In recent years, Australian cycling fans have had three main stories to follow during the Tour de France. Tasmanian climber Richie Porte would be a challenge for the yellow jersey, despite his continuing misfortune. Pocket sprinter Caleb Ewan is said to be chasing stage wins, hungry for justification after not being selected for the race in his youth. And Team BikeExchange, the only Australian team registered on the World Tour, would be a challenge in the overall standings battle with one or both of the Yates twins.
In some ways, the 2021 edition of the Tour – which starts on Saturday – looks more like the same. Porte is back with Ineos Grenadiers, Ewan from Lotto Soudal is the fastest sprinter in the peloton and Englishman Simon Yates is top of the BikeExchange list. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this year’s Tour could offer particularly rich choices for Australians braving the long winter nights to catch the action in summer France. Just four weeks away from the Olympic Games, the 108th Tour de France should offer a perfect entry to the sport before the Tokyo Games.
Start with the yellow jersey competition. Last year, Tadej Pogačar set off on the penultimate stage to dethrone his compatriot Primož Roglič. The Slovenian rivals will roll out on Saturday sharing the ‘favorite’ tag – individually the pair will be tough to beat, and the battle between them will be scintillating. But if Ineos is to triumph, the British team know that teamwork will be necessary. This provides an opportunity for Porte.
“With the team we have, [Pogačar] can’t follow us all, ”the Aussie said this week. “Hopefully there should be four of us up there when we reach the mountains. We have such a strong team. This is our trump card. ”
While Porte has insisted he is in France as a support rider, with 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas seen as the head of Ineos, the need for team tactics could turn the standings upside down. Porte, Thomas, Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart are all real contenders, with Porte in particularly strong form, winning the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. The 36-year-old might not expect to improve his podium in last year’s Tour, but if the cards fall in his favor, Porte has the trick of fighting for the yellow jersey.
But this year, Australia’s longtime overall hopeful isn’t the only one watching the clock. Ben O’Connor, 25, who is making his Tour debut, is expected to be the protected driver of the French team AG2R Citroën. The Perth-born climber showed his mountain skills at the Giro d’Italia last year, finishing second in stage 16 and then winning the next day. He is also in good shape, with top 10 overall rankings in the recent Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné. While aiming for the yellow jersey for his debut is a daring gamble, O’Connor doesn’t let himself be put off. “I just think if things don’t go the way you hope you can still aim for a stage win,” he recently told CyclingNews.
Jack Haig, 27, will also be in the yellow jersey as he spreads his wings at Bahrain Victorious, after a long stint at BikeExchange. Haig has long been touted as an overall contender but saw limited opportunities within the Australian squad as they prioritized twins Yates and Esteban Chaves. After making the switch, Haig will lead Bahrain in France, and also rides in good shape – finishing fifth at the Dauphiné.
Away from the mountains, Ewan will be a favorite on the flat. The Australian sprint king won two Giro stages in May and wants to become the first rider in nearly two decades to win a stage of all three Grand Tours in the same year. While some of the initial stages are less sprint-friendly than usual, Ewan is almost certain to seize opportunities once they arise. He’s also a dark horse for the overall sprinter’s green jersey, following the late retirement of 2020 winner Sam Bennett (unless Ewan chooses to leave early, as he did in Italy, to prepare for the final Grand Tour of the season, in Spain).
Finally, BikeExchange brings a mix of tips to the Tour. Simon Yates is back, but after finishing third in the Giro, he made it clear that he will be racing for the stages rather than the general classification. In its place, BikeExchange will give the opportunity to debutant Lucas Hamilton – a 25-year-old Australian – who finished in the top 10 this year. Like Haig, Hamilton has been hailed for his talent from a young age. Although now in different teams, the two will finally have their chance to shine in the weeks to come. Michael Matthews, triple stage winner and holder of the 2017 green jersey, is another option for BikeExchange. the puncher is well suited to some of the more difficult sprint finishes.
In total, 10 Australian runners will leave Brest this weekend for an epic of 3,417 km over three weeks. With Australian possibilities in the mountains, on the flat and in between, the 2021 Tour de France is shaping up to be one of the most exciting yet for domestic viewers.