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Greener Pastures

From the outset, Orica-GreenEDGE repeatedly said they do not harbour ambitions of targeting general classification at Grand Tours till at least 2015. However, things appeared to have changed. 

“For a sprinter or a classics rider like me, every week, every month you don’t win, is pretty unpleasant. You’re waiting; the team is waiting. I’m happy I’ve proven that I’m a captain again, and I can give back to my teammates what they give me.”

This is what Argos-Shimano’s John Degenkolb said after winning the fifth stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia, and in doing so, breaking an eight-month drought. Prior to his Giro stage victory, the German last won at the 2012 Vuelta a España, taking a superlative five-stage haul en route to becoming the top-ranked rider on the UCI Europe Tour last year. 

Since the team’s inception Brett Lancaster, Daryl Impey, Aidis Kruopis and Leigh Howard have all had a go in being the final lead-out man for Matthew Harley Goss, Orica-GreenEDGE’s lead sprinter experiencing varying degrees of success with each combination. The Tasmanian had two wins to his name in OGE’s maiden year, but only one of those was won in a sprint, at the 2012 Giro; the other was a team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico. Those races are again significant this season, because as I write this column, the latter is where Goss has picked up his only win to date and after toiling for two-and-a-half weeks without result, the 26-year-old quit the year’s first Grand Tour due to illness, as did many others including pre-race favourites Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal. 

Goss is not dissimilar in style to the aforementioned Degenkolb. In fact, they’re uncannily alike in capability and sprinting style. Not the fastest in a straight-out drag race but two of the most versatile in their category, preferring a hard parcours, and able to get over short-to-medium-length climbs that generally see guys like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel leave via the back door. But in the last 18 months, Degenkolb’s victory count has surpassed Goss by a factor of five. 

Last season we gave Orica-GreenEDGE a bit of leeway because the sprint train was new and besides, most of us were too parochial to criticise. They’ve now had a good year-and-a-half to get it right. And on plenty of occasions I think they have. But for all bar a few times, Goss has – and still is – missing that bit extra. Replay all the sprints he’s done this year and you’ll see his kick’s amiss. He just hasn’t been fast enough, which does not bode well for a man whose career – and earning potential – depends on his speed. 

When you’re a sprinter, second simply isn’t good enough. Just ask the man who won every single sprinters’ stage of the Giro there was to win and in process, took his career victory tally into triple-digit territory. “Today,” Cavendish said after clocking up his hundredth victory in Treviso, “if I do anything except win, it is regarded as losing. That’s how things have changed. I no longer win races; I lose them.” 

The next day – the longest of the race, and on a rain-soaked route he wasn’t expected to feature – he won again, showing complacency doesn’t exist in the world of the Manx Missile. “More than physically good, I’m mentally in a good place at the moment. Finally, I know what this team is capable of. So, more than in the legs, it puts me in good form in the head. If (the team has) put in every single last ounce of effort, I can do miraculous things, things I don’t believe are possible for me.” 

In Brescia, after his fifth and final stage win that also earned him the maglia rossa (points jersey), he put it quite simply, “I’m addicted to winning. Since I was a child, in everything I did, it wasn’t enough to be the best I could be; I had to be the best out of everyone. I’m paid good money and I have to win so, if someone comes along and beats me, I go home and work harder and come back faster.” 

Terribly unfortunate Goss is immersed a generation of sprinters that includes Cavendish, André Greipel, Peter Sagan, Kittel and Degenkolb – and that’s just the cream. 

Perhaps this in part has precipitated a change of tack for OGE earlier than envisaged. As early as October 2011, even before any of their riders had slipped on a skinsuit, Shayne Bannan, the team’s general manager told me, “we’ve publicly stated that in the first two or three years of GreenEdge, we’ll not be focusing on the GC at Grand Tours” and “we’re going to target guys we believe are projects for the future, developing (them) into Grand Tour riders”, as opposed to hiring riders already capable of vying for the podium after three weeks in the saddle. 

However at this year’s Giro, team owner and primary benefactor Gerry Ryan told Fairfax journalist Rupert Guinness, “What we want to do (for 2014) is look at the structure and the type of riders (the team wants). We need to find a couple of climbers. (As for) general classification riders, hopefully we already have a couple that are developing into ‘GC’ riders.” 

Added Ryan: “We would have liked Richie (Porte) to come on board.” 

Too late. 

The day before, May 8, Sky Procycling – depending on who you ask, one of the two the most moneyed teams in the business – announced they had extended Porte’s contract; team principal Sir Dave Brailsford implicitly guaranteeing Australian cycling’s hottest Grand Tour prospect a leadership role at next year’s Giro d’Italia. “Richie has been a key part this team’s stage race success since he arrived here and this new contract is a statement of intent for both him and the team,” Brailsford said. “Every time (Porte) has taken on a leadership role he has excelled. We saw at Paris-Nice exactly what Richie is capable of and there is no doubt that there is a lot more to come from him. If he maintains his current trajectory there is no reason why he can’t go in to a Grand Tour and challenge for victory.” 

“There was interest from other teams but Team Sky are the best in the world,” Porte said, “with the best staff and riders (…) and I know I can improve further working with the performance team we have here. With this new contract comes an added responsibility, and while I’m more than happy to help guys like Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the future, I’d love to lead the squad in a Grand Tour next season.” 

The following day, the 28-year-old from the Apple Isle told Cycling Central: “Sky can send two teams to two concurrent races, and still be competitive in both. It’s the best set-up team at the moment. I don’t just say that because I’ve re-signed. It just is. 

“It’s not about being unpatriotic or not,” he said. 

“This is a professional sport – I would never go to a team just because it’s Aussie or whatever. At the moment (Orica-GreenEDGE) is not a team where GC is a focus. If I was to go there you’d have to bring a few guys along with you. At this point in my career, I don’t need stress thinking about unknowns; I just want to put my head down and learn the trade, and here (at Sky) I can learn it off the best. I’d like to go the Giro next year and have a good crack at that. If I can do any Grand Tour as a leader, that’d be a dream, and I think that’ll happen for me next year.” 

That’s the thing. 

In his four years as pro bike rider, Porte will have served under the tutelage of Alberto Contador, Bradley Wiggins and Christopher Froome. He has been an integral part of Grand Tour-winning teams. He has had access to, and taken full advantage of, the best sports scientists, sport directors, team managers and support staff money can buy. In all likelihood, he will have a full team at his disposal at next year’s Giro, comprised of some of the world’s best domestiques. Had he chosen GreenEDGE, most of these things were unknown or unavailable, or at least for now, not at the level required to win a Grand Tour. 

“(OGE) is a young team, and they’re still learning the ropes. In the future, it’s not rocket science that that’s where I’d love to end up,” Porte said. “But for now, you just don’t leave a team like Sky when it’s performing like it is.” 

Perhaps it’s something more than that. In my interview with Will Walker at this year’s Tour of Toowoomba, the 2006 Australian road champion, who worked briefly at OGE as a development coach before staging a comeback last year with Drapac Professional Cycling told me, “There’s great Australian GC talents out there; obviously, a few of them won’t ever go to GreenEDGE because they’ve got differences with management – which is a real pity for Australian cycling.” 

I interjected. ‘Are you talking about Richie Porte?’ 

“Oh… well, it just sounds like three, four, five, good GC riders within Australia… the best five, none of them ride for GreenEDGE. It would be good to get them on board; cycling and GC and clean riders can all go together. Australians want to see Australian GC-riders riding the Tour de France, riding for Orica-GreenEDGE, so you just need to get them on board. Stage wins are great, but with (up to) thirty riders on a roster, I think you can have more than one aim.” 

Three, four, five good GC riders? Taking an educated guess, that could include Porte (Sky), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Michael Rogers and Rory Sutherland (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Garmin-Sharp young guns Rohan Dennis and Lachlan Morton. Whatever the reason for the aforementioned eschewing OGE or vice versa, it places a not insignificant amount of pressure on the 25-year-old shoulders of OGE’s West Australian connection Cameron Meyer and dual national champion Luke Durbridge. Granted, Meyer and Durbridge represent two of the biggest talents to come of the Australian Institute of Sport, however both are three to five years away from discovering whether they are indeed Grand Tour podium potential.

Whatever the case, with the contracts of 10 Orica-GreenEDGE riders expiring by year’s end, change is afoot. Ryan, Australian cycling’s Mother Teresa, told Fairfax in May that “we need to look at the whole team – the management and riders. It’s not just the short-term. We want to look at the management structure here and the rider roster. But we are going to make a decision,” he said. “We have a prospect list.” 

By the way, Richie, don’t forget: the 2014 Giro starts in Belfast, Ireland. Can’t wait to see you there.

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