Australia is set to announce its road cycling squad for the Tokyo Olympic Games on Thursday, with Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis obvious picks for the men’s team on the climb-heavy course while Amanda Spratt and Grace Brown would be just as hard to pass by for the women’s team.
The rest of the spots are a little less clear-cut, with a depth of climbing talent among the Australian riders presenting selectors with a wide variety of potential contenders for the four positions Australia has qualified for in both the women’s and men’s road teams. The nation also has two time trial positions for each but these riders must come from among the road race squad.
We take a look at the riders most likely to represent Australia in the road races and time trials in late July at the 2021 Olympic Games.
Men’s team - the obvious choices
Richie Porte: Third at the Tour de France in 2020 and long Australia’s leading contender when the mountains are calling, the 36-year-old couldn’t be a more obvious choice to lead the charge for Australia at Tokyo. It’s also a chance to put the disappointment of the Rio Olympics behind him, where he crashed on the second of three descents and lost his opportunity to chase a medal in the road race plus his shot at the time trial. Admittedly, this year didn’t start quite the way the rider would have planned, with a crash at Paris-Nice on his first outing with Ineos Grenadiers, however, with second in both the Tour de Romandie and Volta Ciclista a Catalunya since, he’s clearly building up into the season nicely.
Rohan Dennis: The time trial was the focus for Dennis at the Olympics last time round but things didn’t run to plan with a broken aero bar making a bike change necessary, which put him out of medal contention and into fifth place. Since then he has twice been the time trial world champion and he clearly has earned another chance at the Olympic race against the clock. This time around he has also unequivocally proved his value as a supportive teammate on the climbs, most prominently by shepherding Ineos Grenadiers teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart toward the maglia rosa at the 2020 Giro d’Italia.
Women's team - the obvious choices
Amanda Spratt: With two appearances on the podium at the World Championships road race in the past three years – even though she missed out last year due to injury – and a course that suits her climbing capabilities ever since the parcours became public the 33-year-old has been slated as a potential Olympic medallist for Australia. Spratt, who finished 15th at the Olympics in 2016, has stepped up and shown she knows how to deliver at the big events since then and has been working toward delivering at this one in particular for years. Still, the Team BikeExchange rider hasn’t had the best run into this year, with a crash at the 2020 Giro Rosa not only spoiling her chances at that race but also the World Championships. Things also didn’t go as she hoped at the Ardennes Classics last month, falling ill before the race that suited her best, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Now she’s gone more than a year without a win, and while her past performances and promise mean that she’s still clearly a key component of the team, her leadership position may not be as set in stone.
Grace Brown: It’s been a year of stepping up for Brown, who has not only shown she’s got what it takes to challenge the world’s best in the road races, building to her first Women’s WorldTour win at Brugge-De Panne in March, but also delivered fifth place in the race against the clock at the World Championships in 2020. The podiums have been accumulating for Brown too and, sitting in eleventh place on the UCI rankings, she’s Australia’s best-ranked rider by a long way, with Spratt back in 29th. Plus, it is a course that Brown should be able to make work for her with the fact that the women’s route doesn’t include the Mount Fuji climb of the men’s, working in her favour. While she’s no slouch on the climbs, Brown is more of an all-rounder than a mountain goat.
Men's team - the remaining spots
There have been a number of standout performers on the climb-heavy courses from Australian riders in recent times, with Jai Hindley’s spectacular second place at the Giro d’Italia in 2020, Ben O’Connor’s second place on stage 16 of the same Grand Tour and then first on stage 17. Plus, there’s Lucas Hamilton, who’s stepping up to a leadership role at Team BikeExchange, or teammate Nick Schultz, who is a key support rider on the climbs for Simon Yates at the Giro d’Italia and the list could go on. All have their merits on a climb heavy course but none are part of the Australian Cycling Team, which certainly doesn’t preclude them from selection, however, it seems likely the riders named and singled out for support because of their potential to win medals at World Championships and Olympics, are on the selectors' radar.
Dennis and Porte are, of course, part of that group of six men's Australian Cycling Team members, as is Caleb Ewan but given the amount of climbing at Tokyo it is easy to rule the sprinter out. That leaves Michael Matthews, Simon Clarke and Jack Haig, all of who have had respectable, if not spectacular, results so far this year. Clarke’s experience works in his favour, having played a regular in a support role for the Australian squad at World Championships – only missing one edition in the past ten years – and also rode Rio. Matthews, though isn’t that far behind in World Championship starts and also has podium results to show for them. There is no doubt he’d be good to have on deck for his fast finish if it comes down to a group, but there are some pretty hefty climbs to make it over first.
Outside the Australian Cycling Team and notable WorldTour performances, there are also another couple of riders who made their mark during the Australian summer. The first is Luke Durbridge, who won the Santos Festival of Cycling, came second in the time trial at the Australian Road Championships and repeatedly worked tirelessly for his BikeExchange teammates to pull back breaks. It’s this powerful support combined with potential in the time trial – Durbridge won the Australian time trial title ahead of Dennis in 2020 and 2019 – that mark him out as an asset.
However, there was one rider that set off an even bigger beacon over the summer and that was Luke Plapp. The 20-year-old staggered on the climbs, winning a stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling and then hanging back loyally while his teammate on the national squad, Team Garmin-Australia, Porte took the win on the climb of Willunga Hill. After showing his climbing ability and teamwork in Adelaide, in Ballarat at Road Nationals he then displayed how good his time trialling was, winning the elite title ahead of Durbridge even though he still was eligible to ride as an under-23. Plus, Plapp is also a member of the Australian Cycling Team – it just happens to be as part of the track squad where he has already been selected for an Olympic slot. Cameron Meyer, who won the Australian road title this year, is another rider who could just as easily find a home on the road and track teams and made his ambitions to represent Australia at another Olympics clear after pulling on the green and gold jersey of the national champion in February. It may be unusual for a rider from another discipline to step into the Australian road team, though it’s not unheard of, with Scott Bowden lining up for the mountain biking and road race at Rio.
Women's team - the remaining spots
When it comes to the final two women’s spots, it's hard to look beyond the remaining five riders – apart from Spratt and Brown – already named in the Australian Cycling Team and classified as podium ready or, in Sarah Gigante’s case, having podium potential. Sarah Roy and Chloe Hosking are on the list, but the amount of climbing makes both of them less likely options as they are both suited to the flatter courses and fast finishes. That leaves the trio of Brodie Chapman, Lucy Kennedy, and Gigante.
Kennedy seems the most likely pick, having already proven herself a valuable support rider for Brown and Spratt on Team BikeExchange, plus she’s got demonstrated form on the climbs, having taken second in a Giro Rosa stage in 2019, won Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria in 2019 and twice taken out the Herald-Sun Tour in Australia. Hindering her progress, however, was a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège where she fractured her hand, collarbone, and eye socket. She is on the path to recovery, working on the trainer, and after similar injuries at the Ardennes in 2018 she was back and ready to line up at the Giro Rosa in July so it looks like she will have enough time to mend and build form before the Olympics.
Chapman, manages well on the climbs and even better on the descents and would undoubtedly be a solid support rider, with the 30-year-old’s experience in the international peloton growing in her second year with Women’s WorldTeam FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope. However, while performing solidly, she hasn’t had any stand-out results of late to make her a sure thing.
That opens the door for Gigante, who may not have a lot of experience of international racing, having just started on her first solid European season this year, but so far she’s shown she is a quick learner and, like Plapp, she may as well have been riding around with a flashing light and sign saying 'pick me' over the Australian summer such was the impression she made. The 20-year-old, while racing for Team Garmin-Australia, won the Santos Festival of Cycling and set a new Strava record as she raced to the top of Willunga Hill and then went to the Australian championships and took out the elite time trial title for a second year, beating Brown. That means she could be a handy card to play in the road race and also provide another time trial option. Like Kennedy, though, she is currently out with an injury, having broken her collarbone and also fractured her elbow and fibula at La Flèche Wallonne. The TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank rider, however, is also an experienced hand at injury recovery, currently taking to the trainer till she’s back on the road.
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