"A real fighting year"

2006 proved you can take Stuart O'Grady away from the fight, but you can't take the fight out of...

An interview with Stuart O'Grady, November 30, 2006

2006 proved you can take Stuart O'Grady away from the fight, but you can't take the fight out of Stuart O'Grady. At 33 years old, though, what's he fighting for? Story by Anthony Tan.

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Next season, Sastre will be the undisputed grand tour leader at Team CSC, because just a few weeks ago, a surprise move took place. Basso decided to break ties with Riis, a man he told just about everything to and for two years his confidant, and announced a new partnership with the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team.

"You could do that sprint a thousand times and that would never happen again," - Stuart O'Grady recalls yet another agonising day in the saddle, speaking about the world road championships

Asked for his take on the matter, O'Grady hesitates: "Ah, it's a hard question... probably better not to go into that."

Preferring to talk about Sastre's chances, he says the Spaniard was the most attacking rider at this year's Tour, and was unlucky not to have finished on the podium. "Bjarne's lucky to keep him, and you probably won't see him at the Giro next year, to [let Sastre] concentrate more on the Tour and Vuelta."

Invariably, O'Grady has kept his opinions on others to himself or close friends throughout his career. Few are as outspoken as countryman Bradley McGee or British rider Bradley Wiggins, and one can argue it does them more harm than good for doing so, such is the omerta that appears to exist within.

However, the sport's health is largely dependent on whether this tainted image, one where cycling and doping appear to co-exist, can be shed.

O'Grady's freckled face slowly turns towards me. "You can't just keep isolating cycling and cycling's got the only problem in the world," he says defensively.

"Whatever job you do, you get the opportunity to take the wrong direction in life, and that's a personal decision. Life, no matter what way you go, no matter what job, you have to make some pretty hard decisions. You just have to concentrate on your job, and you just have to try and teach the younger generation the right way, the right path, and not cheat."

Perhaps this is part of the reason behind O'Grady's little out-of-school project, CSC-Team O'Grady (see separate story).

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Despite a hostile environment and the setbacks, was he still thinking about a classics win after the Tour? You bet he was. But that's when Big Blow Number Four came-a-knocking-at-the-door.

"I knew if I could finish the Tour, I could get a result in Hamburg," says O'Grady, referring to the Vattenfall Cyclassics ProTour race in Hamburg, Germany, an event he won in 2004 and held exactly one week after the finish of the Tour de France.

"Puncturing in Hamburg was just the cherry on the cake for me. You do everything right, through the week, through the lead-up - which is hard enough in itself after the Tour. You ride 240 k and puncture in the last k... it was devastating. I threw my bike sooo far - I think it's still bouncing around Hamburg," he jokes, a wry smile doing little to hide an overwhelming sense of embitterment.

The master of continually picking himself up again, O'Grady's form, experience and determination warranted the position of Australian team captain in Salzburg at the world road championships. Surprisingly, with less than a kilometre to go and in the lead group, he gave up this coveted leadership role to one of his fiercest - and not so long ago, least liked - rivals.

"Well," he reflects, "I think a few years ago, there was a lot of pretty big over-exposure, it [the rivalry] was blown out of proportion.

"We were both fighting for the same goals. Doesn't matter whether you're Australian or Italian, if you're fighting for green jersey, there's always going to be tension. A lot of adrenalin, a lot of tension. When you've just finished a 65 k an hour sprint, there's a lot of stuff pouring out.

"This year, I found myself not locking horns with Robbie, so to speak, so there was no reason to be aggressive towards each other or anything. Like I said before, I really respect Robbie as a rider and he's one of the fastest guys on the planet."

True. In professional cycling, you can't like everyone; at the end of the day, one man crosses the line ahead of another. No one admired Armstrong for his 'likeability'. But respect - very much so.

Continues O'Grady, "I think I've learned something out of this year as well at CSC. I'd always been the team leader in French teams, but in CSC, you learn to sacrifice your own chances for your team-mates, which I hadn't really done a lot of."

So what happened in Salzburg, then? Bad luck by the Aussies or clever tactics from the Italians and Spanish? In the pre-race meeting, the boys wearing the green and gold were unanimous in their decision that O'Grady was the natural leader - but if it came down to a sprint, they would do everything possible for McEwen to win.

With a kilometre to go, the latter scenario came into play, and one could almost taste the feeling of victory on the lips of the Australians. The prospect of achieving something never done before was real, going one better than McEwen's silver medal in Zolder, Belgium, four years ago.

"You could do that sprint a thousand times and that would never happen again," says O'Grady as he recites yet another heartbreaking day in the saddle.

"It was good tactics by the Spanish, couple of guys hesitating in front of us, and all of a sudden, there's a 20 metre gap and there's nothing you can do about it with 400 metres to go. One k to go, we were rubbing our hands together, thinking, 'yeah'... Twenty seconds later, it was gone. That was a huge disappointment; being so close, yet so far... "

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Despite the disappointment, despite learning the act of selfless riding and despite a definitive break from chasing that elusive maillot vert, O'Grady's appetite for a big win has by no means abated. I recall what he told me at the start of our conversation, explaining why he signed for CSC: "I just saw it as a way of going to a bigger and better team, and somewhere where I could win Classics, which is my main objective now."

And speaking about the two greatest monuments next spring, it's not hard to tell.

"For the team we had this year, I was sitting there on the lounge, watching... It was heartbreaking at times, but fantastic. We had numbers in the final of these races which is what it's all about - and I'm just picturing next year in Paris-Roubaix: Fabian, Karsten, young Matti Breschel and myself, in the final fifty kilometres...

"Four riders in the final; when you've got numbers, that's when you can start being offensive and that's how you can pull it off. My chances of winning it [Paris-Roubaix] or being part of the team, the confidence has gone through the roof."

It's hard not to be excited when you hear O'Grady talk like this. It's also difficult to tell he had the luckless year he did and one of the hardest of his career. But it's all part of his indomitable character.

Already thinking about next spring; convincing CSC to support his development team; convincing Riis to bring a team out to Australia for the Tour Down Under; winning the Olympic road race in Beijing two years from now...

Wait a minute: another Olympic gold medal - but this time on the road?

"The road race in Beijing is definitely at the top of my priority list," he affirms. "Again, the world championship and the Olympics are the two biggest things [races] on the road, and it's something I've never done, so yeah, they're objectives but also dreams."

Even now, riding his bike for two to three hours each day, 33 year-old O'Grady is beginning to see and appreciate things he never saw before.

"You're a lot better set up now. You have a home. We have some great friends overseas, some of whom aren't involved in cycling, so you get out and enjoy different parts of the Euro lifestyle.

"It's not an easy sport, but we do have a lot of fantastic positives about it. Riding around the countryside, when it's a nice day, you do take these things for granted. I think when you're young, you don't think about it.

"I don't know how many more years I'm going to do - it's definitely not going to be 10!" he hoots. "The closer you get to retirement, the more you appreciate the sport."

I've caught O'Grady on a good day, if only for less than an hour. Upon his return to Adelaide, he was about to take a fang in his recently-acquired Cobra muscle car, his other passion, his catharsis, it seems. Jesting he's now in his twilight years (even though he just signed with CSC till 2008, no doubt for a far more generous sum than this year), I ask him what the thought of retirement might actually mean.

"I don't know," he says a little nervously.

"I think about it very, very briefly because I don't want to get too sidetracked from my job, what I'm doing at the moment. Eventually, I'll probably stay in the sport somehow, but through what means, I have absolutely no idea."

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