Who is Australia’s greatest ever Tour de France rider?
Sick of the Chris Froome saga? Tired of the negativity surrounding pro cycling and the Tour de France? In the following article Craig Fry takes us on a positive trip down memory lane, answering the question: who is Australia’s greatest ever Tour de France rider? Who has made the biggest impact, or achieved the most in this race? And by what criteria would you choose?
Australian cyclists have been chasing their dreams in the Tour de France ever since our first two pioneers, Don Kirkham and Iddo Munro, defied all expectations by finishing the 1914 edition. In more than a century since, 56 Aussies have made the Tour start line a total of 205 times.
Australians have pretty much done it all at the Tour de France. We have won the race overall, taken multiple stages, spent time in and won all but one of the classification jerseys, and stood on the podium dozens of times.
But who is the best Australian Tour de France rider ever? Is it an early pioneer from harder times, or one of the many modern-day riders? Is Australia’s best Tour rider the one with the longest career, the most wins, or simply one of the characters of cycling?
By results alone, most would probably argue Cadel Evans is Australia’s best Tour de France rider to date. He won the race overall in 2011, wore the yellow general classification leader’s jersey multiple times (in 2008, 2010, 2011), and holds the record for the most GC top-10 finishes by an Australian. He achieved that last feat six times in all: he was eighth in 2005, fourth in 2006, second in 2007 and 2008, first in 2011, and seventh in 2012. Evans also has Australia’s best Tour de France debut performance to date, with his eighth on GC in 2005.
If that wasn’t enough, Evans also won Tour stages in 2007 (stage 13) and 2011 (stage 4), finished all nine Tours that he started, spent time in the polka dot climber’s jersey (after stages 4-5 in 2011), and stood on the podium another 11 times with six seconds and five thirds on Tour stages.
It’s an impressive tally for sure. But, with due acknowledgement of the significance of his 2011 Tour victory, I wouldn’t rate Cadel as our best. Greatness can be measured by other things besides race wins.
In 1928, ‘Oppy’ led the second Australian team to ride the Tour de France. That team was sponsored by Dunlop and Ravat-Wonder (a French bicycle and motorcycle maker), and was made up of Harry Watson (NZ road champion), Ernie Bainbridge, and Percy Osborn. Remarkably, even without the same team support the Europeans had, Oppy finished the 1928 Tour the best of the Australians, in 18th overall.
Oppy returned to the Tour de France in 1931 with a team including Frank Thomas, Ossie Nicholson, and Richard Lamb. He did better this time with a fourth in the 209km stage 20 from Belfort to Colmar, and was 12th overall by Tour’s end. His results would stand as Australia’s best for 50 years.
Beyond those personal results, Oppy would also later play an important role in getting Australia’s next Tour de France team to Europe. He chaired the International Jubilee Trust, a fundraising initiative from the Sporting Globe newspaper and leading bike companies of the day, which sent John Beasley, Dean Whitehorn, Peter Anthony, and Eddie Smith to France in 1952.
Only Beasley would ride the 1952 Tour, and again with the support of Oppy returned in 1955 with Russell Mockridge to ride with the Luxembourg International team – the last time Australia would have more than one rider in an edition of the Tour de France until the mid 1980s.
Hubert Opperman was one of Australia’s ‘best’ Tour de France riders. The teams Oppy led and later supported first showed the world — and a still-young country forging its own identity — that it was possible for Australian cyclists to hold their own against Europe’s best.
Oppy was a significant figure in world cycling. But it would take a 23-year-old Commonwealth Games champion from the Hawthorn Cycling Club to first prove definitively that, beyond just making the Tour de France start line, Australian success was possible in the greatest race of all.
Phil Anderson finally surpassed Oppy’s Tour de France results by winning the yellow leaders jersey on stage 6 in 1981 (his debut year), and backed that up in 1982 by winning another stage and wearing the yellow jersey again after stages 2 to 11. It was a watershed moment in world cycling – ‘Skippy’ Anderson had become the first Australian and first non-European to wear the yellow jersey.
Anderson also won Australia’s first Tour stages nearly a decade apart (stage 2 1982, stage 10 1991) – no small feat when you consider it would take another six years after that until the next Australian won at the Tour (Neil Stephens in 1997).
Phil Anderson’s Tour de France achievements also include winning the white jersey for best young rider in 1982, five top-10 GC finishes (10th in 1981, fifth in 1982, ninth in 1983, 10th in 1984 and fifth in 1985), and a 100% completion record for his 13 starts.
There’d be few who would dispute the contributions of Oppy and Skippy as Australian Tour de France pioneers. I’d argue they’re the most significant in terms of impact on cycling, but they’re still not our best Tour riders ever in my view.
Robbie McEwen gets my vote as Australia’s best ever Tour de France rider for a number of reasons. By the numbers, he has an unsurpassed list of achievements in his 11 finishes from 12 Tour starts. Consider the following:
– McEwen is responsible for nearly half of Australia’s 30 individual Tour wins, with 12 stage wins (One in 1999, two in 2002, two in 2004, three in 2005, three in 2006, and one in 2007).
– He is 17th on the all-time list of most Tour de France stage wins.
– McEwen’s Tour podium tally also includes 10 seconds, and six thirds.
– In 2002 he became the first Australian to win the sprinter’s points classification in the Tour, and repeated that in 2004 and 2006.
– McEwen also wore the yellow jersey in 2004 after winning stage 3.
Beyond the results, McEwen is also a standout because of the way he rode. In the simplest of terms, McEwen was an exciting bike rider to watch – his sprinting was far more interesting than a time-trialist against the clock, and more relatable than robotic by-the-numbers riding. And his Tour results are all the more impressive considering the times he was without a lead-out train for the finishes, or otherwise lacking support from his own team who had other goals. McEwen had race smarts, and knew how to win.
Robbie McEwen was also aggressive and uncompromising. Who could forget the 2002 Tour de France when it was reported that McEwen said to a pushy Lance Armstrong: “Shut your mouth, or I will fill it with my fist.” In his book, McEwen gives a simpler version: “I told him to get fucked. To me, he was just another rider. He didn’t like that, because he was the big boss of the peloton.”
There are many other stand-out McEwen moments from the Tour too – his head clash with Stuart O’Grady in the finish of stage 3 in 2005, his clashes with Baden Cooke in 2003, his run-ins with Oscar Freire, and his finish-line wheelies of course. And what about him winning those Tour stages in the Australian national champion’s jersey in 2002 (stage 3) and 2005 (stages 5, 7, 13) – a sight too rarely seen at the Tour de France.
Of course, every single Australian rider to have made the Tour start line since 1914 is worth celebrating. A long list of opportunist stage winners, domestiques, sprinters, climbers, and GC prospects have carried the Aussie flag to the Tour de France. They have all inspired someone, somewhere who was watching them.
But it was Oppy who first attracted widespread attention in the Tour, Anderson who first started winning, and McEwen who had the sustained success combined with a character and approach to riding that was so exciting to watch. Those three Australians have had the biggest impact as Tour de France riders in my opinion, and of them McEwen was the best.
This Saturday, July 7, 11 Australians will cross the start line at Île de Noirmoutier to begin the 2018 Tour de France. Among them, Michael Hepburn and Rory Sutherland will become Australia’s 57th and 58th Tour debutantes. They’ll both have important support roles for their respective team leaders.
So too, the other nine Aussies at the 2018 Tour (Simon Gerrans, Heinrich Haussler, Mark Renshaw, Richie Porte, Simon Clarke, Luke Durbridge, Mathew Hayman, Michael Matthews, Damien Howson) will have their own goals, hopes, and dreams for how they want the race to unfold.
Does that Australian Tour de France class of 2018 contain a Tour rider better than what we’ve seen already? Or will our best ever come from a future debutante? Will we ever see another Australian Tour de France winner, or someone who wins it twice or more? Is there an Aussie sprinter who will one day surpass McEwen’s 12 stage wins and other achievements?
What do you think? Who is Australia’s greatest ever Tour de France rider?
About the author
Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer based in Melbourne. His writing has appeared in CyclingTips, Cyclist Aus/NZ magazine, Cycling Weekly, SBS Cycling Central, The Conversation, and The Age.