Brad McGee, past Olympic gold medallist and now the Australian cycling team’s technical director, is not a man to mince his words. “Obviously it’s not ideal,” he said of Richie Porte’s absence from the world championships in Austria. “You don’t have a spare Richie up your sleeve.”
The Tasmanian rider had identified the hilly Austrian course as one that fit his strengths, following a crash-induced early exit from the Tour de France. But after an illness-plagued Vuelta a España, Porte was forced to withdraw from the national team.
With nine notable climbs across a 258.5 kilometre course, including a brutal final climb up Höttinger Höll, the 2018 battle to determine the next wearer of the rainbow jersey was always going to be one for a select group. With the last ascent featuring a maximum gradient of 28 percent, Sunday’s race is almost certainly going to be won by someone more accustomed to challenging for pink, yellow or red jerseys at Grand Tours.
“The opening kilometres are bloody tough – there are a few small climbs and one particular speed hump even before you hit the circuit,” explained McGee. “Then the repeat, repeat, repeat for the men – the amount of climbing! It will be a race of attrition and it will come down to who has the energy for that final kicker, a crescendo with a big pop. Only a few riders have the ability to make the difference.”
Without Porte, Australia will not be among the favoured nations on Sunday. Instead, the Yates brothers for Team Great Britain, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde and Italy’s Gianni Moscon are among those expected to contest the finale.
But those countries would be ill-advised to ignore the Australians, says McGee. “Jack Haig and Simon Clarke on this course with their form – regardless of Richie or not, they were part of our protected leader group,” he says. Clarke won stage five of the Vuelta, while 25-year-old Jack Haig has had a break-through year with Mitchelton-Scott.
Despite unexpectedly taking on the leadership role for Australia, Haig comes across untroubled at the Australian team’s hotel on Saturday.
“It’s not too different to be honest,” said the relaxed redhead, nicknamed ‘Ginge’ by his teammates. “Because I’m not a big favourite it doesn’t change my mindset too much – I just want to come and have a really strong race and do a good performance personally. It would have been the same thinking if I was supporting Richie.”
Haig identifies his trade team colleagues Simon and Adam Yates as riders to watch. The Queenslander knows all too well the form Simon Yates is in, having helped the British rider to the Vuelta red jersey earlier this month.
“Italy, Spain and France have the strongest teams, but you can’t discount the two Yates brothers,” said Haig. “I know them pretty well and I know they are going fast! I would be quite happy if one of them got up, to be honest.”
One rider conspicuously absent from the Australian line-up is Michael Matthews, who finished third at last year’s edition. While the Canberran was unlikely to have the climbing stamina to challenge for the podium, his non-selection – particularly after Porte’s withdrawal – did raise eyebrows.
“Michael was never considered for a leader role on this course given the profile,” technical director McGee explains. “He very respectfully put his hand up to help out – I have huge admiration for him, and we’re very thankful for that, but we decided to promote Nick Schultz instead.
"Michael is an amazing bike rider and we’re look forward to the next couple of years. Michael will once again return to that number one position with the full support of the team.”
Riding alongside Schultz in support of Clarke and Haig are a strong group of climbers.
“We have some strong legs with good experience in Damien Howson, Rob Power,” McGee said. “They’ll be well supported by Chris Hamilton’s youthful exuberance.
"Rory Sutherland is probably the most experienced – he’s in fine form, he’s kept himself in really great nick following the Tour de France. He will get the boys out of any holes and in the best place ahead of a finale which the Australians can hopefully play a part in.”
Another Australian expected to contribute on Sunday is recently-crowned world time trial champion Rohan Dennis. While the BMC Racing Team rider focused his attention on the race against the clock, he will pull on the national colours once more to assist his teammates.
“Rohan has put his hand up to give the boys everything he’s got for as long as he can,” said McGee. “He brings a lot of energy."
Christophe Mallet discusses with Matt Keenan and Dave McKenzie the newly crowned men's Time Trial World Champion Rohan Dennis, the Dutch supremacy over women's cycling and what to expect this weekend from Austria
After his first proper reconnaissance of the course, Dennis said he felt better than expected.
“I thought Sunday would be a rough one,” he admitted. “We went up the first climb and I felt like absolute crap. Then we went over the circuit one time and I felt rough. Then the second time I felt really good – well, at least a lot better. My legs were coming good.
"I’m here for these guys – if I just worry about the first 150km, hopefully I can really help out.”
Without Porte, the Australians might not be expected to play a major part in the ultimate contest to determine Sunday’s gruelling race. But with a potent mix of youth and experience, including recent Vuelta stage winner Clarke and climbing prodigy Haig, Australian coach McGee has a few wildcards to play.
Whatever happens, the men’s road race promises to be an exhilarating conclusion to Innsbruck 2018.