O’Grady still leads the way 17 Tours later

Stuart O’Grady enters the last five kilometres of Wednesday’s time trial of the Tour de France. He looks up from his aerodynamic tuck on the handlebars. In a moment ever so rare in his 18-year professional career, he allows himself to take in the breathtaking view ahead of him: the majestic sight of the mediaeval Mont Saint Michel, coming closer with every pedal stroke.
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O’Grady, 39, and in his 17th Tour, is in awe of what he sees. Later, after finishing a modest 129th in the 33-kilometre race (nearly five minutes behind German world champion and stage winner Tony Martin), he unashamedly admits that he found the moment greater than the race.

”It was pretty dramatic. I saw it with about five kilometres to go and I was more interested in having a look at that than the time trial. I lost my focus,” O’Grady told Fairfax Media. ”Everyone goes on back home about how beautiful the Tour is – the castles and mountains. We don’t see anything. We just see 200 Lycra-clad arses. So it’s nice to be able to look at something here. I can’t wait for the day I retire and can look at it as well – evidently it is beautiful.”

O’Grady has every right to enjoy these moments in the latter years of a career that, since 1995, has made him one of Australia’s most celebrated cyclists.

Not that he is finished. O’Grady still has plenty of work to do in this year’s Tour for Orica-GreenEDGE, the Australian team with which he recently re-signed for another year. He is the team’s captain-on-the-road for the vast experience, tactical nous and mentoring ability that he can offer.

But O’Grady’s Tour feats before joining Orica-GreenEDGE make him a standout. In 1998, he became the second Australian after Phil Anderson to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. He wore it for three days and later at Grenoble, he won stage 14 in a superb breakaway tussle to the line.

O’Grady claimed the yellow jersey again in 2001 for six days when riding for the French GAN team, which also won the team time trial.

Then came his battles for the green jersey, his stage win with the French Cofidis team into Chartres in 2004, and his years spent as a team captain for the Schleck brothers – Andy and Frank – from Luxembourg at CSC (later becoming Saxo Bank and Leopard) until the end of 2011.

O’Grady also played key roles in two Tour wins – Spaniard Carlos Sastre’s in 2008, and Andy Schleck’s in 2010.

Next year O’Grady, 39, will become the first rider to start 18 Tours if he is selected for his team. He is one of only two to reach 17, although the now retired American George Hincapie, who achieved the feat last year, has since had three Tours stripped from him for doping offences.

O’Grady does not take his Tour selection for granted. ”There is no automatic selection. You still have to earn your spot,” the South Australian said.

Riding for Orica-GreenEDGE in this year’s Tour has been a career high, with two stage wins (stage three by Simon Gerrans and the stage-four team time trial) and four days defending the yellow jersey when worn by Gerrans on stages five and six and South African Daryl Impey on stages seven and eight.

The team has been active since under O’Grady’s steerage, with the stage-nine attack by Australian Simon Clarke on Monday, and Canadian Svein Tuft’s sixth in Wednesday’s stage-11 time trial. More is to come.

O’Grady is proud of his Tour career that, for all its glory, has been challenged by myriad injuries sustained in crashes that may well have broken the nerve and resolve of other riders.

”I just haven’t had time to reflect on it,” O’Grady says. ”But the more I hear it said the more I realise it is a bloody lot of Tours. To be just fit and healthy 17 years in a row, I’m pretty happy about that. But standing up there with the boys [after stage four], having had really good input to the team time trial, those moments … I don’t care if they come every four years. They are the magical moments that keep you going.”

Asked what triggered Orica-GreenEDGE’s success in this Tour, O’Grady says: ”It’s not like we just rocked up and played roulette. It started last year at the first training camp … then at the Tour last year. You don’t throw a football team together and expect them to win the Champions League. It takes time … experience.

”We’ve grown together as a unit. But once ‘Gerro’ cracked that first [stage win] it was like a pressure valve had been released.”

O’Grady still shakes his head in admiration of Gerrans’ sacrifice of the yellow jersey on stage six to Impey. ”Not many riders in the world would do that. Simon wouldn’t have won his stage without Daryl’s help, so why not? If you can do it without putting in jeopardy [the race lead], and you can change someone’s life, a country’s sporting history, that could inspire another 100,000 South Africans to get on their bikes.”

O’Grady, who lives in Luxembourg with his wife Anne-Marie and daughters Keira-Rose and Tayla and his son Seth, knows retirement is getting closer.

But can he squeeze in an 18th Tour? ”It’s not the Tour that’s hard,” he says. ”It’s the build-up – the classics, the training in the wet, being away from home.

”It is missing Seth playing cricket Sunday mornings. It’s missing Keira and Tayla doing ballet. It’s the stuff you probably shouldn’t think about, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.