Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The NRL top eight is locked in, the coaching merry-go-round is slowing to a halt and I hope the journos from Nine and News Corp are done crying about who’s being meaner to whom for the time being. So let’s leave the footy aside for a week.
July is my favourite month of the year. It’s the month of my birthday (if you’re fussed about getting older, you’re not getting cool enough presents), Malcolm Gladwell tends to be releasing his latest season of Revisionist History, and grown men in lycra chase each other up and down ridiculous mountains in the gorgeous French countryside.
The argument goes that rugby league is the perfect sport for TV. Well, yeah, unless you’ve stayed up til the early hours to watch a three week Grand Tour.
The Tour de France is the greatest sporting spectacle on Planet Earth. Supreme athletes compete in a bloody war of attrition that is offset in its brutality by the sheer gorgeousness of the theatre in which this battle takes place.
Usually I can rely on the peloton heading to the Alps or Pyrenees the day I blow the candles out on my cake. But this year, due to COVID, the Tour is taking place in September instead of July.
Worth the wait.
As this story goes live, we’re at the second of the two rest days, with six stages to go.
The reigning champ went down in flames on Sunday night. Egan Bernal just couldn’t keep up with the big dogs and shipped a staggering 7:20 to drop from third to 13th overall.
The 2018 champ was never a factor, because Geraint Thomas is on Bernal’s Ineos team and management made the decision that they would take one leader to the 2020 Tour. The Welshman will ride the Giro instead.
The 2017 champ – four-time winner and Grand Tour cyclist of his generation Chris Froome – is another of the Ineos mob. He’s heading off to a different team next year and is still on the comeback from a horrific crash last year, so the British team left him at home for this year’s Grand Boucle as well.
This means, come Sunday night (well, technically Monday morning our time), we will have a non-Ineos athlete riding into Paris wearing the Maillot Jaune for the first time since Vincenzo Nibali’s victory in 2014.
It’s hard to describe how significant this is. Ineos – formerly Team Sky – have completely dominated the Tour for the past ten years, with one of their riders winning all bar one editions since Cadel Evans’ 2011 victory.
However, there was a changing of the guard last year, with Bernal claiming a general classification victory at the age of 22, making him the youngest overall winner of the modern age.
It was wild, because cycling is a sport that’s every bit as much about what’s going on between your ears as what’s happening in your legs. You need experience to win a Grand Tour.
Or so we thought. Then this kid from Colombia comes along and obliterates that logic with his nous, panache and power meter.
There was a sense that he would win the next ten in a row. He still could – probably will – win a stack more major races. But not this one.
If Bernal’s 2019 win was a harbinger of what was to come, the guard has well and truly changed this year.
Race leader Primoz Roglic may be 30 years old, but hot on his heels is his 21-year-old compatriot Tadej Pogacar.
The age of these new cyclists is a factor – especially with Roglic’s 25-year-old teammate Wout van Aert having won two stages to stamp himself as the best non-GC rider at the race – but it’s also worth noting that, heading into Sunday night’s stage, the top six riders by nationality went Slovenian, Slovenian, Colombian, Colombian, Colombian, Colombian.
It’s firm evidence the old world of French, Spanish and Belgian riders no longer rule the peloton.
Pogacar claimed the stage victory on Sunday night, out-sprinting Roglic on the slopes of the Grand Colombier, establishing the fact that this year is now a two-horse race.
Logic suggests Roglic will claim victory. He is in dominant form, has the experience and on Sunday night his Jumbo-Visma teammates out Ineos-ed Ineos to choke Bernal out.
And I hope he does win, because Roglic is one of the best stories in sport. An Olympic hopeful as a downhill skier, an awful accident on the slopes saw him make the change to cycling only ten years ago – the dude had never even owned a bike until he was 20.
Johan Bruyneel tells the story that Roglic figured out pretty quick that he was handy at turning the pedals over, so made an approach to a pro team to ask if they would take a chance on him.
The director of the team essentially said, “You’re too old to make it. So if you want us to give you a go, you can stump up the $5000 that it’ll cost us to register you and get you insured.”
Roglic went home, got a job at his local supermarket and bagged groceries for three months to save up the five grand, then went back and made the team sign him on.
Now, ten years later, he’s on the cusp of winning the most famous cycling race in the world. How good is that!
But good lord, his closest rival looks super, super strong – perhaps strong enough that after Bernal shattered a 70-year record as the youngest rider in the post-war era to claim the overall victory, Pogacar could rewrite history again only a year later.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention that while it looks overwhelmingly as though it’ll be one of the two Slovenians who takes the cake, on Sunday there was only one other rider who could stay in the mix with the pair of favourites.
Yeah, that’d be Richie Porte.
The Aussie shoulda-coulda-woulda-been king has signed to go ride as a domestique for Ineos next year but looks like he’s going to go out strong in his final tilt as a team leader.
I’ve been burned by the Tasmanian too many times to hold out any hope of him making an Evans-style overall win this late in his career, but there are six brutal stages to go and all it takes is one bad day – as Bernal discovered on Sunday – to go from contender to pretender.
I’m already a year older and have listened to season five of Revisionist History in its entirety (the four-part miniseries on Air Force general Curtis LeMay was stunning).
It ain’t July.
But damn if this year’s Tour de France isn’t the best, most compelling race we’ve seen in years.