Which Australians will play biggest role at Tour de France?
Cadel Evans in the yellow jersey in the 2011 Tour de France (Courtesy BMC - Tim de Waele)
A dozen Australian riders will line-up at the start of the 2012 Tour de France in Liege – bettering the previous record of 11 Aussies set in 2010 and underlining the rude health of Australian professional cycling.
Cadel Evans (BMC) will be flying the flag for Australia as he bids to defend his yellow jersey in the face of mounting pressure from Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky squad which boasts Australians Richie Porte and Michael Rogers among its strong roster.
Orica GreenEdge start their debut Tour de France with five home-grown riders while other Australians taking part in the race are Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol), Matthew Lloyd (Lampre) and Jonathan Cantwell (Saxo Bank).
But which of the 12 Australians will play the biggest role over three weeks of intense racing?
The answer most Australian fans will be hoping for is Evans, the defending champion.
The 35-year-old all-rounder from Victoria enters the race as joint favourite alongside Wiggins, knowing that experience is on his side. I have already written about the intriguing rivalry between Evans and Wiggins in many a post here on The Roar so at this point I’ll just say this: don’t underestimate experience.
Twice runner-up, Evans has finished in the top eight on five of the previous seven Tours. He also, crucially, knows what it’s like to actually win the thing after doing so in such a gutsy and calculated way last year.
The momentum may seemingly be with Wiggins after a steamrolling season in which the 32-year-old has already notched three overall wins in Paris-Nice, the Tour of Lombardie and the Dauphiné. But discount Evans at your peril. His form and fitness have been under the spotlight this season, but he enters the race with a similar team that helped him to glory last year and with far less pressure than his main contender, who has never finished on the podium in Paris.
A lot will depend on how the teams of both favourites perform – which neatly leads us on to the next two Australians from our dozen.
Veteran Michael Rogers is enjoying something of a renaissance this year for Team Sky and he’s certainly found his calling as Wiggins’s key lieutenant. Now 32, New South Wales’ Rogers will be riding his eighth Tour this summer. Only on his second, the comparatively inexperienced yet nevertheless supremely talented 27-year-old Tasmanian Richie Porte is a key part of Sky’s squad going into the race.
Both Rogers and Porte rode themselves to a top ten finish in the Dauphiné last month – and Australians should consider that should Wiggins steal Evans’s yellow jersey come Paris on 2second July, it will probably be thanks in a large part to the roles played by both Rogers and Porte.
Five Australians who will not be playing any part in the GC are the quintet lining up for Orica GreenEdge, for whom the emphasis will firmly be on stage wins.
Sprinter Matt Goss looks to be the team’s most obvious chance of a victory. The 25-year-old notched a stage scalp in May’s Giro d’Italia, during which he and he alone looked like the only sprinter able to compete with world champion Mark Cavendish for speed.
The competition will be fierce, however, with both Cavendish and Goss coming up against the in-form Slovakian Peter Sagan (making his Tour de France debut) and powerful German pair Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano).
But Orica GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White remains bullish about his team’s chances, which he has stressed do not lie simply on the shoulders of Goss.
“We have a lot of opportunities in the team of nine. We’ve said from the start that the overall classification is not a goal. We’re on the hunt for stage wins and we have a lot of winners in those eight other riders,” White said this week.
Of the eight, four are Australian: Baden Cooke, Brett Lancaster, Simon Gerrans and Stuart O’Grady. Cooke and Lancester will be Goss’s lead-out men for the sprint finishes, but Tour Down Under winner Gerrans will have more of a free role, while Adelaide veteran O’Grady will look to make a splash in his 16th and probably last Tour.
Of the four, Gerrans looks to have the best chance of taking a win for Australia. The 32-year-old national champion from Melbourne has victories in all three Grand Tours and stage four’s uphill sprint finish in Boulogne looks ideally suited to his strengths. Indeed, the former Team Sky rider could well find himself up against old foe Alejandro Valverde, the Spaniard who pipped him atop Old Willunga Hill in January’s Tour Down Under.
The rest of GreenEdge is made up of South African debutant Daryl Impey, Dutchmen Pieter Weening (a Tour stage winner in 2005) and Sebastian Langeveld, and Swiss rouleur Michael Albasini, who has three stage wins to his name this year and is riding his first Tour since 2007.
While GreenEdge won’t come anywhere near the top in the team standings, the Australian tour first timers certainly have the personal to have an impact on the race – with Goss, Gerrans and Albasini the most likely to take a win.
The prospects of Goss’s sprint rival (and old HTC team-mate) Greipel will rely heavily upon Queensland’s Hansen, who along with New Zealander Greg Henderson is a key component of the Lotto Belisol train that delivered the German to a trio of wins in the Tour Down Under at the start of the season.
Renshaw, another former HTC-Columbia rider, will look to take a maiden stage on the Tour. The 29-year-old from Bathurst has found things tricky since swapping lead-out duties for being Rabobank’s main man for the sprints, a solitary win in the Tour of Turkey his only return to date.
The Tour also marks something of a comeback for pint-size climber Matt Lloyd, who has not ridden a major stage race since 2010. Winner of the mountains standings in the 2010 Giro, Lloyd was dismissed by his Lotto team last year for “behavioural reasons”.
This was not, I hasten to add, a doping case. Lloyd had simply not disclosed his poor condition to team management following two off-season training collisions with cars in Australia. Lloyd was left without a team for most of the 2011 season while he struggled back to fitness. Lampre came knocking to end his time in the wilderness – and now the 29-year-old makes a return to the big time.
This leaves us with the 12th Australian rider on the Tour de France start list – one who is the joker of the pack.
This time last year, pro continental V Australia rider Jonathan Cantwell was probably watching the Tour on TV between his appearances in the lowly American Tulsa Tough race and the Tour of the Murray River. At the end of the season, Bjarne Riis called and the little-known 30 year old signed for Saxo Bank.
With Saxo Bank’s plans thrown into turmoil following Alberto Contador’s ban earlier in the season, Cantwell now remarkably finds himself thrown into the world’s biggest bike race.
Should the Queenslander manage an audacious stage win in his debut Grand Tour, it would add an unbelievable footnote to perhaps the most intriguing of any potential turn of events involving Australian cyclists this July.
Roll on Liege…
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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