Lucas Hamilton, Australia’s most mellow Grand Tour hope

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Lucas Hamilton mightn’t yet be Australian road cycling’s biggest star, but he could well be on his way. After a breakout 2019 season, including a particularly impressive Giro d’Italia, Hamilton appears to be on an exciting trajectory.

Hamilton is heading back to the Giro this year — again in support of Simon Yates — but will likely get his own Grand Tour opportunity at the Vuelta. And as Matt de Neef writes, when big opportunities like these come Hamilton’s way in the months and years ahead, the country boy’s laid-back demeanour will certainly work in his favour.

The 2019 Giro d’Italia will be remembered for several reasons. For Giulio Ciccone’s stirring win after a rain-soaked visit to the Mortirolo; for Esteban Chaves’ emotional stage victory after a challenging few seasons; and of course for Richard Carapaz’s overall success.

It might also be remembered as the race where Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) announced himself on the world stage; where the then-23-year-old Aussie took a demonstrative step forward in what is shaping up as a promising career.

“For me the biggest revelation of this Giro is Lucas Hamilton,” said Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White at the time. “The way he rode in his first Grand Tour was impressive. The kid’s got a lot of potential.”

Hamilton went into that debut Grand Tour as a climbing domestique for Simon Yates and performed admirably. Where Grand Tour debutants — and indeed most riders — tend to fade in the final week of a three-week race, Hamilton held strong to the end. In the final mountain stage, just a day before the race’s conclusion, Hamilton was still up front with Yates, riding strongly, helping his leader to eighth overall. Hamilton himself finished 16th on that penultimate stage on his way to 25th overall — the highest-placed Australian. It was a commendable return for a second-year pro.

Looking back now, Hamilton views his ride at the 2019 Giro with a sense of understated pride.

“To be honest, I probably went in with very little expectations,” Hamilton told CyclingTips on the eve of the 2020 Tour Down Under. “First Grand Tour — I didn’t really know how I’d perform over three weeks at all.

“I put in the hard work. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I had really good preparation. I had a perfect run-in with no injuries, no sickness. And coming out of it I was really happy.

“I think the biggest thing for me was on the last day up to stage 20 — the last day was a TT — but stage 20 was probably the hardest stage of the tour, and I was doing really well. I didn’t quite crack. So for me, that was a big confidence booster heading into another year and another Grand Tour. I was pretty happy with myself.”

Hamilton on the eve of the 2019 Giro d’Italia, his first Grand Tour.

Hamilton joined the WorldTour with Mitchelton-Scott in 2018 after an impressive stint in the U23 ranks. In 2017 he put himself on the map with second overall at the Baby Giro (where he won the individual time trial), overall victory at the Tour Alsace, and fourth overall at the Tour de l’Avenir — widely regarded as the Tour de France for U23s. All of those results suggested a young rider with great stage racing potential.

Now in his third season in the pro ranks Hamilton has spent most of his time in a support role, as is the norm for riders making the step up to the big leagues. Hamilton has excelled in that support role. Case in point: his ride on stage 5 at the recent Tour Down Under. Hamilton’s pace on a late climb shredded the peloton to just 10 riders, three of them from Mitchelton-Scott. It was a brilliant ride in support of team leader Daryl Impey that didn’t just show Hamilton’s ability to play a crucial team role, but also his world-class climbing ability.

“It’s always good for the confidence when you rip it and that happens,” Hamilton said at the time. “I love that sort of stuff.”

And while he’s impressed as a domestique, Hamilton has had his own opportunities too. And when those opportunities have come along, he’s made the most of them.

While he spent most of the 2019 Giro riding for Yates, stage 7 gave Hamilton his own chance. He got in the day-long breakaway and battled on as the group splintered in the tough closing kilometres. He finished fourth, just nine seconds behind stage winner Pello Bilbao — his best result in a WorldTour race.

Hamilton finishing fourth from the break on stage 7 of the 2019 Giro.

He’s had leadership roles too. At the six-stage, UCI 2.1 Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, in the lead-up to last year’s Giro, Hamilton led Mitchelton-Scott and rode away with the overall victory. A few months later, at the UCI 2.1 Czech Cycling Tour in August, Hamilton won a stage and finished second overall behind Impey.

The Ararat local is grateful for these opportunities, and appreciates the combination of roles he was given throughout the 2019 season — from trusty domestique, to outright leader.

“I think last year I had a good mixture of learning,” he said in January 2020. “I think it’s key for myself to ride in those support roles, late support roles, so I learn a bit more about how those leaders do it. How someone like Simon [Yates] takes on that responsibility and performs. And then I’ve got roles at Coppi e Bartali and Czech and I grabbed the bull by the horns and was able to pull off a stage in Czech and overall at Coppi.

“This year I hope to step it up again and maybe [at] a little bit bigger races and keep that trajectory going.”

One of those bigger races will likely be the Vuelta a España — the season’s final Grand Tour and the race most commonly used to introduce up-and-coming GC contenders to the rigours of Grand Tour leadership.

“I’ll definitely have more opportunities there,” Hamilton said of the Vuelta. “I’ll be in less of a support role and probably a little bit more protected. I don’t know if I’ll be outright leader, but just enough to take my own opportunities.”

Hamilton (left), Damien Howson (centre) and Nick Schultz (right) went 1-2-3 for Mitchelton-Scott at the 2019 Coppi e Bartali.

It’s nearly a decade since Cadel Evans became Australia’s only Grand Tour winner. Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) is likely heading towards his final years as a pro. Rohan Dennis has shelved his Grand Tour GC ambitions. As things stand, many Australian cycling fans are waiting for a new Grand Tour contender to emerge; someone to cheer for on the biggest stage.

Jack Haig has made promising strides in that direction in recent years, and the likes of Ben O’Connor, Rob Power and Jai Hindley have all shown flashes of brilliance. But Hamilton might well have the greatest potential of them all.

But if the 24-year-old has specific Grand Tour ambitions — like winning the Tour de France, say — he’s not saying so publicly. At this stage, he’s hard-pressed to pinpoint a victory or feat that, come career’s end, he’d love to have beside his name.

“I don’t think I have anything specifically,” he said. “I think I’m taking that more general classifications pathway now. I’ll sort of play it year by year. If I do a couple of leadership roles in Grand Tours … and I get close, then I might say, ‘Well, actually, I wouldn’t mind having one of these in the bag by the time I retire.’ But I don’t want to set too many long term goals without really trying it first.

“I’ve only done one Grand Tour, so you never know. The Giro was nice but maybe I’ll have a bad one around the corner.”

Hamilton shredded this year’s Tour Down Under peloton on a late climb on stage 5.

There’s no doubt 2019 was a breakout season for Hamilton. His team recognised that too, extending his contract through 2021. They’ll be heartened to see that 2020 has started in promising fashion as well.

In his first outing of the year, Hamilton finished second in the Australian Nationals road race, behind teammate Cameron Meyer. And then at the Tour Down Under he finished a solid ninth overall, riding in support of teammates Impey and Yates.

Hamilton now turns his attention to the European season as he builds towards a return to the Giro. Like last year he’ll ride in support of Yates who will be looking to recapture the form that saw him win three stages and lead for more than half the race in 2018.

“We’ll go back there and hopefully produce the goods,” Hamilton said. “We’ve seen what Simon can do there a couple years ago. I’m really looking forward to trying to help him.”

Despite the rain on stage 5 of the 2019 Giro, Hamilton was still all-smiles.

While others might be hoping that Hamilton turns out to be “the next Cadel”, Hamilton doesn’t seem the type to be affected by the weight of expectation. From the outside he’s the definition of chilled-out country boy — calm, relaxed, and nigh on unflappable. His sports director Matt White has noticed that too, and said as much after last year’s Giro.

“He was the youngest rider on our team, but he has a presence and character about him,” White said. “He handles the pressure well.”

That’s a trait that will serve him well as he starts to take on leadership roles at bigger, more important races.

“I think you see a lot of the big leaders — they sort of take it in their stride a bit and they don’t get too overwhelmed by it,” Hamilton said of the pressure. “Maybe they may come off boring sometimes to the media … but at the end of day it’s the way they go about their job and most of the time they get it done.

“So for sure I think you’ve got to be pretty relaxed. It’s pretty hard to stay mentally and physically on it for three weeks without deteriorating by the end.”

Hamilton has only completed one Grand Tour but, based on that performance, you’d have to say he’s well-suited to the rigours of three-week racing. He’ll only get stronger and more resilient as the years go by.

Perhaps in a few years he’ll be a Grand Tour contender in his own right. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless of which way it goes, you have to imagine that he’ll take it in his stride.

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