• Jack Haig is on track to achieving Grand Tours. leadership ambitions. (Getty)Source: Getty
With Ben O’Connor on the radar, SBS continues its quest to find Australia’s next big grand tour contenders and with the help of star-maker Andrew Christie-Johnston uncovers three prospects every Aussie cycling fan should know …
Aaron S Lee

Cycling Central
25 Jul 2019 - 1:07 PM 

Australia’s hope this year for a second Tour de France overall winner was essentially over before it seemingly began. Long-suffering Richie Porte found himself in a hole on just the second stage after his Trek-Segafredo squad turned in a woeful team time trial finishing 18th out of 22 teams.

French team AG2R La Mondiale was the only other WorldTour entry to finish with a slower time.

Porte was 1 minute 28 seconds down on yellow and nearly a minute (58 seconds) adrift of defending champion and former Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos).

A lot of bad luck has plagued Porte in his past four Grand Tours, including back-to-back Stage 9 exits at Le Tour due to a pair of race-ending crashes.

With the 34-year-old Tasmanian in dire threat of ending his pro cycling career empty-handed in terms of a Grand Tour victory, it’s perhaps time for Australia to pin their hopes on another rider.

But if not Porte — who?

And if not now — when?

Dimension Data’s Ben O’Connor is a prospective option. SBS recently took a deep dive into the Grand Tour potential of the 23-year-old Perth native following his eighth-place finish on the youth classification at the Giro d’Italia in May, and most recently a sixth-place general classification result at the Tour of Austria last week.

Chasing Cadel: who will wear the mantle as Australia's next GT hope?
With Richie Porte still struggling to take the mantle of successor to 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, just what other Australian could be up to the task? Enter Ben O’Connor.

According to pro cycling star-maker Andrew Christie-Johnston (ACJ), who has been at the forefront of developing Australian WorldTour talent for the past two decades, including O’Connor, one way to identify future potential is to look at the results of the small but serious Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc (UCI 2.2) in France.

“It has been a very good breeding ground,” mentioned ACJ in the previous SBS piece on his former Avanti-IsoWhey rider, O’Connor. “It’s savage. It’s like the hardest Tour de France stages condensed into four or five days. It’s not as long as a grand tour, but it’s brutal.”

O’Connor finished third at five-stage UCI 2.2 race in the Alps, with only rising British star Tao Geoghegan Hart, now with Team Ineos, and current Tour de France hopeful Enric Mas, now with Deceuninck-QuickStep, standing on the final podium above him.

Other winners of the race include Geoghegan Hart’s Ineos team-mate and current Tour contender Egan Bernal in 2017 and Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) a decade earlier.

‘Harper is a dark horse’

If Mont Blanc does indeed set the bar for Grand Tour GC hopefuls, then Australia may need to look no further than this year’s winner Chris Harper. Like O’Connor, the 24-year-old South Australian from Adelaide rode for ACJ’s UCI Continental squad (Bennelong-SwissWellness) before it merged into Team BridgeLane.

During his three-seasons now under ACJ’s tutelage, Harper has collected a handful of results, including the Oceania road race title last year and more recently a Tour of Japan victory just before a fifth-place GC placement at Tour of Bihor (2.1) and his win at Mont Blanc.

Dutch cycling website Wielerflits posted a story on Harper’s signing with Jumbo-Visma, but neither the WorldTour team nor Harper has made an official announcement. It is a rumour Christie-Johnston would neither validate, nor deny.

“Chris won Mont Blanc this year, but he didn’t just win it by the small margin of those other guys — he won it by six minutes and that really showed his capacities straight away,” said ACJ, who has had an extremely helpful hand in the progression of former protégés Porte, O’Connor, Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), Will Clarke (Trek-Segafredo), Chris Hamilton (Team Sunweb) and Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott), as well as New Zealander Patrick Bevin (CCC Team).

“He tore it to pieces, hence why eight or nine WorldTour teams the day after were all on the phone.

“It’s very hard to say he’s the next best Australian contender because he hasn’t even had a day in the WorldTour yet, but from what he’s done it shows he could very well be.

“He’s probably the dark horse at the moment without putting any pressure on him.”

Aussie update: Jack Haig.

‘Haig is the most capable of them all’

Other names commonly thrown around, include a pair of unrelated Hamiltons — Chris and Lucas. However, it is Lucas Hamilton’s Mitchelton Scott team-mate Haig that has perhaps the most upside according to his ex-DS.

“I’d say the most capable of them all is Jack Haig,” said ACJ of his former Avanti standout. “He’s been on a steady progression and the fact that he’s already riding his first Tour de France this year and being the last man for their major GC guy, you know you are getting close when they give you a role of looking after Adam Yates in the mountains.

“Richie started the same when he went to Sky,” he continued, referring to Porte’s four-year stint at Sky (2012-2015) serving as a super domestique to Tour winners Bradly Wiggins and Chris Froome.

“He was seen as a potential, but he was just there to do a job, but that job means in itself that you are not far away from taking the reins. Maybe not at the Tour itself, but may the Vuelta [a España] or the Giro.”

Haig’s first — and only — pro win, a mountain stage victory at the 2017 Tour of Pologne, was in a UCI WorldTour stage race were he soloed 19km from the finish to cross the line 51 seconds ahead of some of the biggest names in cycling, including Wout Poels, Bob Jungels, Rui Costa, Vincenzo Nibali, Rafał Majka, team-mate Simon Yates, Domenico Pozzovivo and Dylan Teuns.

“I think Jack on paper has the skills and the pedigree, and has the results to say he would be the next one,” said ACJ. “Lucas Hamilton again has been extremely good and could easily be that guy as well.”

‘Dyball’s worth the risk’

Another rider to catch the expert eye of ACJ is New South Wales native Benjamin Dyball, who also rode for Avanti from 2013-2015 before skipping between a few teams since, which included a short stint as a stagiaire with French Professional Continental team Delko Marseille in 2017.

Plagued with health issues and inconsistent form, Dyball contemplated retirement at the end of his run with French Pro Continental squad Delko-Marseille, but has since experienced a personal and professional resurgence in the past year, racking up seven of his eight career pro victories during that span. The most recent coming from an individual time trial victory at the ongoing Tour of Qinghai Lake (UCI 2.HC) last Saturday.

"Ben’s been close,” said ACJ. “In my mind, he has shown he is good enough to be up there and on any one day he’d probably be up there with the best climbers in the world.

“Consistency has probably been Ben’s downfall, but with other things that go along with it. You know the injuries, the sicknesses, bad timing, there’s a whole range of things. You gotta get a bit of luck as well to get there.

“He’s probably one of the most talented guys that hasn’t made it.”

Dyball’s stage win at Qinghai Lake is the latest in a string of success within approximately 12 months, he's regarded as the best rider on the Asian circuit currently and has been sitting atop the UCI rankings for most of the past year.

This year he captured both the Oceania road race and time trial titles in dominant fashion before taking a stage and the overall victory at Le Tour de Langkawi with Malaysian team Sapura Cycling.

Dyball claims career win as Aussies shine in Asia
It’s one of the most prestigious race on the Asian racing scene and Australian Ben Dyball (Team Sapura) was able to deliver the result that his new Malaysian team so coveted, storming to an emphatic performance on the queen stage to secure the overall win at the Tour de Langkawi.

Despite his recent run, at 30 years of age, time may be running out for Dyball. ACJ agrees but does not believe it should be a sole limiting factor.

“Whether it's too late or not, it’s not for me to say,” said ACJ. “I believe if someone signed him they’d have a worker in a grand tour built already.

“His age is a factor,” he continued. “But why aren’t you willing to take a risk on a guy that is so good? He time-trials extremely well and has shown he is the complete all-round guy, and I wish someone would take that risk.”