News features, January 23, 2008
Can O'Grady three-peat?
On the eve of Tour Down Under's decisive stage to Willunga, Stuart O'Grady of Team Saxo Bank holds third place just 15 seconds behind race leader Allan Davis. If O'Grady can overcome the deficit on tomorrow's 148-kilometre stage, it will take the local rider to his third Tour Down Under win in the event's 11-year history. But has he got what it takes for the race win?
"I think with the form Alby's got at the moment I really can't see him being beaten," said O'Grady on the Hilton Hotel's pool deck. "I think he's proven that he's powerful enough on the climb into Stirling the other day. I think there's going to be quiet a few of us with the same kind of climbing form and I think probably guys like Matt Lloyd, Luis León Sánchez and Michael Rogers are going to have to unleash everything up the climb and then it's just a matter of if we can get organised behind and catch them before the finish. That's how I see the race."
With just 15 seconds covering the top three riders – including second placed Graeme Brown of Team Rabobank – there's a chance the event could be decided on time bonuses. There's 10 seconds on offer for the stage win tomorrow, but O'Grady isn't so sure his home ProTour event will be decided with a sprint.
"A lot of teams haven't shown any cards at all yet." - O'Grady keeps cautious.
"I didn't think it would come down to time bonuses but... Tomorrow is going to be really tough, I don't think we're ever going to do a stage like tomorrow," he said.
"A lot of teams haven't shown any cards at all yet. I mean Caisse d'Epargne has been pretty much invisible, Columbia now without [André] Greipel has got to play the Michael Rogers card and there's only one way to do it, that's to isolate us. So they're just going to be going full gas first time up Willunga and attack the hill the second time."
The 2007 Paris-Roubaix winner thinks that the inclusion of an additional lap of the Willunga climb will be punishing on the peloton. André Greipel won the 2008 edition after Adam Hansen motored on the front of the peloton, as others behind him blew up behind. That was with only one lap of Willunga.
"On the climbs I'm just going to be hanging in there for grim death, I think," said O'Grady. "I think Michael Rogers and Matty Lloyd, if a good group get off the front – which they probably will – then it's going to take a hell of a lot to bring them back. But at the moment I see Alby [Davis] as pretty much having his hands on the trophy.
"I'll try to keep pretty invisible depending on the weather conditions until Willunga hill."
While many have written off Davis' chances by referring to him as a sprinter, the solid rider of Team Quick Step shouldn't be discounted. Davis won five stages of the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2007, an event known for gruelling, high-altitude climbs. The rider has also shown his durability with a second place finish at Milan-Sanremo in the same year.
O'Grady was pleased today's stage wasn't as difficult as he'd been anticipating. "I was actually expecting the racing to be a little harder from the start but I think there were a lot of pretty groggy legs out there and I think everyone was pretty happy to just let a break go and just do a nice, controlled tempo into the finish."
On the previous stage, O'Grady was one in a 15-strong breakaway which included Michael Rogers (Columbia), Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Lance Armstrong (Astana). The 80-kilometre move took a toll on the entire peloton, with several groups having to chase hard after a crash to get back on, before the race finished more than 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
"Yesterday I think took a lot out of everyone," said O'Grady. "I didn't really want to be attack anyone that early in the day but when I saw Mick, Lance, Sánchez go, there was no choice but to follow it. In those kinds of conditions you're much better putting yourself out in front then you can make a clinical decision on what to do next. But it was definitely a good day to be out the front by the sounds of it."
O'Grady's Tour Down Under to date has been impressive, with the rider finishing every stage of the ProTour event inside the top five. His last victory at the race was in 2001; he won the race's first edition in 1999.