Opinion

Meet the Aussie wave of GC riders attacking the Tour de France

It's been a while in the making, but it's now time for the next generation of Australian general classification stars to make their mark upon the sport, and the 2021 Tour de France will be coming out party for a number of Australian riders looking to make the yellow jersey their target.

Ben O'Connor, AG2R Citroen, Jack Haig, Bahrain Victorious, Criterium du Dauphine

Ben O'Connor (centre, AG2R Citroen) and Jack Haig (left, Bahrain Victorious) watch Geraint Thomas (right, INEOS Grenadiers) at the Criterium du Dauphine. Source: Getty

Australian cycling fans are well accustomed to curling up on the couch to watch live or pedalling along to the morning highlights of the Tour de France with stars of the sport Richie Porte, Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews leading the way on the roads of France. Go back further and it's the likes of Cadel Evans, Robbie McEwen, Michael Rogers, Simon Gerrans, Stuart O'Grady, Matt Goss and Baden Cooke who kept Aussies glued to the biggest race in the world. 

As a nation, we've been very lucky to have the calibre of riders just listed, but as Evans retired and the mantle was taken up by a now ageing (but still very good) Porte, the question is who will assume the status as the next wave of top riders to take it up to the best in the world has lingered.

Caleb Ewan of Lotto Soudal is the best sprinter in the world at present, we're lucky in that regard as viewers that there's that tasty carrot at the end of each sprint stage to entice us through to the finish. The number of stages that he figures in is limited, though that might change this year if he gets involved in the green jersey battle, which he has said that he will this edition of the Tour.

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Michael Matthews of Team BikeExchange is another rider that can compete with anyone on his day, and there are plenty of stages that get tagged as 'Matthews-type' routes with a lot of interest as to whether the Canberran can crack the win.

Still the high-mountain stages are not Ewan or Matthews' forte and with Porte saying that he'll be riding in support of Geraint Thomas, who will keep the Aussie flag flying high near the top of the general classification?

Thankfully, there are a host of talented Australian general classification candidates taking their first big swing at the Tour de France yellow jersey this year, and will provide compelling viewing as they match it with the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and the other big names.

Ginger-haired and lean, Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) is hard to miss within the peloton, and is increasingly becoming even easier to spot on the key mountain stages of races as he's regularly in front of the elite climbing groups and setting off by himself. Keen watchers of the sport will be aware of Haig's early demonstrations of talent, winning the National Road Series in 2013 with Huon Salmon Genesys Wealth Advisors (now Team Bridgelane) after coming out of mountain biking. He then went on to impress across a stellar Under 23 career in Europe that saw him snapped up in 2016 by Australian squad Orica Greenedge (now Team BikeExchange). 



He came into a team already boasting a lot of GC talent in the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves, and was in a support role for most of the major races, only getting opportunities to lead in smaller races like the Tour of Slovenia. He impressed in that support role in the major races, notably he was one of the strongest climbers at the 2018 Giro next to Simon Yates and then backed that up at the 2018 Vuelta where he helped his team leader to take the overall win. 

Those performances saw him get more opportunities to ride for himself in 2019 and 2020 at races like the Ruta del Sol, the Giro il Lombardia and Paris Nice, but he was still behind the likes of Yates and co. when it came to the Grand Tours. He left the Australian team at the conclusion of the 2020 season and in his first year with Bahrain Victorious he's consistently been a protected rider, delivering well in that role in the bigger WorldTour races.

Seventh overall at Paris-Nice and fifth in the GC standings at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné show that 27-year-old Haig is ready to make use of his long apprenticeship in Grand Tours and start seeing his own name up in lights. 



Ben O'Connor (AG2R-Citroen) was the other big name to come out of the Critérium du Dauphiné, with an attacking ride for eighth overall. Whereas Haig has always been highly rated, O'Connor has to take a more combative route at times. He was selected in Aussie development team, but left to return to Australian continental team Avanti Isowhey (now Bridgelane) and fight his way through to the top ranks from there.

He was signed off the back of some promising climbing performances to Dimension Data (now Qhubeka-ASSOS) in 2017 and from there, it's been an exciting and at times frustrating ride for the West Australian. He's flashed some incredible potential at times, most notably at the 2018 Giro d'Italia where he was in touching distance of the top 10 overall when he crashed out. He became a go-to rider for the climbing races, but his 2019 and early 2020 didn't work out as anyone would have wanted and with his contract up at the end of the year, it was a case of sink or swim for O'Connor in the 2020 Giro d'Italia. 

Despite coming into the race sick, he rallied to a purple patch of form mid-race, finishing second and then winning on consecutive stages. A day later, a contract with AG2R Citroen was announced, a one-year 'prove it' deal for the explosive Aussie talent. 



And 'prove it' he has, delivering a lot more composed series of performances this year in the one week Tours while still retaining that impressive burst and eccentric talent that has seen him make a name for himself. 12th at Paris-Nice, sixth at Tour de Romandie and eighth at the Critérium du Dauphiné were exactly the sort of results that his French team were hoping for and the 25-year-old will head into the Tour de France with a new three-year extension on his previous deal. 

Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange) isn't coming into the Tour de France off Dauphiné form, he's competing at the moment at the Tour de Suisse where he'll likely do pretty well once the race hits the proper mountains. The 25-year-old was the star rider of what was an impressive generation of Australian talent, he was the one chosen from a cohort of Chris Hamilton (no relation), Michael Storer and Jai Hindley to be the first pick for the step to the WorldTour with Orica-Greenedge after progressing out of the continental team run by the Australian squad.

There's always been a laser focus out on Hamilton's goals, though a laidback character to talk to, there aren't any steps missed in preparation or any fear that his performance will be set back by any lack of effort. Similar to Haig, Hamilton has taken the longer, apprenticeship path to a leadership role and perhaps it says something of the Australian squad's judgement of talent that Hamilton was retained by the team while Haig left to pursue opportunities elsewhere. 



He's now a full-time general classification leader at Team BikeExchange, a role that he's worked his way into impressively so far, taking fourth at Paris-Nice, eighth at the Tour de Romandie and tenth at Volta Catalunya. While there's good reason to be optimistic about the riders mentioned above, as well as other riders like Jai Hindley and Nick Schultz, Hamilton has been since 2015 this author's personal favourite out of the current rich vein of Australian talent to make it as one of the top riders of the sport. 

The 2021 Tour de France will be an introduction for many to these riders who could potentially one day win a Grand Tour. To see names like Haig, Hamilton, O'Connor... hopefully Porte as well, up in lights next to the likes of winners like Pogačar, Roglič, Thomas and Carapaz will a great thrill for many around Australia and a great time to get some new blood into supporting Aussie cycling.

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.


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8 min read
Published 8 June 2021 at 1:51pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger