Australian possibilities abound at this year’s same but different Tour de France

In recent years, Australian cycling fans have had three primary narratives to follow during the Tour de France. Tasmanian climber Richie Porte would be challenging for the yellow jersey, despite his persistent misfortune. Pocket-rocket sprinter Caleb Ewan would be out for stage wins, eager for vindication after not being selected for the race in his younger years. And Team BikeExchange, the only Australian-registered World Tour team, would be challenging in the general classification battle with one or both of the Yates twins.

In some respects, the 2021 edition of the Tour – which begins on Saturday – feels like more of the same. Porte is back again with Ineos Grenadiers, Lotto Soudal’s Ewan is the fastest sprinter in the peloton and Englishman Simon Yates headlines the BikeExchange roster. But under closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that this year’s Tour could offer particularly rich pickings for Australians who brave the long winter nights to follow the action in summery France. With the Olympics just four weeks away, the 108th Tour de France is set to provide a perfect sporting entrée ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Start with the yellow jersey contest. Last year Tadej Pogačar pounced on the penultimate stage to dethrone compatriot Primož Roglič. The Slovenian rivals will roll out on Saturday sharing the “favourite” tag – on individual ability the pair will be hard to beat, and the battle between them will be scintillating. But if Ineos are to triumph, the British team know that team work will be required. That offers up an opportunity for Porte.

“With the team that we have, [Pogačar] cannot follow all of us,” the Australian said this week. “There should be four of us up there, hopefully, when we hit the mountains. We have such a strong team. That’s our trump card.”

While Porte has insisted that he is in France as a support rider, with 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas considered the Ineos lead, the need for team tactics could shake up the standings. Porte, Thomas, Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart are all genuine contenders, with Porte in particularly strong form, winning the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. The 36-year-old may not be expecting to better his podium finish at last year’s Tour, but if the cards fall in his favour, Porte has the wiles to challenge for the yellow jersey.

But this year, Australia’s long-time general classification hope is not the only one with an eye on the overall clock. Twenty-five-year-old Ben O’Connor, making his Tour debut, is expected to be the protected rider for French outfit AG2R Citroën. The Perth-born climber showed his ability on the mountains at the Giro d’Italia last year, finishing second on stage 16 and then winning the next day. He is also in good form, with top 10 overall finishes at the recent Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné. While aiming for the yellow jersey on debut is a bold gambit, O’Connor is undaunted. “I just figure if things don’t work out as you hope, you can always go for a stage win,” he told CyclingNews recently.

Jack Haig, 27, will also be in the yellow jersey mix as he spreads his wings at Bahrain Victorious, following a long stint at BikeExchange. Haig has long been touted as a general classification contender, but saw limited opportunities at the Australian outfit as they prioritised the Yates twins and Esteban Chaves. Having made the switch, Haig will lead Bahrain in France, and also rolls out in fine form – finishing fifth at Dauphiné.

Away from the mountains, Ewan will be a firm favourite on the flat. The Australian sprint king won two stages at the Giro in May and wants to become the first rider in nearly two decades to win a stage at all three Grand Tours in the same year. Although some of the initial stages are less-sprint friendly than usual, Ewan is almost certain to take the opportunities once they present. He is also a dark horse for the overall green sprinter’s jersey, following the late withdrawal of 2020 winner Sam Bennett (unless Ewan chooses to depart early, as he did in Italy, to prepare for the final Grand Tour of the season, in Spain).

Finally, BikeExchange bring a mixed bag of tricks to Le Tour. Simon Yates is back, but after finishing third at the Giro he has made clear he will be riding for stages rather than the overall classification. In his place, BikeExchange will give an opportunity to debutant Lucas Hamilton – a 25-year-old Australian – who has had a string of top 10 finishes this year. Like Haig, Hamilton has been hailed for his talent since a young age. Albeit now on different teams, the two will finally have their chance to shine in the weeks ahead. Michael Matthews, three-time stage winner and 2017 green jersey holder, is another option for BikeExchange. The puncheur is well suited to some of the tougher sprint finishes.

All up, 10 Australian riders will roll out from Brest this weekend for a three-week, 3,417km epic. With Australian possibilities in the mountains, on the flat and in between, the 2021 Tour de France shapes up as one of the most exciting yet for domestic viewers.