FOR Australian cycling, the world’s biggest bike race is becoming young talent time, writes JOHN TREVORROW:
THIS has been one of the most exciting Tours de France that I can remember. From an Aussie perspective we started with high expectations for Caleb to dominate the sprint stages but he dramatically crashed out when in sight of his first victory. And we had high hopes for four guys to challenge for the overall title. Jack Haig crashed out on day three and Richie Porte also lost crucial time in the same crash, while young Lucas Hamilton hasn’t been quite able to deliver on his potential.
Then we had the emergence of a new star in West Australian Ben O’Connor whose stage 9 victory was all class and super inspiring, thrusting him into the limelight and second place on the leader board. And just as he has faced some serious challenges in the wake of that, we get the emergence of a bright new star – Harry Sweeney. He was selected for his maiden Tour to be part of the Lotto Soudal lead out train for Caleb. But with Ewan’s retirement the youngster from Warrick, in the backblocks of Queensland has been given his chance to shine. And that he did on Thursday night on the eve of his 23rd birthday.
Stage 12 to the ancient Roman city of Nimes looked to be a day for Mark Cavendish to equal Eddy Merck’s record of 34 stage victories, but after a super-fast start a group including Sweeny got clear and it contained the ever aggressive world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck Quickstep), teammate of Cavendish. With no riders in the break threatening for the overall title and no real pursuit from an obviously fatigued peloton, it wasn’t long before the break had opened a lead of nine minutes.Embed from Getty Images
Looking one of the strongest in the 13- man break, that was surprisingly given plenty of latitude, Sweeny attacked clear with German Nils Politt (Bora Hansgrohe), Spaniard Imanol Erviti (Movistar) and Swiss Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) with around 40 km to go. Sweeny put in another solid attack 15 km from the finish which proved too much for Kung but then Politt launched a huge counter attack and Sweeny and Erviti had no response. The German soloed on for his debut Grand Tour win with Erviti second and Sweeny a very impressive third.
But it was Wednesday’s stage 11 over the Mont Ventoux, with two assents of the dreaded Giant of Provence that was always going to shake up the overall and it certainly delivered on that promise.
Unfortunately for Australia one of the casualties was O’Connor. The rising young star paid a heavy price for his intense effort in winning stage 9 and lost contact with the main contenders while still 10 km from the summit of the huge climb.
Despite bravely managing his effort and descending well on the 20 km drop to the finish in Malaucene, he lost four minutes on Pogačar and dropped three places to fifth at 5:58 off yellow. But all is not lost. He is still only 30 seconds off the podium and with a couple of easier days in front of him there is time to recover before Sunday’s next mountainous challenge into Andorra.
“I was obviously suffering. I think everyone could see that. But I tried to do what I could to stay within the time. So here’s to better days,” O’Connor said.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo Visma) won what was undoubtedly the Tour’s most gruelling stage so far with one of the most remarkable rides ever seen in the event. We have all witnessed his enormous talent, but to finish second in a sprint stage behind Cavendish and actually looking the fastest as he hit the line, to the very next day winning the toughest mountain stage of the Tour is just not done.
“I’m at a loss for words. Of course I did not expect to win this stage before the Tour de France started,” Van Aert said. “But when I woke this morning I felt good and I went to the team and told them I wanted to go for it,” he added. “It’s one of the most iconic climbs in the Tour, in the world of cycling. Maybe it’s my best victory ever.”
The battle for the Maillot Jaune, the yellow jersey has certainly been reinvigorated with Pogacar showing the first glimpse that he is under any pressure.
Team Ineos Grenadiers did a power of work leading the main peloton for nearly 100 kms hoping to put Pogacar under pressure on this super tough day. It certainly did that but their own leader Richard Carapaz looked to be struggling even more. When young Tour debutant Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo Visma) attacked on the final kilometre it was only Pogacar that could go with him and even he could not hold the flying Dane. He quickly gained 30 seconds by the summit but Pogacar dropped back to join forces with Carapaz and Rigoberto Uran and the trio reeled Vingegaard back in on the 20 km descent to the finish.
Pogačar showed his real class at the finish, congratulating the young Dane. “I’m really not surprised,” Pogačar said. “I’ve seen already at the beginning of this year that he might be one of the strongest climbers in this era, for sure. I think he has a really bright future. He’s a super strong rider.”
Pogačar’s rivals are not likely to get back the required five minutes to challenge him for the yellow jersey, but Vingegaard’s brief stint out in front should provide a glimmer of hope.