two is a team trial.
Contador himself is one of world cycling’s premier time trialists, but he will need a strong showing from Porte if their team is to win the team trial. As for the individual trial, Porte will be looking for another top-five finish to match his result at this year’s Giro and possibly even the stage win.
However it’s the mountains where Porte will need to make his presence felt, both for his team and himself. Though Contador has three established lieutenants for the mountains in Daniel Navarro, Benjamin Noval and Jesus Hernandez, none of these three have finished in the Tour’s top 40.
Contador’s three Tour victories came with at least one teammate also in the top 20 – the worst being Alexander Vinokourov’s 16th last year. Contador needs more than lieutenants who will get him most of the way, he needs someone who is a threat at the finish in the mountains.
Porte is expected to be that man for him this year.
On a personal level, a big tour is important to Porte’s ambitions. At 26, he is only three years younger than Contador and, in a sport in which 37-year-old O’Grady isn’t the oldest pair of legs, Porte will not want to wait until Contador retires before leading his own team.
A strong showing at the Tour may see other teams may start to sniff around the Tasmanian to make him their leader.
Given their different strengths, O’Grady and Porte are unlikely to have any direct one on one battles in this year’s Tour. However the old and young of Australian cycling will be pitted against one another indirectly as their team leaders once again fight it out to be number one.
So even if it is a Spaniard or a Luxembourger standing on top of the podium in Paris come July 24th, we Aussies can have some pride knowing one of our boys played a large part in getting their man to the top.
Of course we will be prouder if an Aussie rides down the Champs-Elysees wearing the maillot jaune.