There is a healthy-sized group of nine Australian riders lining up on the start line of the Tour de France this year, providing viewers from around the other side of the world with plenty of reasons to tune in, whether it is to watch the sprinters spring into action, the breaks unfurl or the long game unfold in the pursuit of yellow.
A soon-to-retire Richie Porte, who came third overall in 2020, may have raced his last Tour de France last year, but a new crop of Australian GC contenders are rising at the Grand Tours. After Jai HIndley (Bora-Hansgrohe) delivered in spectacular style at the Giro d'Italia, at the Tour de France the attention now turns to Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) – who took the podium at the Vuelta a España in 2021 – and Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën Team), fourth at the 2021 edition of the race.
The long tradition of Australian fastmen making their mark on the Tour also looks set to continue thanks to Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), and Matthews also has the potential to hang in the lead group when many other sprinters are left behind.
Then there’s an assortment of riders who will likely fall into a support role much of the time, but who could also have their own opportunities across varying terrain.
Those riders include the youngest of the Australian contingent, the 25-year-old Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ) and also the oldest, the 35-year-old Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech). Two riders from BikeExchange-Jayco fit into this group, too - Luke Durbridge, who will line up for his eighth Tour as Nick Schultz takes on his first, and finally devoted domestique Chris Hamilton (Team DSM).
That makes a total of nine Australian riders who are expected to be on the start line in Copenhagen, and Cyclingnews takes a closer look at their prospects and roles.
Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën Team)
- Age: 26
- Tour de France record: 2 starts, 4th in 2021 with 1 stage win
- Role: GC leader
When Ben O'Connor took a stage victory in Tignes on stage 9 of the Tour de France in 2021 and shifted to second on the GC, then held near the top of the overall to finish fourth in Paris he blew any chance of flying under the radar ever again. It was a stunning debut from the Western Australian and one that assured him pride of place in the AG2R Citroën line-up for 2022. Such is the French team's commitment to O'Connor's GC attempt that they even left Greg Van Avermaet off the start list, much to the disappointment of the Belgian veteran.
There are only two Australians in the history of the race that have delivered a better Tour de France GC result than Ben O'Connor – 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, who also came second twice, and Richie Porte who came third in 2000.
O'Connor still has time on his side and looks as good a chance as any of the new crop of contenders to be the next Australian to reach the podium. His team aren't putting a number on the GC ambitions, but clearly have high hopes, and rightly so as O'Connor is riding into the Tour on the back of a podium performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné, behind Jumbo-Visma's two key contenders in July, Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard.
As O'Connor said in his pre-Tour media conference "last year was a breakthrough, but now it’s clear which direction as a rider I’m aiming for”. That means he is entering this edition with targeted training, another year of experience and unquestioning team support – definitely all factors in O'Connors favour. However, as much as he impressed with his adept and calm approach when thrust into the spotlight last year, it can't be overlooked that it's a different level of pressure and expectation to withstand this year. We will soon find out whether that weighs or inspires.
Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious)
- Age: 28
- Tour de France record: 2 starts, 38th in 2019, crashed out stage 3 in 2021
- Role: GC co-leader
Through last year's chaotic crash-ridden stage 1 of the Tour de France and the splits of a punchy stage 2 Jack Haig looked to have played his GC hand with aplomb, sitting in sixth overall and among the top four overall contenders. However, his Tour de France fell apart on stage 3 when he crashed to the ground and broke his collarbone. He then made it clear when coming back to what was meant to be a support role at the Vuelta a España just how serious a Grand Tour contender he was, as despite not even knowing he'd be racing in Spain just ten days beforehand he ended it on the podium. Now, with the confidence of that result behind him, Haig heads into the Tour de France for take two of his previously truncated GC assault.
The circumstances, however, will be a little different this year as this time he will have a joint leadership role with Damiano Caruso as the team aims for its first GC podium place at the Tour de France. The pressure may be eased a little thanks to this joint role, along with the fact that now Haig is into his second season with the team and has already proven himself in Spain. On the other hand, the team is again grappling with police searches, with the homes of some riders and staff at Team Bahrain Victorious searched before their departure, and the hotel in Denmark as well.
In terms of his performance so far this season, Haig has been remarkably consistent in the stage races, finishing sixth in the general classification at the Vuelta a Andalucia-Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice, while he came fifth at the Critérium du Dauphiné. That puts him at a similar, if not slightly better level to where he was tracking last year, with a state of form that stood him in good stead for those first couple of stages at the Tour and then a Vuelta comeback.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal)
- Age: 27
- Tour de France record: 3 starts, 5 stage wins
- Role: Sprinter
Caleb Ewan has raced nine Grand Tours in his career, more often than not leaving with at least one stage win but also more often than not leaving well before the final stage. Ewan has only finished two of the Grand Tours he’s lined up for, but this Tour de France could make it a third, giving Australians a home nation sprinter with serious prospects to cheer for right through to the prestigious last stage on the Champs-Elysées.
Without any doubt one of the fastest in the peloton, Ewan will be looking for a turnaround from last year. After all, to date, barring that one Tour de France, before or since he has never walked away from a Grand Tour without a podium place. Haig wasn't the only Australian to break his collarbone on stage 3, with Ewan's crash within sight of the line ending both his race and his plans to win at least one stage across the Giro d’Italia, Tour and Vuelta a España. This year, however, his steadily increasing strength on the climbs opens up his chances of success in the Tour de France. That's not only because he may be able to make it over some climbs that his rivals can't, but also because he’s more likely to survive the time cut through the mountains.
There is no confusion over team goals, either, with Lotto Soudal unequivocally after stage victories, particularly after Ewan missed out on gathering any at the Giro d'Italia. However, that doesn’t mean he will be riding a Lotto Soudal train to the line with the rider more inclined to surf the wheels. "They don't necessarily have to drop me at 200 metres to go,” said Ewan in a pre-Tour media conference. “If they can keep me out of the wind in the last 10km and get me in good position under the flamme rouge, I can finish it myself."
And this year, he's considering surfing those wheels right through to Paris.
Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco)
- Age: 31
- Tour de France record: 6 starts, 3 stage wins, 1 Green jersey
- Role: Selective sprinter, breaks
BikeExchange-Jayco are lining up with a team clearly focused on stage victories this year, stacking the lead out train and leaving most of its climbers at home. That makes Dylan Groenewegen, the most prolific sprint winner on the team this year an obvious leader. But that doesn’t mean Michael Matthews – who moved back to BikeExchange-Jayco at the start of 2021 after missing Tour de France selection at Team Sunweb – is out of the picture. He still has co-leadership with the Dutch rider.
Given the Australian has a propensity to outlast many of the other sprinters on the climbs, including his teammate Groenewegen, the squad will divvy up the opportunities, with Matthews set to focus on hillier stages and breakaways. Spending time in yellow could even be an objective for the early stages of the Tour if all falls into place during the opening time trial in Copenhagen.
Stage victories, though, are what it is all about for the team this year. And after a lean win count in the last couple of seasons, plus near-misses including a second and third at the Tour de France last year, a top-step appearance in cycling's biggest sporting arena would no doubt come as a huge relief to Matthews.
Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ)
- Age: 25
- Tour de France record: Debut
- Role: Climbing support
After taking the mountains classification and two stage wins at the Vuelta a España last year, there can be no doubt about the Australian's ability to deliver at a Grand Tour and now he’ll be making his debut at the Tour de France with Groupama-FDJ. Although David Gaudu is set to shoulder the team’s GC ambitions, and Storer most likely put to the mountains to work in support, the 25-year-old Australian could, if circumstances permit, come into his own.
Earlier this year, the team talked of his potential to be a surprise package and while his results this season have been largely unremarkable he has shown some promising glimmers of form. Storer took second overall at the Tour of the Alps and third at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge in June. That means Storer is a rider whom we'll often see close to the front of the race in the mountains, be it working for a teammate or in a break chasing a victory of his own.
Luke Durbridge (BikeExchange-Jayco)
- Age: 31
- Tour de France record: 7 starts
- Role: Support, TT, breakaway opportunities
Luke Durbridge brings both his experience and engine as a valuable team asset at the Tour de France. The Western Australian is the ultimate workhorse, with his power and time trial skills likely to come to the fore either pulling back breaks so the team sprint duo of Groenewegen and Matthews can shine, or also possibly helping rip the peloton to shreds to drop rivals on the hillier stages that suit Matthews.
One of the biggest surprises of last year's Tour, however, was seeing Durbridge popping up in the breaks on some of the climb-heavy stages. So perhaps we could also see him there again this year, either chasing his own results or, perhaps more likely, acting as a valuable ally for teammates like Matthews or Nick Schultz.
Also, it's worth keeping an eye on Durbridge in the time trials. particularly the opener in Copenhagen which happens to be where he swept up his U23 world title in the discipline in 2011. Durbridge, also a four-time elite Australian TT champion, hasn't routinely delivered results of note in the race against the clock at Grand Tours but he did take sixth on the 31.9km effort on stage 4 at the Critérium du Dauphiné – perhaps a sign of an increased focus on the discipline ahead of a home World Championships.
Nick Schultz (BikeExchange-Jayco)
- Age: 27
- Tour de France record: Debut
- Role: Breaks, mountains
The one rider who is making their debut at the race for BikeExchange-Jayco is also the one rider on the squad who will be in his comfort zone once the race reaches the mountains. The rest of the team is all-out support for Groenewegen and Matthews, and there are certainly no GC contenders that require Schultz' support. That means it looks like he’ll be the key rider chasing victories for the team on those serious climbing days.
His best result on a Grand Tour stage so far is seventh at the Vuelta a España. Schultz was in the same winning break as fellow Australian Storer that day, but while the then-DSM racer took his second stage victory, Shultz was distanced on the final downhill. Racing for a team that’s completely focused on stage victories, however, could make this Tour de France an opportunity to improve on that.
Chris Hamilton (Team DSM)
- Age: 27
- Tour de France record: Debut
- Role: Support
Chris Hamilton doesn’t get to chase an opportunity for himself all that often, and his role as an ever-reliable domestique is again likely to be the main one at this Tour de France, no doubt supporting Romain Bardet in the mountains. Still given the team aim is stage victories, not the GC, there’s every chance he may also get his own opportunity.
He managed to come close to a Grand Tour stage victory at the Giro d’Italia in 2021 on stage 12, when he took the runner-up spot in a two-rider sprint with Andrea Vendrame (AG2R Citroën) after the pair escaped from the break in the final kilometres. Then at the Vuelta a España he came third on one stage as he attempted to chase down solo victor Rafal Majka (UAE Team Emirates) alongside Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma). Perhaps on his debut at the Tour de France he’ll be able to make it a complete Grand Tour podium set.
Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech)
- Age: 35
- Tour de France record: 6 starts
- Role: Support/break
When Team Qhubeka NextHash folded at the end of last year, Simon Clarke wasn't sure what the new season held, but the lifeline came in the form of a January deal with Israel-Premier Tech. Thus he'll be lining up at his seventh Tour de France in a team led by Jakob Fuglsang, and also including Michael Woods and Chris Froome. The team aim is stage victories, and a number of other riders are likely to be the more favoured options. But it's hard to write off the two-time Vuelta stage winner as an outside chance of a good result, if he finds himself in the right break.
Clarke has, after all, hit the stage podium four times so far this season, with his best result being a second on stage 3 of the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol.
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Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.