This year sees a diverse group of eight Antipodean riders taking part in the Tour de France. The representatives from Australia and New Zealand range from record-setting veterans like Stuart O’Grady and Julian Dean through to debutants Matthew Lloyd and Hayden Roulston.
It was an interesting lead-up to this year’s race for fans Down Under. The first shock came as Simon Gerrans was omitted from Cervélo’s team off having taken a Tour stage win in 2008 and, most recently, a Giro d’Italia stage win in May.
The twists kept on coming as Allan Davis was drafted into – then back out of – Quick Step’s roster in the blink of an eye as legal proceedings over Tom Boonen’s disputed participation caused havoc.
Regardless of pre-tour polemics, in Monaco on July 5th, eight riders flew two variations of Union Jack-dominated flags as France’s Grand Tour commenced. Here is a guide of who they are and what to expect from each.
Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)
A two time Tour de France runner-up, Evans is Australian fans’ great hope for success at this year’s Tour de France. Evans was rated an underdog amongst the top contenders heading in to this year’s French Grand Tour. To date Evans has fit the tag, with his overall hopes taking a heavy blow as the young, inexperienced Silence-Lotto squad tumbled down the timesheets in the stage four team time trial.
Evans’ tale has been well document in recent years. He won the hearts of fans world-over in 2007 while engaged in a down-to-the-wire battle with Alberto Contador, only to finish a frustrating 22 seconds behind the Spaniard by race end. Last year, in the absence of Contador, Evans returned to France as race favourite. Dealing with the pressure exposed Evans’ flaws – a trait that endeared him to some – as a crash and lacklustre support from Yaroslav Popovych saw another title slip past.
Evans entered this year’s Tour in a strong position, with good form and the spotlight firmly on Astana’s leadership. He was riding on song at last month’s Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré, where he took a stage win en route to a second place finish overall. That result followed early season form at Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi-Bartali, where Evans won the fifth stage.
One thing will play in to Evans hands at this year’s Tour: While he’s significantly down on the general classification standings, he’s not the only overall contender in that position. This could allow Evans the chance to piggyback off other team’s efforts to reign in Astana, compensating for his own team’s shortcomings.
Brett Lancaster (Cervélo TestTeam)
With his background in track cycling, which includes a gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, Lancaster was built for short, fast efforts. It was this ability that saw Lancaster claim the Giro d’Italia maglia rosa in 2005 after he won the tiny 1.15 kilometre opening prologue.
It’s also these traits that make Lancaster the perfect lead-out man for Thor Hushovd. Like Renshaw and Cavendish, Lancaster’s job is to give the Norwegian a wheel to follow before launching him in to the final sprint. The duo has already come close on one stage, but while the combination of Renshaw and Cavendish were too quick on that occasion the team’s management is expecting Lancaster to catapult Hushovd to victory before the race’s end.
Lancaster has had a quiet year in 2009, save for a couple of top 10 finishes in Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
Matthew Lloyd (Silence-Lotto)
At the opposite end of the Tour experience spectrum to O’Grady is Lloyd. The short, always smiling Lloyd is making his Tour debut this year with Evans’ Silence-Lotto squad.
While the Tour hasn’t seen Lloyd’s handy work before, he does have Grand Tour experience. Lloyd, a former Australian Open Road Champion, contested the Vuelta a España in 2008 in addition to his second appearance at the Giro d’Italia.
While Cadel Evans felt bad about the pressure placed on Lloyd’s shoulders for Tuesday’s Team Time Trial, the 26-year-old will come into his own when the race reaches the mountains on Friday. How much assistance Lloyd can render to his compatriot’s Tour de France hopes remains to be seen, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more dedicated rider.
Mark Renshaw (Columbia-HTC)
You’ve already seen the efforts of Renshaw at this year’s Tour. Renshaw is the ‘horse’ component of the horsepower in Columbia-HTC’s sprint assault. Renshaw is responsible for leading his man, Mark Cavendish (aka ‘power’), into the final dash to the line – so far the duo are two from two.
In the ferocious world of sprinters vying for Grand Tour glory, the well-mannered Renshaw could perhaps seem a little out of place. But since moving from Crédit Agricole to the American squad, Renshaw has shown that once the helmet is on all bets are off.
While his main role at Columbia-HTC is throwing Cavendish to success, Renshaw has still managed to post solid results for himself this season. He enjoyed a podium finish at February’s Tour of California and again behind almost compatriot, Heinrich Haussler, at Paris-Nice. Renshaw was also part of Columbia-HTC’s team time trial winning squad at May’s Giro d’Italia.
Its unlikely Cavendish is happy with his two wins at this year’s Tour, because, well, he's Cavendish. So you can expect to see more of Renshaw’s handy work as the race rolls toward Paris.
Michael Rogers (Columbia-HTC)
Rogers will be happy to experience this year’s Tour – even if only because it gives him closure on a bad patch in his career. The last time Rogers contested the Tour – in 2007 – he crashed out while holding the virtual leader’s jersey.
Since that day, one of the darkest in Australia’s Tour history, Rogers suffered 18 months of highs and lows. He recovered from the Tour accident in time for the Beijing Olympic test event in late 2007, and even snuck in some racing during 2008, but that year was also largely a write off as he was struck down by Epstein-Barr virus.
Rogers has made up for lost time with a long stint in the saddle already this year, starting at January’s Tour Down Under. An eighth place overall at the Giro d’Italia showed Rogers’ form was progressing well, despite a pre-Tour scare when he fell in a training accident.
While Rogers is realistically the only Australian other than Evans with Tour winning potential, he won’t be trying to challenge for this year’s title. In a pre-race interview Rogers pledged his support to team-mate Kim Kirchen, but added that he hopes to claim a stage win of his own.
Stuart O'Grady (Team Saxo Bank)
This year marks a special Tour de France for Australia’s Classics King. At 35-years-young, his participation in the 2009 edition sees O’Grady take his number of Tour starts to 13, equal with Australian legend, Phil Anderson.
Unfortunately for O’Grady matching Anderson’s record is the highlight of his season to date. The 2007 Paris-Roubaix champion’s plans hit a snag when a crash at Milan-San Remo ended his classics campaign.
Prior to the crash O’Grady had been looking good for a strong season. The cycling journeyman kept Allan Davis honest at January’s Tour Down Under, before settling for second overall in his hometown. O’Grady followed this up with two top 10 finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico.
After riding in support of last year’s champion Carlos Sastre in 2008, O’Grady’s task this July will be ensuring the Spaniard doesn’t get the chance to repeat. Instead, O’Grady will be a workhorse for Saxo Bank’s general classification contender Andy Schleck.
Hayden Roulston (Cervélo Test Team)
Despite a long involvement with cycling and much success, particularly in New Zealand’s domestic scene, this is Roulston’s first Tour. Roulston was originally contracted to Cofidis earlier this decade, before moving to Discovery Channel in 2005. His career looked to be over after medical issues relating to his heart were discovered in 2006, at which point he was advised to cease competing.
Since then, Roulston has enjoyed much success at home in New Zealand. He’s dominated races like Tour of Southland and Wellington in recent years. His efforts have led him back to the professional circuit with Cervélo Test Team this year.
The former Oceania Road Champion should prove to be a good resource for Carlos Sastre over coming weeks, as he looks to defend his Tour crown. Roulston is a strong rider, but it remains to be seen to whether or not he can emulate the driving efforts of Jens Voight in last year’s Tour. If he can, it will make a huge difference to Sastre’s overall hopes.
Julian Dean (Garmin-Slipstream)
Dean is New Zealand’s answer to O’Grady when it comes to Tour appearances. In fact, Dean, from the picturesque North Island town of Rotorua, has claimed the most Tour starts by a Kiwi rider with his fifth participation this year. Dean moves ahead of Eric McKenzie who contested the last of his four appearances with Lotto-Emerxil-Merckx in 1986.
Dean won’t be contending the sprint stages himself, but instead has been charged with the responsibility of placing Tyler Farrar in contention. Farrar is one of the few riders to have beaten Mark Cavendish in 2009 – something the team hopes to repeat at the Tour.
Despite taking part in the Giro and not the Tour, 2009 has been a pretty quiet year for the former New Zealand Road Champion. Dean finished second as part of Garmin’s second in the team time trial at May’s Giro – the same place they claimed on the Tour’s TTT. On top of that Dean claimed a third place on the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia’s second stage.