Trio heralded Aussie Tour de France surge
The only characteristic bigger than their potential was their ambition. When Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen and Henk Vogels made their Tour de France debuts in 1997, everything changed for Australian cycling.
It is an under-appreciated feat that over just 15 years, Australia has gone from a bit player to a powerhouse in one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Cadel Evans is the reigning champion and Orica-GreenEDGE will be the first team from Australia to ride in the Tour.
Of course, Australians had starred in the Tour before O’Grady, McEwen and Vogels came along.
The year before, Patrick Jonker had finished 12th overall.
Three years earlier, the legendary Phil Anderson had ridden his 13th and final Tour.
But here were three riders, all in their mid-20s, making their Tour debuts just as Australian cycling was on the rise.
It was perfect timing – in 1991, SBS had started its Tour coverage.
The days of Anderson receiving minimal credit in Australia for his exploits were over.
Also in ’97, Neil Stephens became only the second Australian after Anderson to win a Tour stage.
A year later, O’Grady followed Anderson in wearing the yellow jersey as Tour leader.
Two years later, McEwen won the iconic final Tour stage in Paris.
The boom was underway.
“It certainly has happened very quickly – until recently, Australia on the road has been a third-world cycling nation,” Anderson said.
The obvious next step was an Australian professional team big enough to ride in the Tour, but there were several false starts.
Then businessman Gerry Ryan and coach Shayne Bannan combined and the product of their efforts is Orica-GreenEDGE, which is enjoying a great debut season.
“People have often said in the last decade or so, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to see an Australian team ride in the Tour de France?’” Anderson said
“It’s taken a long time – I never thought it would happen, but it has happened and it’s wonderful.”
Very few Australian riders have had the physical attributes to be overall contenders at the Tour, but Evans’ eighth placing on debut in 2005 confirmed long-held excitement about his talent.
After plenty of setbacks, last year he made sporting history.
When Anderson rode his first Tour in 1981, Australian riders were curios – now one of them is the man to beat.
© AAP 2013
How Cadel Evans can win the 2012 Tour de France
* While Brad Wiggins’ Sky team dominated this year’s Criterium Dauphine, a key pre-Tour race, Evans still managed third overall. Last year the Australian was second, also behind Wiggins. So his form is heading in the right direction.
* Evans’ BMC Racing team has recruited well, bolstering the line-up with solid riders such as Belgian Philippe Gilbert and young American Tejay van Garderen. It is a blow that Thor Hushovd, another star signing, is unavailable for the Tour. But Evans rates the team stronger than last year.
* BMC’s team spirit was a massive factor for Evans last year and he has made this a focus again. Sky also look rock-solid, but BMC will work entirely for Evans, whereas Sky will have Wiggins going for the overall Tour title and Mark Cavendish trying to win sprint stages. This might work to the Australian’s advantage.
* The individual time trials – stages nine and 19. As soon as the Tour route was announced, this factor stood out. There are far more time trial kilometres than last year and this plays to one of Evans’ key strengths. However, Wiggins is also a strong time trial rider and these two stages could be where the Australian and the Brit decide who wins the overall title. Like last year, the second time trial is also the second-last stage of the race.
* Stage one. Last year, Evans made an early statement by finishing second in stage one and then winning stage four. The opening road stage into Seraing features an uphill finish – perfect terrain for Evans to test his opponents.
* Stage three. Overall contenders such as Evans must be careful here. The run to the coastal finish at Boulogne-sur Mer features plenty of hilly terrain and the peloton could splinter.
* Stage seven. In terms of big climbs, this is a different Tour – it’s not just the normal challenges that the Alps and Pyrenees offer. There is plenty of added “spice”, starting with stage seven in the Vosges region. After two earlier climbs, it’s a summit finish and the final climb to La Planche des Bellie Filles is a brute.
* Stage 10: The Tour visits the Col du Grand Colombier for the first time, a 17.4km monster of a climb. There’s a rest day after the stage-nine time trial and the riders will need it. A potentially-critical day for Evans.
* Stage 11: Another summit finish, this time in the Alps, and plenty of climbing beforehand.
* Stages 16 and 17: The Pyrenees. Last year, it was two epic days in the Alps before the final time trial where Evans effectively won the Tour. By minimising his time losses to the Schleck brothers, he was poised perfectly to take the lead once they all went individually against the clock. Stage 17 features a summit finish at Peyragudes – another chance for a GC (general classification) rider such as Evans to put time into his rivals.
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