After Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) and Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroen) finished fourth and fifth respectively on the queen stage of the Criterium du Dauphine, there was already a lot of positive buzz about their showings which they backed up again with very good rides on the final stage of the key lead up race for the Tour de France.
There were numerous attacks on the key climb of the day, the Col de Joux Plane, with Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar) both launching attacks that were brought back by the INEOS Grenadiers-led peloton, but it was a late surge from Haig that saw the Bendigo local the first of the big names over the top of the climb, leading the way with a handful of seconds advantage ahead of the technical descent from the summit.
Haig was caught in the furious, attacking drop off the climb, then Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers) lost his front wheel on a hairpin and hit the road. He picked himself up quickly and continued but in the meantime, it was left for Porte to fend for himself at the front of the exclusive group of GC men.
Astana-Premier Tech duo Ion Izagirre and Lutsenko were the chief aggressors, with Lutsenko just 17 seconds behind Porte at the start of the day and a significant danger to the GC position of Porte. A combination of the Tasmanian and his fellow GC riders protecting their own interests brought the Astana pair to heel as the final, easier climb to Les Gets was the last challenge of the day.
As Porte policed the group from the head of affairs, Thomas returned and moved to the front, that was the moment for O'Connor to attack clear, surging up and over the climb with a strong show of pace as Thomas moved to the front to set the tempo in the chase.
O'Connor would end up finishing fourth on the stage, the only riders to beat him members of the early break as he finished 13 seconds ahead of the top climbers, not quite good enough to move him up on the general classification, where he finished eighth.
“I attacked in the final to try to get the best possible final ranking," said O'Connor. "It was the last day and the gaps were not significant."
The West Australian made it a race to remember as inked an extension to his contract with AG2R Citroen, putting another three years on his deal with the French squad after strong showings in the general classification of races throughout 2021.
"I had fun this week. I like the competition," said O'Connor. "It's a great feeling to fight with the best up front. Unless you're a superstar, you can't be ahead in every race so I take advantage of those moments. With Aurélien Paret-Peintre, we form a beautiful duo. ”
The team were also very happy to confirm the O'Connor news, which will see the 25-year-old as one of the top riders that also includes young climbing talents of the ilk of Clement Champoussin, Benoit Cosnefroy, Paret-Peintre and Nans Peters. That excitement was underlined by Vincent Lavenu, general manager of the AG2R Citroen team.
“We are very happy to extend Ben O'Connor for three seasons," said Lavenu. "He is a talented boy who quickly adapted to the spirit of our team. His presence is a plus for stage races and his age allows him to have a good scope for progress."
Haig rolled over the line for ninth and was the first to congratulate Porte with a pat on the back as an Australian secured the overall win at the Dauphiné for the first time since Phil Anderson back in 1985. Haig himself secured fifth overall, his only better GC finish at a WorldTour race his fourth overall at the 2019 edition of Paris-Nice. After the race, Jack Haig was in positive spirits.
“It was a super good week, and the team worked really well together," said Haig. "We had a bit of bad luck with Eros (Capecchi) going home on Stage 1, but everyone came together and did a really good job. It would have been nice to get Sonny (Colbrelli) a couple more stage wins, but I think one stage win from him and two from Padun, the green jersey, the mountain jersey, and the fifth in GC is not such a bad week."
Haig is on the Bahrain Victorious list for the Tour de France and while it's not expected that he'll have full backing of a mountain train with well-credentialled names like Dylan Teuns, Pello Bilbao, Colbrelli and Woet Poels all no doubt looking forward to taking their own opportunities, Haig should have the chance to ride for himself in the biggest race in the world.
"I go home now, take a bit of recovery and a bit more training, but I’m super excited for the Tour," said Haig. "A lot of the hard work has been done, and now it’s about resting up and coming to the Tour de France fresh.”
All three of the top performers at the race share a common origin, though separated by some years, as they came through the National Road Series squad run by Andrew Christie-Johnston currently know as Team Bridgelane. Porte graduated from the team in 2009 with O'Connor the most recent alumni in 2016 after coming through the ranks with West Australian team Navitas Satalyst.
Every moment of the 2021 Tour de France will be live on SBS, with the ŠKODA Tour Tracker app, SBS TV and the SBS Cycling Central the place to be to catch all the pulsating action from France from June 26 to July 18.