Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
No Australian before or since Cadel Evans triumphed at the Tour de France 10 years ago has won one of cycling’s three Grand Tours. There’s a long list of climbers and time trial specialists who have been touted as Evans’ successor and certainly been capable of it.
Still in a post-Olympic transition period wherein many of the top riders are still enjoying a break after the Games and Richie Porte became only the second Australian, behind Evans, to finish on the podium at the Tour, placing third overall last season.
The Tasmanian, after marking stints in the maglia rosa and winning the best young rider classification as a neo-pro at the Giro d’Italia in 2010, competed under the pressure of being touted as ‘Australia’s next Tour contender’ basically up until his podium success with former team Trek-Segafredo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, too, have others.
But you could argue that within that time Australia’s prolific puncheurs and sprinters, more so than climbers, have not exclusively but predominately flown the flag in the WorldTour.
Speaking to me around the 10th anniversary of his Tour win earlier this summer, Evans momentarily paused when I asked him why he believed that no Australian since, or even before him, had won the maillot jaune.
“Um, that’s a good question,” he said.
“I go back to at a grassroots level; cycling in Australia isn’t very welcoming to climbers and non-sprinters. So, our talent pool of guys who can ride for GC is quite small. Not that we don’t have a big talent pool in Australia, but maybe they’re taking up running or they’re not doing sport at all.”
Traditionally, the men’s under-23 academy program has been rooted in track cycling.
Porte and Ben O’Connor (pictured), who celebrated a solo stage victory in Tignes and finished fourth overall at the Tour in July, both progressed through domestic pathways and not the academy that they described individually as a “boy’s club”.
The sport itself – outside of the Tour – also isn’t mainstream in Australia.
AFL, rugby league and cricket dominate the headlines. You learn to play those three games, in addition to netball, tennis, basketball and swimming at school or in leagues on weekends. At least where I came from. I rode my bike as a kid every weekend with my family, but it didn’t occur to me until I was assigned to report on the 2010 UCI Road World Championships that cycling was a professional sport.
“[In] Australia, AFL, basketball, you have to be tall. For someone like me, school sport wasn’t very encouraging,” Evans continued.
It’s a longer road to the top for Australian climbers, however, this year you could argue that the tide, so to speak, is changing. Not so much in newspapers, it’s currently footy finals time and almost cricket season; you’d have to fight and make a compelling case to get column inches for cycling in mainstream press. But it’s Australian climbers, less so sprinters or puncheurs, I’ve during and since the Tour been commissioned to speak or write about.
Jack Haig, long touted in Australian cycling circles as a prodigious talent, lost time on stage nine of the ongoing Vuelta a Espana and dropped from fourth to sixth but is still in the mix for a top 10 result. Michael Storer, in his fifth participation at the Vuelta, celebrated his second stage win of the 2021 edition on Tuesday, perfectly executing a plan from within the breakaway with his DSM team.
O’Connor’s entire life story I had to get around quickly at the Tour, where BikeExchange blooded another Australian climber in Lucas Hamilton for GC.
They comprise part of a new generation too far removed from Evans’ to bear the public pressure of following in his footsteps. But they’re old enough to remember the competitive feats of the Australian great and perhaps be motivated by that in a more encouraging way.
“Finally, we’re coming through with some more of these guys,” said Evans. “Hopefully back 10 years ago I inspired someone, who is going to be coming through the ranks now, or five years’ time, or 10 years’ time.”