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The glory days of the Centenary Tour

By Gerard Knapp

Bradley McGee's recent retirement could mark the beginning of the end of an era of Australian prominence on both the road and track, notwithstanding the efforts of Cadel Evans, who is also part of that same generation of cyclists. His efforts could be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. A recent charity ride to honour McGee brought many of this generation together – the class of the 2003 Tour de France.

The 2003 Centenary Tour de France was a milestone in professional cycling. While firmly establishing France's Grand Tour as a global sporting phenomenon, the early days of the 2003 TdF also saw the brash emergence of Australian cycling, as a band of talented and fiercely determined young riders took on the world.

It was led out by Brad McGee's stunning victory in the prologue, and continued as a pair of feisty Australian sprinters, Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen, made the points competition an all-Australian affair. At one stage, of the four major rider classifications in the 2003 TdF, three of those leader's jerseys were worn by Australians, and two were in the same team.

As a gobsmacked French journalist wrote after the first few days of the 2003 Tour, "Rolling on Champagne's roads towards the Ardennes, the Centenary peloton found its new lords yesterday. They come from the very end of the world and are Australians, something the creators of the race certainly never imagined."

"I look back at those days (in, as it was then known) and they really were the best times," said Matt Wilson of racing – and regularly winning – while with fellow Aussies McGee and Cooke in the French professional team.

After his early success with the prologue, McGee – and Wilson – knuckled down to became part of a powerhouse lead-out train that helped Cooke snare the green jersey. The Aussie trio went on to record many more victories while with FDJ, but the 2003 TdF remains as a highlight not just for their own careers, but Australian cycling in general.

Read Gerard Knapp's account of Brad McGee's recent retirement ride.

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