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PLENTY OF WINNERS IN A GREAT TOUR

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CYCLING expert JOHN TREVORROW says there was a lot to like about the Tour de France, including the emergence of a new Australian star:

ONE of the great Tours de France finished on the Champs Elysees on Sunday with the amazing Belgian Wout van Aert sprinting to victory in the final stage.

He was just too quick for Dane Jasper Philipson and Britain’s Mark Cavendish who missed the opportunity to break Eddy Merck’s record 35 stage wins. 

Van Aert won three stages and to conquer a mountain stage, a time trial and a full bunch sprint is almost unheard of.  Only two riders have ever achieved this in the history of the Tour, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, both all-time greats. But to do this while he was working tirelessly to help his Jumbo Visma teamate Jonas Vingegaard take second overall is mind-boggling. 

Tadaj Pogacar has looked to be in full control of this Tour de France since he won the stage 5 time trial. His UAE Team Emirates squad which many doubted would be strong enough to defend the yellow jersey, especially in the mountains, stepped up and silenced all the critics with a superb performance. His back to back victories on the two summit finishes in the final week put paid to any thought of a challenge.

But, for me, the surprise of the race was the outstanding rise of tour debutant Vingegaard. From fishmonger to second in the Tour de France – the 25 year old Dane was breath of fresh air. He had only ridden one grand Tour before at last year’s Vuelta and was here solely to help Jumbo Visma leader Primoz Roglic. But that all changed with the Slovenian’s withdrawal. The fact that he beat Pogacar in the final time trial shows that there will be an even more serious challenge next year.  

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Richard Carapaz became the first Ecuadorian to make the podium and although he looked dangerous on some of the biggest mountains his weakness is the race against the clock where he lost three and a half minutes on the leading pair in the two individual time trials. His Ineos Grenadiers team would have to be disappointed with this Tour. No stage wins and their tactics seriously questioned. But crashes damaged their chances early. Geraint Thomas rode most of the Tour injured and Richie Porte was also forced into a support role after losing time in the early crashes.

The big story for Australia was the emergence of Ben O’Connor as a power of the future. The young West Australian finished safely in the peloton and secured a sensational fourth overall, the best ever result by an Australian on debut.

But it almost didn’t happen. A crash 45 km to go in stage three saw him rushed off to hospital straight after the finish with a badly banged up shoulder and requiring 10 stitches in his forearm. “I couldn’t move my arm. I couldn’t stand up and move my shoulder. I thought my race was over,” O’Connor said. “I was 100 per cent sure I’d broken my shoulder. It was a pretty awful feeling, that in week one of my first Tour de France I was going to be a DNF,” he said.

“It would have been very sad after all my hope and support from my friends and family.”

But continue on he did and his stage nine win into Tignes was all class. Riding away from recognised climbers to not only take the win but move into second place overall. A couple of days later he had to dig super deep on the brutal slopes of Mt Ventoux. This was where a true-blue Aussie moment happened. Ben was in difficulty and had dropped off the attacking GC contenders and Richie Porte was dropping back after completing his duties on the front for Team Ineos. As an obviously struggling Ben caught him, Richie lifted the pace and, for just a short time, helped steady the ship. They are on different teams and it’s not something you see very often. 

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After the finish on Sunday, O’Connor was asked if he was disappointed to be so close to the podium. “Would you have bet money on me coming fourth in the Tour? I don’t think so. So it’s not a ‘loss’ at all,” he said.

 “The yellow jersey is a long way off, another level and another game. I hope one day I can wear the maillot jaune, but I would have to progress in the same way as I did this year to get there. You never know.”

There were rumours that he may ride the Vuelta but he quickly shut them down. “No – I plan to take a hell of a break, drink some wine and enjoy being with my friends. I’ve been racing from the early French events onwards, a big program, so I’m taking a month or so off.”

His French AG2R Citroen squad didn’t expect Ben to fight for the podium and had set his agenda to ride his usual aggressive style and go for a stage win. Before the tour started the team signed Ben up for four years and must now realise they have something special here. But they will need to spend some more euros to bring in some quality climbers because that’s what Ben will need to take the next step.

Australia’s Michael Matthews put up a valiant performance over the three weeks in his battle for the green points jersey. He finished second and third in stages and the BikeExchange team rode an aggressive race to give Matthews every opportunity.  But in the end Cavendish was just too quick. 

Ten Australians faced the start gun in Brittany three weeks ago and six managed to survive until Paris.

We lost Caleb Ewan in sight of victory on stage 3 and he will be very disappointed as his sensational sprinting form would have produced multiple wins and possibly a green jersey.

Stage three crashes also resulted in the withdrawal of Jack Haig and later Lucas Hamilton. Miles Scotson was forced to retire when a stomach bug affected most of his Groupama FDJ team.

The other Aussie finishers were Harry Sweeney who was a revelation in his first Tour and grabbed a fine third place on stage 12, and Luke Durbridge, the Team BikeExchange powerhouse who gave his all for  Matthews in his quest for green and Durbridge has been rewarded as a late inclusion in the Australian Olympic team.

Not even a broken back could stop Simon Clarke making it to Paris. The 34-year-old, riding for Qhubeka-Nexthash in his sixth Tour de France, also suffered his injury in the massive pile up on Stage 3. “It’s painful, yeah,” Clarke said. “It’s a stable fracture so I’m not doing any damage to it and I can push through it but I can’t wait until Paris, to be honest,” Clarke said on the eve of the final stage.

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Author: John Trevorrow

JOHN TREVORROW is a multiple Australian champion road racer and Olympian who has been doing media commentary at the Tour de France for more than 20 years.

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