A decade has passed since Australia won their first and only elite men's road rainbow jersey at the World Championships, with Simon Clarke (EF Education First) the only rider to still feature from Cadel Evans' winning team.
In 2009, Clarke was but a first-year professional, and was drafted into the green-and-gold colours of a team that included a generation of Australian household names, from Evans to Simon Gerrans, Stuart O'Grady and Michael Rogers. It was a team at the peak of their individual powers.
In the 10 years since, Australia have knocked on the door several times again at the Worlds road race, with Michael Matthews finishing second, third and fourth in recent years. But a second title has always slipped through their fingers. This time, Australia head to Yorkshire with a genuine contender in Matthews and another strong core of riders that includes Clarke.
"Ten years, I suppose, is a long time, and there's been a fair generation change since then. That was my first year as a pro, so I was lucky to even be selected. I'm happy to say that I'm still riding as a pro," Clarke, speaking at the recent Tour of Britain, tells Cyclingnews.
Clarke and Evans have always enjoyed mutual respect, and, famously when it came to selecting a leader for the 2009 Worlds from within the squad's ranks, only Clarke offered any form of support for the eventual winner. Everyone else on the team wanted to work for Gerrans. According to Clarke, the mentality within the Australian team changed after their win in Mendrisio, Switzerland, thanks in part to Evans.
"I'd have to say that Cadel really raised the bar and proved to us as a nation that we are, and should be, competitive at the World Championships. Pretty much ever since then, we've gone there to win, and not just to have a good ride. It really increased our expectations, and every year, bar a couple, we've either been in the medals or really close to them. This year is no different. We've got Michael Matthews who has a pretty stellar history in the World Championships. He's ready to go again," says Clarke.
Matthews controversially missed out on selection for the national team 12 months ago, but he heads to Yorkshire in fine fettle after a win at the GP de Québec last week. Clarke will ultimately act as road caption and marshal the team along the tricky and testing Yorkshire roads, but the likes of Jack Haig and Luke Durbridge are among a team that has the capabilities of having numbers in the final few laps. More importantly, according to Clarke, the team are utterly united behind Matthews and the approach of having one leader.
"We've got a really good group this year. When we talk about what happened back with Gerrans and Cadel back in the day, no one is coming with personal ambitions, and there's no one with double ambitions," he tells Cyclingnews.
"If everyone is on form and can have a good ride, then we're going to come pretty close. Aussies are really good at stepping up when it comes to the Worlds.
"There's me, Jack Haig, and a few others who can provide alternative options when it comes to following early moves," says Clarke. "I think that, with Mathieu van der Poel [Netherlands] and Julian Alaphilippe [France], a lot of teams are going to have a strategy to try to open the race up. Italy and Belgium, for example; they'll try to shake the ship.
"Even if you do have a designated leader, it's going to be important to have quality riders who can cover those designated moves, and can still potentially win from a group if it stays away."
The early bird
The Australian management named the national team far earlier than most of the leading teams in the world. This was done in order to provide clarity for the riders facing selection, and the hope is that, with that approach, the final roster will arrive in Yorkshire in peak condition.
"They changed the strategy for the Worlds to announce the roster earlier so that the guys had confirmation that they would be riding, and could then prepare in the way that they needed to," explains Clarke. "It was to stop riders peaking for selection and then not being optimal for the championships. It's a bit of a different tactic, but I think that everyone is coming on well for the Worlds."
With a host of contenders in top form and a long list of genuine contenders, Matthews will have to pull out the ride of his life to repeat Evans' win from 2009, but Clarke believes that it's possible.
"Why not? It's unfortunate that last year's Worlds wasn't a course for him because we saw his form last year in Canada. If we'd had this year's Worlds last year, we'd have been pretty confident," he said.
But with Matthews having now defended his Quebec title, confidence in the Australian camp is going to be high.
Australian elite men's team for the 2019 Road World Championships: Simon Clarke (EF Education First), Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida), Mitchell Docker (EF Education First), Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott), Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates)
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