Tomorrow at the Australian Cyclist of the Year Awards in Melbourne, Cycling Australia will announce its Tour de France Team of the Century to celebrate 100 years of Australian riders taking part in the world’s biggest bike race. We asked CyclingTips’ historian, Associate Professor Craig Fry who would be in his Team of the Century and why.
Like many fans of Australian cycling, I am waiting with genuine interest for the announcement tomorrow of Cycling Australia’s Tour de France Team of the Century.
As someone who collects, researches, and writes about Australian cycling history, I’m all for celebrating this country’s century-long involvement with the Tour de France – regarded by many as the world’s greatest bike race.
If I am being really honest though, I think it’s a little arbitrary to choose nine riders from a list of 50 over 100 years spanning wildly different racing, equipment, conditions, cultures, and other challenges. Why not celebrate all of the 51 Australians who have rolled up to the Tour de France start line?
The value of an Australian Tour de France Team of the Century
Don’t get me wrong. I think the Aussie Tour Team of the Century is exactly the type of thing that the newly installed Board and Executive at Cycling Australia should be doing. It’s a long overdue step by this organisation towards promoting the rich history of Australian bike racing.
Cycling as a sport is in need of positive good news stories that promote the achievements of our elite riders on the international stage. Indeed, the implicit idea behind the Tour Team of the Century concept is to tell a positive story of Australia’s strength and achievements on the world road cycling stage.
Such stories hopefully inspire wider interest in cycling as a sport to watch and support, to participate and ultimately win in. Arguably, the future success of Australian road cycling depends in part on new cohorts of junior riders coming through with aspirations of riding the Tour some day.
The thing is, the stories of Australian cycling success that are often told through highlighting the best, or the fastest, or the most frequent winners are not the only possible source of inspiration available to us.
Personally, I prefer the stories in cycling that are about enduring courage, determination, the ‘underdog’ prevailing, interesting characters, and human frailty. These were the things I thought about when selecting the following nine riders for my Australian Tour de France Team of the Century.
Team of the Century
1. Cadel Evans – General Classification
Australia’s first Tour de France winner in 2011 was also second in 2007 and 2008, and rode in a total of nine Tours. Cadel was 2009 World Road Champion, and his career longevity and achievements are extraordinary in mountain bike and road cycling. Evans’ skill and contributions to Australian cycling are beyond dispute, but it is his interesting character that gets my attention.
Ianto Ware, author of in my opinion one of the best books ever written about the Tour (“Twenty One Nights In July”), wrote of Evans: “He was like the anti-hero of Australian sport; embarrassingly emotional, more akin to the kid everyone picked on at school than the one who’d always been winning the annual Sports Day ribbons”.
That’s why I like him. He personifies perseverance and determination, and he rides like it looks like he’s feeling.
2. Russell Mockridge – General Classification
The shy dual Olympic Gold and dual Commonwealth Gold medalist, and three-time Australian Road Champion (1956-58), was equally good on track and road. He was the first Australian rider to finish the Tour de France in the post-war years – he was 64th in the 1955 Tour in which he was invited (with John Beasley) to ride for Charly Gaul’s Luxembourg mixed international team.
Only 69 of that year’s 150 riders finished. Russell Mockridge was tragically killed on September 13 1958 when he was struck by a bus near the Dandenong and Clayton road intersection in Melbourne during the Tour of Gippsland. My selection here is based on demonstrated potential. I regard Mockridge as Australia’s best ever cyclist, and I am confident he would have gone on to even greater success in Europe.
3. Stuart O’Grady – Domestique
Stuart O’Grady and the other past Australian Tour riders who have tested positive or admitted doping during their careers won’t be an inclusion in the Cycling Australia team because of its avowed anti-doping stance. I have included O’Grady here even though I have written elsewhere criticising the apparent lack of sanctioning of O’Grady after his doping admission.
O’Grady’s experience and achievements at the Tour are formidable (a record 17 starts, and time in the yellow jersey in 1998 and 2001), and he reached the pinnacle of the elite level on road and track (including Olympic Gold). O’Grady is better value as a super-domestique and on-road captain than a stage sprinter in my opinion.
4. John Beasley – Domestique
As the oldest living Australian Tour de France rider, John Beasley (senior) deserves a spot on sentiment alone. But make no mistake; John Beasley was also one of the best riders of this generation and Australian Professional Road Champion in 1951. He started in the 1952 and 1955 Tours de France, but was a DNF in both.
In the 1952 Tour de France (won by Fausto Coppi) Beasley started with the Luxembourg international team led by Charly Gaul. Beasley was the only one of the four-member Australian team sent to Europe that year to gain selection. The great French champion Louison Bobet, after riding against Beasley in 1952, was reported to have said “the Australian was world class and could win almost anything”.
5. Robbie McEwen – Sprinter
No contest here really. Twelve stage wins and three green jerseys (2002, 2004, 2006) in 12 editions of the Tour de France. Aggressive, outspoken, and one of the characters of Australian cycling (and the pro peloton) between 1997 and 2010. McEwen achieved great things during a time in the Tour sullied by doping, and he did so without a consistent lead-out train or the assurance of assistance in some of the teams he rode for.
Robbie McEwen was one of the most exciting of the Australian riders to watch into the new millennium. His race smarts over the last few hundred meters of a stage, coupled with his bike handling, raw power and speed, and obvious courage make him the best Australian pure sprinter ever to ride the Tour de France.
6. Mark Renshaw – Lead-out
A six-time Tour starter, Renshaw’s reputation and achievements as lead-out man for sprint aces Thor Hushovd, and Mark Cavendish speak for themselves. Coming to the professional road peloton from a long list of junior and senior track sprint championships, Renshaw is super fast in his own right and prepared to be aggressive and put his own race on the line if necessary.
Renshaw doesn’t take a backwards step in the lead up to the stage finish (remember his disqualification for headbutting Julian Dean in the 2010 Tour? ) – a courageous powerhouse any Tour team would want.
7. Adam Hansen – Lead-out
Former Australian Time Trial Champion (2008) Adam Hansen has an amazing record of 10 consecutive Grand Tour completions (the 2011 Vuelta, and three Grand Tour ‘triples’ in 2012, 2013 and 2014). Currently a part of the lead-out train for Andre Greipel, Hansen is a tough and powerful rider capable of his own wins (having won stages in the 2013 Giro d’Italia and 2014 Vuelta a Espana).
8. Richie Porte – All-rounder
Relatively new to the Tour, Porte has four consecutive starts between 2011 and 2014. He helped Alberto Contador to fifth place in the 2011 Tour de France (and first in the Giro d’Italia), and was also key in Brad Wiggins’ 2012 Tour win and Chris Froome’s win in 2013. Porte can climb and time trial, and is regarded by many as someone who can transition from his current super-domestique role at Team Sky to be a genuine future GC contender.
Perhaps Porte is a possible successor to the position held by Cadel Evans in Australian cycling, but he may need to move teams to get the opportunity in the Tour de France. I have written elsewhere about Richie Porte’s apparent qualities – for these reasons, and the potential he has demonstrated in a relatively short professional career thus far, I would have him as an unofficial co-captain on the road in support of …
9. Sir Hubert Opperman – Team Captain
‘Oppy’ is one of the most revered cyclists of all time in Australia. A long distance endurance rider with no peer, Hubert Opperman captured the imagination of this country with his remarkable cycling feats and numerous records. His contributions to Australian cycling both on home soil and abroad are second to none.
Oppy started and finished two Tours, including in 1928 (finished 18th) in a four-man team rather than 10 as was the norm of the day – made even more remarkable considering that year’s Tour included 15 team time trials. In the 1931 Tour de France Oppy finished a creditable 12th after crashing several times, getting dysentery, and reaching sixth in the GC at one point.
Oppy is my choice for Team Captain because of his position in the pantheon of Australian cycling, and the tough conditions of the era in which he rode at his peak – the equipment; support (or lack of); the training, nutrition and recovery practices; the road surfaces. There is no other rider on the list of 51 that would displace Oppy from this position in my view.
The value of picking a Team of the Century
Picking a Tour de France Team of the Century is a bit of harmless fun – something interesting to discuss or argue about with your fellow cycling friends. Do you include the dopers and cheats, or just the ‘angels’? Should the team only include the most successful, or is there room for the nice guys who never finish? Can a team like this be selected on sentiment and potential?
Whatever the thinking behind the Tour de France Team of the Century concept, for me the main point of the exercise is to highlight the history of Australia’s involvement at the Tour de France over the last 100 years.
Each and every one of the 51 Australian riders to have started in the Tour de France since 1914 are worth celebrating. The personal stories behind the journeys these individuals took from their first race to the Tour start line are an important part of Australia’s cycling heritage – even the cheats, the dopers, the fools and the larrikins.
Whoever the nine riders are from the list below that make the cut, I for one hope that Cycling Australia also has plans to preserve and celebrate the stories of every Australian cyclist who has ridden the Tour.
Maybe one day the history of Australia’s female Tour riders will also be celebrated by Cycling Australia – whether that be the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale / The Tour Cycliste Féminin, La Course, or the other Grand Tour equivalents over the years.
Who would be in your Australian Tour de France Team of the Century? From the list below you need to pick: two riders for the general classification, two key domestiques to support the general classification riders, one sprinter, two lead-out men for the sprinter, one all-rounder and one team captain.
The 51 Australians to have ridden the Tour de France
1. Don Kirkham (1914)
2. Iddo Munro (1914)
3. Ernest Bainbridge (1928)
4. Percy Osborne (1928)
5. Hubert Opperman (1928, 1931)
6. Frankie Thomas (1931)
7. Oserick Nicholson (1931)
8. Richard Lamb (1931)
9. John Beasley (1952, 1955)
10. Russell Mockridge (1955)
11. Bill Lawrie (1967)
12. Don Allan (1974, 1975)
13. Phil Anderson (1981-1987, 1989-1994)
14. Allan Peiper (1984, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1992)
15. Shane Sutton (1987)
16. Omar Palov (1987)
17. Michael Wilson (1988, 1989)
18. Stephen Hodge (1989-1992, 1994, 1995)
19. Neil Stephens (1992-1998)
20. Patrick Jonker (1994, 1996-1999)
21. Scott Sunderland (1996, 2004)
22. Henk Vogels (1997, 1999)
23. Robbie McEwen (1997-2000, 2002-2008, 2010)
24. Stuart O’Grady (1997-2013)
25. Jay Sweet (1999)
26. Brad McGee (2001-2005)
27. Baden Cooke (2002-2005, 2008, 2012)
28. Matthew Wilson (2003, 2004)
29. Michael Rogers (2003-2007, 2009, 2010, 2012-2014)
30. Nick Gates (2003, 2004)
31. Allan Davis (2004, 2005)
32. Cadel Evans (2005-2013)
33. Luke Roberts (2005, 2010)
34. Matt White (2005)
35. Simon Gerrans (2005,-2008, 2010-2014)
36. Brett Lancaster (2007-2010, 2012, 2013)
37. Heinrich Haussler (2007-2009, 2014)
38. Adam Hansen (2008, 2010, 2012-2014)
39. Mark Renshaw (2008-2012, 2014)
40. Trent Lowe (2008)
41. Matthew Lloyd (2009, 2010, 2012)
42. Wes Sulzberger (2010)
43. Matt Goss (2011-2013)
44. Richie Porte (2011-2014)
45. Jonathan Cantwell (2012)
46. Rohan Dennis (2013)
47. Simon Clarke (2013, 2014)
48. Cameron Meyer (2013)
49. Luke Durbridge (2014)
50. Mathew Hayman (2014)
51. Zak Dempster (2014)