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By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP2003
It’s been a long time coming but the Aussie presence at this year’s Tour de France is going to reach record levels.
A potential seven Australian professionals, riding for four teams, are being lined up for this year’s centenary race and although that’s no mean feat, just wait till the race itself gets underway next Saturday, July 5.
No-nonsense Queenslander Robbie McEwen, who rides for the Belgian Lotto outfit, pulled off a coup of sorts when he ended Erik Zabel’s bid to win a seventh straight green points jersey.
However McEwen, who goes into the race a little less primed than at this time last year, will not be the only Antipodean stealing the limelight on those mass sprints at the finishes.
Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com), who on last year’s Tour among the top-seven finishers in five stages, is back from recent health and injury scares and will be hoping to get one better than his more experienced countryman.
Stuart O’Grady, of the Crédit Agricole team, will also be fighting it out at the finishes in a bid to repeat his excellent campaign of 2001. But before the Tour heads off for the stages proper, the Aussies could be celebrating an historic yellow jersey win on the first day’s prologue, a 6.5 km ride in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Bradley McGee, who won his first stage last year for the French lottery-backed Fdjeux.com team of former Paris-Roubaix winner Marc Madiot, gave his stock a boost for this campaign when he won this Wednesday’s time trial in the 10-day Tour of Switzerland.
A day earlier Michael Rogers, on the back of overall stage race wins on the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of Germany, handed his Belgian Quick Step team the perfect pre-Tour confidence boost by cruising to overall victory on the Route du Sud.
Rogers’ blistering time trial performance on the third day of the four-day race left his closest rival Nicolas Vogondy of France at a massive 1:51 in second place.
It had the French cycling media in a frenzy and must have prompted Lance Armstrong, among others, to reconsider their chances of pulling on the golden tunic on the opening day of the centenary Tour.
Rogers admits he has been harboring ambitions of doing well on this year’s Tour, the 90th edition and the climax to which is building steadily in the country despite their own lack of a potential winner.
But the 23-year-old from Canberra, who, confusingly for many, is bubbling with enthusiasm to tackle the grueling Alps and Pyrenees, admits he will do well to just finish the race.
“I’m both nervous because it’s my Tour debut and excited because I am taking such great form in to the race,” said Rogers after his third big win of the season when he won the Route du Sud.
“I really want to take the yellow jersey on the first day, that’s my major aim, then secondly I want to finish the event.”
Along with Armstrong, world time trial champion Santiago Botero (Telekom), and fellow Aussie McGee must be considered a favorite for what will be a very special yellow jersey.
Another time trial specialist, Laszlo Bodrogi, could also feature. However Rogers left his Quick Step team-mate in the dust on that Route du Sud race against the clock, the powerful Hungarian finishing 10th at over two minutes behind.
Rogers added: “It’s a very big experience for me and a very important one especially physically because I want to learn what my limits are. “I still don’t know that and I’d really like to have a go on one of the days in the Alps and maybe the Pyrenees as well to understand where I’m at and how far I can push myself.
“I’m having a fantastic month. My team knows I have good form and if I can take the (yellow) jersey it will be fantastic but if not they are already stoked with my three wins in a row and reckon anything else will be a bonus.”
|“I am absolutely rapt and a little bit shocked. I knew I was strong and felt good, but it was a perfect ride and to do that against guys like Ullrich was amazing.”
– Bradley McGee
McGee meanwhile has been honing his mountain climbing skills in a bid to become a more complete rider for the race. But the 27-year-old, the world individual pursuit champion, was given a quick reminder in midweek of where his main strengths lie.
“I am absolutely rapt and a little bit shocked,” said McGee after his victory in the 33km race against the clock. “I knew I was strong and felt good but it was a perfect ride and to do that against guys like Ullrich was amazing. “I actually feel I’m in better form this year than at the same time last year and I’ll be looking at the prologue and the individual time trial but I’m up for whatever challenges come along.
“I suppose the big question is whether I’m going to fatigue because I’ve pretty much done 18 straight days of racing. I can’t see that happening though as I’m feeling great.”
McGee and Cooke could be joined by fellow Aussie Matthew Wilson is the New South Wales rider gets the nod from Fdjeux.com boss Madiot on Sunday.
Until then, McGee is heading back ‘home’ to Nice to hone his sprint finishing with Cooke.
“I’ll be working on a few little things like sprint training with Cookie,” explained McGee who during the Tour will be Cooke’s lead out man in the sprint finishes.
“We actually practice lead outs and my brother Rod is over here so he’ll hop on the motorbike and set the pace to mimic speed of the main bunch in the final kilometers of a Tour stage.
“It’s the only way you can get the feeling of the speed you need.”
Also in the running for inclusion in the Tour is another New South Wales rider, Nick Gates, who rides with McEwen at Lotto.