By Jean-François Quénet in Adelaide
After the reign of Erik Zabel, Australians have won the green jersey in the Tour de France for three years in a row with Robbie McEwen (2002 and 2004) and Baden Cooke (2003), but last year a Norwegian took the title away from them. Thor Hushovd is now back in their homeland to contest against the Aussie fast men in the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under. He looks like a very happy man since he arrived in Adelaide on January 5.
"I like Australia and the Australians," he said. "This place is really ideal for training at this time of the year. Before coming, I got some advice from the Olympic top athletes centre in Oslo about the jet lag and I coped well with it. It's not too hot here this year, so it's much easier to train over here for 200 kilometres than it is in France or Norway in January."
This isn't Thor's first visit to Australia. He competed in the Sydney Olympics during his first year as a professional and he came seventh in the time trial, just behind Viatcheslav Ekimov, Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong, Abraham Olano, Laurent Jalabert and Andrei Teteriuk, but ahead of Sergei Gonchar, Tyler Hamilton and Chris Boardman, who was still Crédit Agricole's main figure at the time.
"Until the Norwegian championship last year, I never had such a good time trial," Thor recalls. "As I started in the first heat, I had decided to go full gas in the first of the three laps for my name to be seen on Norwegian television for a long time. But I felt fantastic that day, I kept going and I didn't realise the value of my seventh place for months. Sydney remains a fabulous memory. I like the Olympics and I enjoyed our preparation in Toowoomba, Queensland. At this place in the middle of nowhere we met such friendly people."
Back in the year 2005, Thor was living near Toulouse close to Stuart O'Grady, Marcel Gono, Jay Sweet and Australophile Jens Voigt, before moving to Perpignan. "Stuey kept talking to me about the Tour Down Under," he said. "I postponed my debut here for a few years for different reasons but now that I'm here, I think I'll come again next year. I feel solid and strong right now. In November, I've trained in Norway on a mountain bike, I also did skiing, running and squash with my friends. Then I spent three weeks riding on the road in France. I've never felt so good at this time of the year, especially compare to last year when I had my sinus operation. That's why I come with some ambitions to this race. I hope to win a stage, but if can't, I'll take it as a preparation and I'll help my teammates."
Crédit Agricole lines up in Adelaide with their four sprinters. Apart from Thor, there's Mark Renshaw, because he's an Australian, New Zealander Julian Dean, because he's also from Oceania, and Jaan Kirsipuu, because he cannot imagine a cycling season starting elsewhere. As well as Allan Davis, the Estonian has taken part in all the Jacob's Creek Tours Down Under since the race was created in 1999.
"I'm still 2 or 3 kilos overweight," Thor admits, but it's not much. If I get rid of them after Tirreno-Adriatico, I'll be ready for the classics."