As the dust settles from the Olympic Games road cycling events and the world digests another superlative performance from Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins, who continues to dominate professional road cycling with aplomb, I can't help but reflect on the performances from the Australian road cycling team, and wonder, had different choices been made, what might've been.
When the team was announced on June 25, the press release opened with the statement: "Australia will field one of the strongest road cycling teams in Olympic history this July-August, spearheaded by five of the best male riders in the world."
No argument there. Or then, I should say.
Cadel Evans, Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss, Stuart O'Grady and Michael Rogers are indeed five of the world's best; a heady alchemy of talent, experience and cunning, I thought to myself upon the squad's announcement, imbued with optimism.
Based on the lack of certainty that the 250 kilometre men's road race would end in a mass sprint, in Evans, Gerrans, O'Grady and Rogers, we had options aplenty. And on the chance that it would be a bunch gallop, we had the guy who finished second to the fastest man in the world in Copenhagen last September. Had Goss' lead-out been textbook perfect that day in Denmark he might well be wearing the rainbow jersey rather than Mark Cavendish, who made no bones about his team not having a Plan B in London last Sunday. "He's plan A and the rest of the alphabet," Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling and Team Sky principal, told reporters the Thursday prior to the race.
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But on July 22, the final day of the Tour de France, almost a month following that announcement Ã¢â¬â and rather crucially, six days out from the Olympic men's road race Ã¢â¬â the fortunes Ã¢â¬â and form Ã¢â¬â of our Famous Five had veered south.
Evans had been chasing his tail all year, and midway through the Tour de France, the defending champion fell ill for a third time this season, leaving him unable to mount any sort of challenge to Wiggins, his mutton chopped successor, ending the race humbled and tired. Gerrans, after a brilliant first quarter that earned him the national road title, the Santos Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo, fell short in the Ardennes, but much was expected of him at the Tour Ã¢â¬â until he crashed on Stage 3 and never regained top form. Goss centred his entire season on the Tour and Olympics but in the former he came up against three guys faster than he and in his quest for the maillot vert encountered the Great Wall of Slovakia, otherwise known as Peter Sagan.
O'Grady, Orica-GreenEDGE's road captain at the Tour, looked solid throughout La Grande Boucle. Most likely, he came out of the 3,500km torture test better than his Cyclones counterparts he would later pair up with Ã¢â¬â which goes some way to explain his highly creditable performance in the Olympic road race, where he spent virtually the entire five-and-three-quarter hours off the front and still had the punch to finish sixth behind the most hated Kazakh in England right now, Alexandre Vinokourov. (Judging from the press conference he gave afterwards, 'contrition' or 'remorse' does not exist in the Kazakhstani dictionary.)
However it appeared the presence of Stuey in the early break, the guy who was supposed to call the shots, led to an absence of lucidity and foresight from the rest of the Australians; the lack of race radios only augmented Ã¢â¬â and exposed Ã¢â¬â the palpable indecision from the Aussies and Germans. By the time the latter nation reluctantly decided to help, it was too little, too late. Former British professional Daniel Lloyd was right when he told the BBC that O'Grady "was never going to win the gold medal at the end of it Ã¢â¬â or very (doubtful) Ã¢â¬â so you could say also (Australia) should have gotten behind and had a little go at a medal with Matt Goss".
Lloyd added the Brits "should have got (help) from Germany first and foremost because they were only here for the sprint", but as Cavendish quite rightly observed, "Other teams were content that if they didn't win, we wouldn't win. We expected it. If you want to win, you've to take it to them."
Many of you labelled Cav' a whinger, a sore loser, but in this instance at least, his comments were justified. Okay, it was a glaringly predictable strategy that, with just four men doing the bulk of the chasing, was never going to work against the might of thirty-two men ahead. But to not participate simply to seal failure for the Brits, and by consequence, everyone else?
To borrow a line from Wiggins, that's downright bone-idleness.
Rogers, until the day of the Olympic road time trial on August 1, had spent the entire season riding at the service of Wiggins, which for mine, he dutifully did as well or better than any of the Brit's handpicked coterie. With health and mental issues sorted he has ridden like a man reborn. Given his work-rate since the start of the year and the endless kilometres of toil throughout the Tour, however, towards the end, 'Dogder', unsurprisingly, began to show signs of decline. The final time trial from Bonneval to Chartres said a lot without the need to say it; by the end of the 53.5km race of truth, Evans and Rogers finished a second apart Ã¢â¬â but a massive six minutes behind Wiggins.
Really, it should come as no wonder the former chose not to ride the Olympic time trial and, as commendable as his performance was, the latter finished 2 minutes and 11 seconds off the pace of The Untouchable, Wiggins. An in-form and rested Rogers, a three-time world TT champion, let's not forget, would have made a beeline for the podium, instead of his ephemeral spell in the chair after setting the early best time.
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Some have said the mostly flat course did not suit Richie Porte, who along with Jack Bobridge, allowed us to field two riders on Wednesday (even if, in the end, we sent only one). Though you could've said that about the Tour's final time trial, where, despite ripping himself apart up hill and down dale for Wiggins the previous three weeks, he finished fifth best, albeit 2'25 off the pace.
Then there's Luke Durbridge.
Precociously talented but a gamble nonetheless, the Under-23 time trial world champion began his neo-pro season taking a scalp many believed was at least two years away, with an emphatic win in the national TT championships in Buninyong. There, he beat Cameron Meyer, Rogers, Michael Hepburn and Porte by 7 seconds, 0'15, 0'16, 1'10 and 1'18, respectively.
His exploits at the Tour of California left another strong imprint. As was the case a fortnight later at the CritÃ©rium du DauphinÃ© where he won the prologue and finished seventh in the Stage 4 time trial, 1'33 behind Wiggins and just 22 seconds adrift of Rogers, the best-placed Aussie, who ran third following Germany's Tony Martin, the German world TT champ finishing second Wednesday, 42 seconds adrift of Wiggo's gold medal ride.
A gamble Durbo may have been but surely, a punt worth taking?
This column is not to level fault at any one person, the selectors, or Cycling Australia, as I'm unclear as to the deadline when the team needs to be announced, and I'm also certain selection of our Olympic athletes is not in any way made frivolously.
At the same time, with regard to the selection process for the men's road squad, I believe the impact of the Tour de France must be awarded greater consideration, and with that in mind, the squad's announcement should be made as late as possible before the 2016 Games in Rio.
Also, based on how potential Olympic candidates fare at the Tour, even if the announcement was to come midway through the race, a re-evaluation of roles and/or their participation would be prudent, even if the selection were to remain status quo. For both the road race and time trial, perhaps it would be a good idea to select one member who will not ride the Tour. Lastly, athletes should bear a certain responsibility; no form, no go Ã¢â¬â and provide sufficient notice to allow a worthy substitute time to prepare and perform to their best.