Unless something quite astonishing happens on Old Willunga Hill on Saturday, no Australian will feature in the top ten of the Tour Down Under for the first time in its 16-year history.
For a proud nation who have produced eight of the race’s previous 15 winners, this will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Last year, as Orica-GreenEdge made their entrance on the world scene amid much fanfare, Simon Gerrans rewarded the fervent local fans by taking the overall win and was joined by three other countrymen in the top ten.
At the half-way stage of this year’s race, however, Adam Hansen is the best-placed Aussie rider at 13th overall, among nine riders who are 15 seconds down on race leader Geraint Thomas of Team Sky.
This may sound like a small margin, but the Tour Down Under is a race where time gaps are notoriously hard to close.
Besides, Hansen will be busting a gut to help lead-out his Lotto-Belisol team-mate Andre Greipel to sprint victories in stage four to Tanunda and Sunday’s showpiece finale on the streets of Adelaide.
Gerrans is OGE’s best rider but is languishing a huge 3:36 down in 37th place, after suffering on the infamous Corkscrew climb that blew stage two apart.
How the mighty have fallen.
It reminds me of last year’s Tour de France, where defending champion Cadel Evans entered the race with high expectation but limped to an innocuous seventh place on general classification, 16 minutes behind Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, who became the first Briton to win the Grande Boucle.
In that race, Australia’s stand-out performer was Mick Rogers in his astonishing super-domestique role for Wiggins and second-place Chris Froome.
We have a similar scenario now in the Tour Down Under. As Sky’s Thomas bids to become the first Briton to win Australia’s biggest road race, he will rely on the domestique duties of an Australian team-mate in Mat Hayman who, after Thomas’s emphatic stage two win, told reporters with masochistic gusto, “this week just got a whole lot harder”.
In short, the Aussies have been reduced to support roles in races they used to win. What makes this even worse, those being supported are Poms.
This mirroring of fortunes shows just how much the dynamic of the Tour Down Under has changed over the past year or two.
What was traditionally a race for sprinters was given a much-needed facelift last year with the introduction of a first ever hilltop finish at Willunga on the penultimate stage. It was there that Gerrans – although pipped by the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde for the victory – set up his overall triumph.
This year, the riders vying for GC have not been afforded the luxury of waiting for the race’s penultimate stage before staking their claim.
After the likes of Andre Greipel and Matt Goss doing battle in the opening stage, the focus was on Gerrans and Philippe Gilbert; but it was another G – one whose nickname actually is ‘G’ – who took the race by the scruff of its neck with a vintage pop on the Corkscrew.
The 26-year-old showed off his climbing abilities with a wonderful flourish to counter up the sinuous climb. Thomas was joined on the descent by three pursuers but kept his calm on entering the town of Rostrevor, using his track ability to thwart his opponents and power to what was – astonishingly – only his fifth win in six years as a professional.
It’s an important year for Thomas, who – after picking up a gold medal on the track in the London Olympics – will finally be able to focus fully on his road racing. With Mark Cavendish having left Sky for pastures new, Thomas will be able forget lead-out duties and reprise the free role he so clearly relishes.
There are few more versatile riders than Thomas in the peloton. A World and Olympic champion on the track, Thomas can time trial, lead out, climb and perform strong domestique duties (as proved in his supporting role alongside Wiggins in last year’s Paris-Nice).
A former junior winner of Paris-Roubaix and 10th in last year’s Tour of Flanders, Thomas is now very well placed to take the overall crown Down Under and use it as a springboard ahead of the Classics season.
He still has a bit of bulk to shed post-Olympics, but Thomas, back on the road, is clearly on the right track.
The race is far from over, however. Young Dutchman Tom-Jelte Slagter of Team Blanco went off script to take Thursday’s stage three to Stirling with aplomb, denying both Matt Goss and world champion Philippe Gilbert in the process.
Slagter is now up to second on GC, while the likes of danger men Ben Hermans, George Bennett and Tiago Machado (all RadioShack) are all within 15 seconds off the summit. The Izagirre brothers from Euskaltel, Ion and Gorka, should also be closely watched on Saturday’s decisive climb to Willunga, while Friday and Sunday’s final stage should give Greipel the chance to match his three stage wins from last year.
To finish, a quote from Sean Yates about Orica-GreenEdge: “In general they are not in good enough condition. Obviously, to get in good condition you have to train hard and be serious. Their condition would suggest that’s not been the case.”
Funnily enough, the former Team Sky directeur sportif did not utter these words this year (as one might expect) but 12 months ago, when former Sky rider Gerrans was on the cusp of his overall victory in his team’s debut World Tour appearance.
As the long-serving acclaimed Australian cycling scribe Rupert Guinness has said, this was “a bit like the coach of a beaten rugby team criticising the opposition’s fitness only to be told to take a look at the scoreboard mate.” (Although, over the course of the season, look who had the last laugh.)
But it’s food for thought. Yates may be long gone and his words last year could well have been a case of sour grapes being dressed up as constructive criticism; yet it does appear that already at this early stage, Team Sky – and RadioShack, in fact – are setting down a marker for the other teams to follow.
Thomas has had to totally transform his body since the Olympics – and has come out the other side in fine form. What are the excuses of Gerrans and his OGE team-mates? A Yates down under would have a field day this year…