Orica emerges as GC contender — on its own terms

After five seasons in the peloton, the Australia-based team has become a GC threat in grand tours and other stage races.

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One of the top stories for 2016 was the emergence of Orica – BikeExchange as a solid grand tour unit. Since its debut in 2012, the Australia-based outfit was committed to breakaways, stage-hunting, time trials, and one-day classics. That tactic paid off with some spectacular wins, including victories in the monuments, grand tour stages, and the Tour de France yellow jersey in 2013.

Fast-forward five years, and the team’s go-slow philosophy of nurturing homegrown GC talent paid off handsomely in 2016. Esteban Chaves was second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España, while Adam Yates just missed the podium with fourth in the Tour de France, results largely unthinkable for the team just a year or two ago.

“We already knew last year we’d be fighting for the top 10 of the Vuelta, and it seemed like it was a big surprise to everyone else, but we had that in our minds already,” said Orica sport director Neil Stephens. “It’s been on the timeline we thought. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how big of a surprise it is for you guys [the media].”

Australia’s first WorldTour team was born five years ago with a heavy Down Under accent, with 19 of its initial core group of riders from Australia. Initially the squad resisted pressure to sign a big-ticket GC leader, and instead invested in young, promising riders like Chaves and the Yates brothers by signing them in 2014 with an eye toward a future payoff.

Orica’s confidence in the Colombian, who was seriously injured in a crash early in 2013, was paid back in spades when he won two stages and finished fifth overall at the 2015 Vuelta. That result was key toward cementing the team’s new GC focus coming into this season.

“The team never stopped believing in me,” Chaves said. “I believe someday I can win a grand tour, and the results over the past two years seem to show that. Without the team’s support, nothing is possible.”

Team captain Simon Gerrans, who’s won Milano-Sanremo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with the team, said he welcomes the team’s broader focus even if that means he might have fewer chances to shine individually.

“The team is growing and evolving, and when you look back at how fast we’ve changed the focus, it was only last year at the [2015] Vuelta that we started to focus on the GC,” Gerrans said. “So when you think about where we started, we’ve evolved rather quickly. We’re a work in progress, but it’s come along very fast.”

Gerrans admits the dynamic of the team’s strategy changes dramatically when there is a rider like Chaves or Adam Yates riding for a top-5 finish in a grand tour. The focus changes from day-to-day to a longer vision of consistency over three weeks, and he admits that his personal ambitions will be curtailed in some races.

“I think anytime we hit the mountains in the grand tours, our car was in position 20 in the convoy. Now it’s a completely different mindset,” Gerrans said. “Back then, it was all out for one particular day, and then recover for the next objective. GC racing is a completely different concept.

“I find it difficult to juggle the two objectives. If I’ve been given the goal of going for a result, I can completely focus on that,” he said. “Things can get complicated, when you try to do too much and get greedy. You see teams going for stage wins, points jersey and the GC, and often it goes well for a little while, but then it all comes crumbling down. When you have a real GC contender, you’re better off focusing solely on that.”

Other Orica riders say the team’s broader focus means changes for everyone. Veteran domestique Svein Tuft, for example, would typically stay hidden in the gruppetto to save his strength for key breakaways or time trial stages, but with Chaves riding for GC at this year’s Giro, he was right at the front of the peloton nearly every day.

Tuft has been on the front row of changes at Orica. In 2014, he was among just two of the team’s nine riders who finished that year’s Giro. Two years later, the team was banging on the door for overall victory.

“It does change the way we have to race. It makes it a lot more stressful. There is no just riding in the pack and waiting for a moment to try something,” Tuft said. “When you have Esteban riding for the podium at the Giro, you have to be at the front all the time. It’s rewarding, though, to see the results you can achieve working as a team.”

Bolstered by its GC success this season, the team will rally around Chaves and the Yates brothers again in the grand tours next season. With the addition of Roman Kreuziger, the team believes it can be competitive across all major stage races on the 2017 UCI WorldTour calendar. Riders will still have their chances in the classics, time trials, and the occasional sprint, but the switch to GC focus was confirmed with the departure of Michael Matthews to Team Sunweb – Giant for 2017.

“It’s a real pleasant part of the process, to be moving, to develop teams to get results in the grand tours,” Stephens said. “We’ve changed over the years, we’ve had to change the members of the team. We’re not mature yet to go for stages and GC. Before, we went for stages, and now we’re going for GC. We cannot do everything, so we have a bit of room to keep developing.”

The team certainly hasn’t forgotten its roots, with Mathew Hayman winning Paris-Roubaix in 2016, and the emergence of Caleb Ewan as a top sprinter. For 2017, however, the team will continue to spread its GC wings.

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