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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Australian hopes high at Tour de France following Giro glory | Tour de France

It is a good time to be an Australian cycling fan. Jai Hindley recently became the second Australian to win a grand tour, clinching the Giro d’Italia at the end of last month. The women’s Giro Rosa is imminent, with a strong Australian contingent in the peloton. The Commonwealth Games are not far away, offering up a plethora of cycling events, including a return to the velodrome for Australia’s track cyclists after the disappointment of Tokyo. In September the world’s best will arrive on these shores for the world championships, taking in the scenic roads around Wollongong. And, on Friday, the Tour de France begins.

Beginning in Denmark, the 109th edition of the Tour promises to be a bountiful one for Australian riders. Following Hindley’s Giro triumph, hopes are high among Australian members of the World Tour peloton. While Hindley is not competing in France – an expected decision, given the race comes so soon after the Giro – there are at least two yellow jersey hopefuls eager to match their compatriot’s recent achievement.

First up is Ben O’Connor. The 26-year-old West Australian announced himself on the world stage at last year’s Tour de France, with a remarkable solo win in the Alps. The stage win catapulted O’Connor into general classification contention; while a podium spot ultimately eluded him, his fourth-place finish was impressive nonetheless – with only two other Australians, Cadel Evans and Richie Porte, having done better at the Tour. The performance was all the more remarkable given it was O’Connor’s Tour debut.

Riding for French team AG2R Citroën Team, O’Connor will start on Friday in fine form. He placed seventh in his opening tour of the season, the Ruta del Sol in Spain, sixth in the Catalan Tour, fifth at the Tour de Romandie and won the one-day Tour du Jura. Earlier this month, O’Connor secured a spot on the podium at the traditional pre-Tour warm-up Critérium du Dauphiné.

When the going gets tough at the Tour, O’Connor will find a familiar face in the selection with fellow Australian Jack Haig named as co-leader for Bahrain Victorious. Perhaps the most highly-rated Australian climber of the generation during his youth, even more so than Hindley and O’Connor, Haig made good on that promise with a podium finish at last year’s Vuelta a España, the Spanish grand tour.

Jack Haig at the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month.
Jack Haig at the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month. Photograph: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

The Victorian, now 28, has continued that form throughout the new season – finishing sixth overall at Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice, and just back from O’Connor in fifth at the recent Dauphiné. Supported by a strong squad and with Bahrain aiming to secure their first Tour podium, Haig looks to be a contender – unless the team has been rattled by a recent police raid.

Whether O’Connor or Haig can genuinely challenge for the hallowed yellow jersey remains to be seen. Tadej Pogačar has won consecutive editions of the Tour and will be difficult to beat. Jumbo-Visma duo Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard took first and second at the Dauphiné, comfortably ahead of O’Connor; Roglič, a three-time Vuelta winner, will be hoping to avenge his heart-breaking 2020 Tour, when Pogačar snatched the yellow jersey off him on the penultimate stage. Long-time force Ineos Grenadiers will no doubt be influential on the road, too, with past Tour winner Geraint Thomas recently victorious at the Tour de Suisse.

A podium spot might be more likely than overall victory, but the history of grand tours shows that anything is possible. The first week, in particular, could cause early chaos – with a range of challenging stages likely to shake up the established order.

Elsewhere in the peloton, Australian sprint sensation Caleb Ewan will be hoping to reprise his past Tour glories after a disappointing showing at the recent Giro, where crashes and other mishaps saw him exit early without a stage win. On sprint stages Ewan will find himself pitted against his former team, Australian outfit BikeExchange Jayco, riding for Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen. BikeExchange will also be hunting for stage wins through Canberran Michael Matthews, 2017 green jersey winner at the Tour, who starts on the back of a promising run of form.

In the mountains, fellow Australians Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ) and Chris Hamilton (Team DSM) will look to take any chances that present themselves. Storer had a break-out performance at the Vuelta last year, showing his climbing prowess with two stage wins and the king of the mountain jersey, while Hamilton finished second on a tough stage at the 2021 Giro. Part of the same generation as O’Connor and Haig, the quartet demonstrate the present strength of Australian cycling.

In the three weeks ahead, Australia’s best male cyclists will have plenty of chances to shine at the biggest event on the annual cycling calendar. The race will be followed by the historic Tour de France Femmes, an eight-stage tour beginning on the Champs-Élysées, on the same day the men conclude, replacing the more limited La Course. And with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and road world championships on home soil to come, opportunities beckon for Australian cycling.

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