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State of the Nation: Australia, A long way travelled

Nathan Haas has some fun at the 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Flanders
Nathan Haas has some fun at the 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Flanders (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Riders from Australia have always faced an uphill challenge in racing at the highest level, but the huge distance from Europe bred a character of resilience and industriousness. Procycling looks at the journey Australian riders have been making to Europe for over a century.

Ben O’Connor’s victory in the ninth stage of the 2021 Tour de France at Tignes in the Alps and his race to fourth place overall in Paris saw him labelled as the next young road cycling star from Australia. O’Connor had previously shown flashes of his ability, but in just missing the podium and by riding an attacking race, he showed all the stereotypical characteristics of Aussie racers: grit, industriousness and ambition.

When the 25-year-old finished in Paris with the best overall result by an Australian in the race, tongues were wagging about his Grand Tour potential, and even about the possibility of a new golden generation. It had been similar about another Australian, Jack Haig, 27, who was placed well in his first overall tilt in the Tour until he crashed out on stage 3.

Likewise, for Lucas Hamilton, 25, who met the same fate on stage 13; and Jai Hindley, 25, after he placed second overall in the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Chat has already started about 20-year-old Luke Plapp who will join the Ineos Grenadiers next year. And established sprinters Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews still have plenty more to achieve, as do a number of other Australians who are in – or will join – the WorldTour.

It is similarly optimistic for Australia’s women where Sarah Gigante, 20, is the next beacon of hope to carry on from the likes of Amanda Spratt, Grace Brown, Chloe Hosking, Lucy Kennedy, Tiffany Cromwell, and the retired Gracie Elvin and Shara Marche (née Gillow).

The 21st century has been prosperous for Australian road racing so far. In the Tour, Richie Porte placed third overall in 2020 and fifth in 2016. Cadel Evans clinched Australia’s first victory in 2011, a win that led to record bicycle sales and cycling participation in Australia. The green points jersey has been won five times by Australians - Matthews in 2017, Baden Cooke in 2003 and Robbie McEwen in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Australians have also won a swag of Tour stages and enjoyed spells in the overall race leader’s yellow jersey.

The Giro reflects a similar story. Hindley’s second place overall in 2020 bettered Evans’ third in 2012 which was the best result by an Australian since his own fifth in 2010, the year Porte also first put his head above the parapet by placing seventh and winning the white jersey as best young rider. Australians have also won stages and worn the pink leader's jersey.

In 2010, Matt Lloyd was the first Australian to win the King of the Mountains green jersey. The same can be said of Australians in so many other races, from the Vuelta a España to world titles and classics. Australians have won four of the six biggest one-day races in the world - Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans have won Milan-San Remo, while Gerrans also has a Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory to his name. Mat Hayman and Stuart O’Grady have Paris-Roubaix titles. Evans won the world championships road race in 2009.

Out on a limb

It is still too early to say if Australia is a new conveyor belt of future champions. What's certain is that Australia is no longer a world road racing minnow, even if the myth of the country as a cycling outlier is a persistent one.

Australia is no geographically closer to the European centre of road racing, but culturally, the country is no longer a 'new' cycling one, even if it's still a long journey for Australian racers to the pinnacle of the sport.

There is no magic to the change. It is not due to any deliberate initiative by the national body, now named AusCycling. Their priority has long been the track, where it is easier to target the Worlds, Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals that provide federal government funding.

Sure, many track cyclists have turned to the road, among them Stuart O'Grady, Brad McGee, Cameron Meyer, Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge and now Luke Plapp. But each have pursued road careers their way, at the beat of their own drum, and most often on foreign teams. It also says something that Australia's two best Tour riders – Evans and Porte – did not even come from road or track racing.

Evans was a former BMX and mountain biker and Porte a triathlete. McEwen came from BMX, but the 12-times stage winner in both the Tour and Giro switched to road racing in 1990 at the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS] that was created in 1981. Meanwhile, Gerrans, a two times Tour stage winner among other wins, only took to road cycling to recover from a knee injury he sustained in a motocross accident.

Yes, Australia once had a national women's and a men's U23 team based in Europe which provided pathways for not only riders to carve out elite road careers, but also coaches. However, shifting priorities at AusCycling in terms of the track programme since 2017 led to budget cuts and ultimately their demise.

There is a National Road Series, but the cost for many teams to race all the events in such a large country is high. And yes, the promotion of road racing in Australia and development of domestic riders has been helped by having WorldTour events like the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (both owned by their respective State Governments, South Australia and Victoria) and the Herald Sun Tour.

All these events have had men's and women's races and a national team entered to expose local riders to a higher level of racing. Held in January and February after the Australian road titles during the 'Summer of Cycling', they are all broadcast on television and deliver great publicity for cycling. But COVID-19 has been a roadblock to recent progression.

But most of Australia's best road riders really owe their World Tour graduation to themselves, to their own ambition, gumption and guile, as well as the support of some wise old heads who have continued to support them through thick and thin.

This has always been the way. Examples of the latter include the highly respected Tasmanian NRS team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston under whose wing O'Connor and Porte are some who have developed to the top tier.

Also Dave Sanders who has nurtured many male and female riders while at the Victorian Institute of Sport and then with the Australian GreenEdge World Tour team, now Team BikeExchange.

Phill Bates, who from 1982 to 2000, ran the Commonwealth Bank Cycling Classic, an amateur World Cup tour that gave Australians – many dreaming of a future in Europe – exposure against the world class competition, including German Jan Ullrich. Heiko Salzwedel, who came to Australia from East Germany in 1990 to assist track head coach Charlie Walsh, but soon found himself looking after the road squad (including McEwen) and from 1996 set up the Australian UCI-registered Giant-Australian Institute of Sport team (that became ZVVZ-Giant-AIS).

Melbourne businessman Gerry Ryan who supported Kathy Watt for her 1992 Olympic campaign and has since financed GreenEDGE for 10 years. And Michael Drapac who for 16 years funded Team Drapac to develop riders as people with a future beyond sport, rather than as cyclists alone.

Spirit of the 'Overlanders'

Australian cyclist Lachlan Morton sets up his bivouac at the end of the 13th day of his solo alternative Tour de France

Australian cyclist Lachlan Morton sets up his bivouac at the end of the 13th day of his solo alternative Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

So, what makes the Australian road cyclist tick? What sets him or her apart from riders of other countries? I believe the DNA traces back to the 1890s and the emergence of a genre of cyclist known as the 'Overlanders'. They were intrepid souls who would set off alone on their bike with a bivvy bag, dry meat, bottles of water and a rifle, to discover the interior of what was a mostly barren and unknown Australia.

With camel pad tracks and the rising and setting sun to follow, they only had themselves or Aborigines to rely on. Updates on their epic rides over thorn and stone riddled deserts were telegrammed from outposts or gold mining towns to newspapers in the seaboard cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

Australian EF-Nippo rider Lachlan Morton, who has followed an 'alternate calendar' for the past several years and this year rode the Tour de France route – and all the transfers – solo and unsupported, would have fitted in very well. But that same intrepid spirit has an echo even to this day as riders take the long journey to Europe to carve out a career for themselves.

Heading into the 1900s, Australia had developed. Communications had improved and, thanks in part to the Overlanders, roads and other travel routes between once disconnected towns and cities were established. However, the popularity of the bike continued to spread further as a form of transport, recreation and competition with riders making record attempts on various point-to-point Overlander routes.

Road racing was also on the rise after the October 1895 birth of the 165-mile Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, the world's oldest one-day road race after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Likewise, track racing continued to gather momentum with carnivals and championships before huge crowds at the Sydney Cricket Ground and Melbourne Cricket Ground where betting was allowed. The Austral Wheel Race (first held in 1887), Sydney Thousand (1903) and Burnie Wheel Race (1917) were just some of them.

Australian cyclists had a sense of adventure to cross into any new frontier, not only the unknown of Australia. One such frontier was Europe. The challenge required the Australian rider to deal with a long trip by sea and adapt to new lands, languages and cultures half a world away from family and friends. It may not have pitted the Australian against the rigours and isolation of a barren desert, but it required the same spirit of the Overlander.

Six who did embrace that spirit were Iddo 'Snowy' Munro, Don Kirkham, Charlie Piercey, George Bell, Charles Snell and Fred Keefe who travelled to France by ship in 1914 to race and earn a start in the 1914 Tour. Munro and Kirkham succeeded and were picked as domestiques for Frenchman Georges Passerieu, second overall in 1906 and fourth in 1907. After Passerieu abandoned on stage 3, Kirkham and Munro raced for themselves and placed 17th and 20th respectively. As the first Australians to race the Tour, their tales upon returning home inspired other riders, one of whom was named Hubert Opperman.

Opperman, born in 1904 in Rochester, Victoria, was especially struck by Kirkham. By 1922, they were training partners. One mantra of Kirkham particularly resonated with Opperman: "You're never as tired as you think you are." Opperman showed how so in a career that included two Tour finishes. In 1928, he placed 18th with Australians Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborn and New Zealander Harry Watson as team-mates; and in 1931, 12th with Australians Richard 'Fatty' Lamb, Oserick 'Ossie' Nicholson and Frankie Thomas in support.

Opperman claimed many wins in European in track and road races. One of his biggest was in the Bol d'Or 24-hour track meeting in Paris after the Tour in 1928 when he was also voted Europe's most popular sportsman of the year in a poll by the French newspaper L'Auto. He also won the 1,166-kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris classic in 1931 in a stunning come-from-behind effort.

Opperman won numerous road races in Australia (including four national road titles) and broke 1,010 world distance records. In 1937, he showed his true Overlander colours by setting a record for riding 4,138km from Fremantle to Sydney. After retiring from cycling in 1943 and serving in World War II in the RAAF, he became a Federal Minister in the Liberal Government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, and then High Commissioner for Malta.

Knighted in 1968, Opperman finally died aged 91 on April 18, 1996, while riding his indoor bike at home. He encapsulated the 'Australian Cyclist' that we know today, and it is fitting that the annual Australian Cyclist of the Year title is named the Sir Hubert Opperman Award.

After World War II, Australians carried on from where Opperman left off; starting in the 1950s from the likes of 1950 amateur world road race champion Jack Hoobin, and dual 1952 Olympic Game track gold medallist Russell Mockridge, who finished 64th in the 1955 Tour and John Beasley who raced the 1952 and 1955 Tours, but did not finish either.

The Sixties featured Bill Lawrie as a starter in the 1967 Tour, but he did not finish. However, the decade was more prosperous for domestic amateur and professional road cyclists. The Melbourne to Warrnambool classic and Sun Tour (now the Herald Sun Tour, first held in 1952) grew and other events started. Many professional road cyclists also raced on the track, and for that were able to earn more money in Australia than if they headed to Europe in the hope of success.

New horizons

Phil Anderson sports three cultural icons: the 'sausage' helmet, Oakley Factory Pilots and a Panasonic jersey.

Phil Anderson (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)

The Seventies were special for riders from Australia and showed the signs of even greater things to come. From Clyde Sefton, Australia's first Olympic road race medallist in the 1972 Games (a silver) who won gold in the same event at the 1974 Commonwealth Games and after the 1976 Montreal Olympics raced professionally on Italian teams until 1983; to fellow Olympic road race team-mates Don Allan, John Trevorrow and Graeme Jose, who was killed in a racing crash in Austria 1973; to Danny Clark, who won a 1972 Olympic track silver in the 1,000-metre time trial and became one of the world's greatest Six Day riders.

Allan and Trevorrow forged great professional careers. Allan was the first Australian to win a stage in the Peace Race in 1973, then turned professional with the Dutch Frisol team. He finished two Tours de France – in 1974 in 103rd place, and in 1975 placed 85th. In 1975, he became the first Australian to win a grand tour stage in stage 17 of the Vuelta and was ninth in the 1976 world road title before turning to the Six Day circuit where he won 15 races with Clarke.

Trevorrow won three Australian road titles and three Sun Tours and was the third Australian to finish the Giro, in 1981 in 81st place. The first had been Garry Clively in 1976, in a career that included seventh overall in the 1977 Vuelta, and the second Shane Bartley in 1979.

All had broken new boundaries. They had forged their careers with a brazen willingness to seemingly risk all back home in Australia for a lucky break. However, the Eighties were the turning point for Australia becoming a road cycling force, or rather the emergence of Phil Anderson was. 

Ironically, Anderson initially had no grand plan to race in Europe as a professional. After winning the 1978 Commonwealth Games road race and Dulux Tour of New Zealand, his sights were still on the 1980 Olympics. But when the Melbourne-based French restaurateur and cycling aficionado Gerald Georges secured him a place with the amateur Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt (ACBB) in Paris in 1979, Anderson leapt at the opportunity, but only because he felt the experience would help his Games preparation.

The ACBB, an amateur feeder team for the professional French Peugeot team, would go on to have an impressive alumni of English speaking riders like Anderson, Robert Millar, Stephen Roche, Graeme Jones, John Herety, Paul Sherwen and Australian Allan Peiper, but Anderson was one of the first through the system. Life was not easy for Anderson who did not speak French and did not know anyone. So, he focused on what he did best: win. By 1980, he had cast aside his Olympic ambitions and signed up with Peugeot.

The decision led to a feat that put Australian road racing on its trajectory towards today's promise. It would lift spirits. It would inspire. It would be the source of dreams, and not just for cyclists but lovers of the sport who would invest time, energy and money into seeing how far Australians could go in a sport that traditionally had been dominated only by Europeans.

In the 1981 Tour, Anderson claimed the race leader's yellow jersey on the 117km sixth stage from Saint-Gaudens to Pla d'Adet in the Pyrénées. He was the first non-European rider to do so.

The French were stunned. Initial reaction was one of curiosity as much as praise. Media questions focused on his background and the state of Australian cycling. French television even produced a map of Australia and asked Anderson to point to his home city of Melbourne.

Anderson remains one of Australia's most successful road racers - he consistently placed highly in the classics and even threatened the Tour podium on a couple of occasions, with two fifth places, plus a seventh in the Giro. He took a rare double in 1985 when he won the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse back-to-back (an impossible achievement now, as the races overlap in the current calendar) and he also won the Tour de Romandie in 1989.

But it was perhaps the classics where he shone most brightly. He won the Amstel Gold Race, E3 Harelbeke, Paris-Tours and the Championship of Zürich. He achieved second places in the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a third place at the Giro di Lombardia. He was an all-rounder in the mould of Sean Kelly and was a consistent rival to the Irishman during his heyday. If any single rider made Australians believe that coming to Europe and winning races was possible, it was Anderson.

But Anderson was not alone in being an Australian professional in Europe in the Eighties. 

A handful of others were there, including Michael Wilson who became the first Australian Giro stage winner in 1982, and in 1983 also won a stage of the Vuelta. The decade also saw a flow of Australian domestiques that would run into the 1990s, from Allan Peiper to Neil Stephens, Stephen Hodge, Patrick Jonker and Scott Sunderland. So respected were they for their work ethic, they even redefined the role of 'domestique' to 'super domestique'. But without Anderson, who knows where Australian road cycling would be today?

He became Australia's first modern road cycling star and forged a career that saw him wear the yellow jersey again in 1982 for nine days and claim the first of his two career stage wins before placing fifth overall. He repeated the result in 1985 when he also reached the number-one world ranking. His reach even saw him featured in a Toohey's beer commercial in 1985.

Cycling superpower

Kathy Watt

Kathy Watt (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The impact of Australia's women was also huge, especially Liz Hepple and Kathy Watt at a time when pay and other conditions were far worse than today. A strong climber, Hepple finished fifth overall in the 1986 Tour Féminin, 15th in 1987 and third in 1988.

Watt, who polarised many as she fought hard for support, was rewarded with her gutsy 1992 Olympic road race gold and individual pursuit silver adding to her palmarès of four Commonwealth Games golds, one world championship time trial bronze, various stage wins – including four in the Giro Donne in Italy in which she was third overall in 1990 and second in 1994, four Oceania Championship golds, and 24 national title wins in road, track and mountain bike.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics turned the spotlight onto cycling in Australia, as they did in 1956 when Melbourne hosted the Games. Track delivered the medals, with one gold and silver and three bronze medals. But soon after, Australians were leaving an imprint on the road with McEwen, O'Grady, McGee, Cooke et al, and from the women, Anna Wilson, Oenone Wilson and Sarah Carrigan. The collective success of this wave of riders included Tour stage and green jersey wins and spells in the yellow jersey, classic victories such as O'Grady's in the 2007 Paris-Roubaix, women's World Cup wins and, in the case of Carrigan, a 2004 Olympic road race gold medal. It helped establish belief that Australia was ready to be a road race force and not only have a professional team for men and women, but also development teams to help prepare riders for a road career and win the biggest races in the world.

The expanded media coverage of road cycling since the 1990s has also been a huge influence, and SBS Television has been a big player in this regard. Other free-to-air networks have dabbled in cycling coverage with the Australian Road Championships, Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Herald Sun Tour. But SBS has consistently set the standard since it first covered the Tour in 1991, broadcasting nightly 30-minute highlight packages of every stage. SBS gradually increased its coverage from there, and since 2005 it has aired every stage of the Tour live. SBS also broadcasts the Giro, the Vuelta and a variety of other races.

Media coverage influences the direction young cyclists take too. Watching races and reading coverage of cycling provides them with a tangible understanding of what European road racing is all about before they go. This entertains and inspires, but also helps prepare them for what awaits, from inside the peloton to outside of it where the public spotlight is strong.

No Australian cyclist experienced that more than Evans. His career was dissected in every possible way. However, on no more occasion was scrutiny stronger than in 2011 when his Tour win received unprecedented coverage in print, radio and television.

SBS Television, the official broadcaster, also attracted record ratings, including two weeks later when an estimated 30,000 people turned out for a 'Welcome Home' parade for Evans in Melbourne that was covered live by every Australian television network and media outlet. The more far-reaching impact of Evans' win on cycling in Australia was quickly felt. In the ensuing weeks and months, bike sales and cycling participation soared through the roof.

Cycling participation is still on the rise. Television audiences for the Tour and the Giro also shows interest is as strong as it ever was. But mainstream coverage of cycling has slipped to how it used to be: irregular; and as always, the successes are due to the conviction of a select group of writers who push for cycling coverage. The COVID-19 pandemic has not helped – it has forced a pause on events, including the Tour Down Under which this year ran as a national rather than WorldTour event.  Australian cycling is also hurting from a disappointing 2020 Olympics on the track that had been prioritised by AusCycling High Performance director Simon Jones, who announced his planned departure before the Games, with one bronze medal in the men's team pursuit.

Australia's other Olympic medals came in BMX Freestyle where Logan Martin won gold, and on the road with Rohan Dennis's bronze in the time trial. But as the powers that be began searching for answers, it was promising that Australia's best road racers were well in the back end of their season, from the Vuelta to the autumn classics; if not planning for a great 2022.

And with that is a plethora of questions: What can this new Australian generation do? Does Australia have another grand tour winner? Is there a classic winner? A world champion? What's certain is that Australian road cycling is arguably in a stronger position now than ever.

Anderson, McEwen to an extent, and even Evans were outliers and did things their own way, not always having a system to fall back on. But with so many riders coming through and BikeExchange firmly established in the WorldTour, the best may yet be to come.

These are all questions that can't be answered yet, but they are questions that can certainly excite. What is also certain is that there is ability among all the young riders and most importantly, the dare, desire and willingness to find out for themselves how far they can go… all key traits of the Overlanders way back in 1890.

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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.

An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.