Stuart O’Grady enters the last five kilometres of Wednesday’s Tour de France time trial. He looks up from the aerodynamic tuck on his handlebars. In a moment so rare in his professional career, he allows himself to enjoy the breathtaking view.
Before him is the majestic sight of Mont Saint-Michel coming closer with every pedal stroke.
O’Grady, 39, and in his 17th Tour, is in awe of what he sees. And later, after finishing a modest 129th in the 33-kilometre race – at four minutes, 48 seconds to German stage winner and world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) – he admits he found the moment greater than the race.
”It was pretty dramatic. I saw it with about 5km to go and I was more interested in having a look at that than the time trial. I lost my focus,” O’Grady said. ”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 an 18-year career that 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 – he is the road captain and tactician for Orica-GreenEDGE, the Australian team with whom he has re-signed for another year.
But it is O’Grady’s Tour feats before joining Orica-GreenEDGE that 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 again in 2001 for six days when riding for the French GAN team that also won the team time trial.
Then came his battles for the green points competition 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 – on the CSC team.
O’Grady also played key roles in two Tour wins – by the Spaniard Carlos Sastre in 2008 after his own Paris-Roubaix victory, and Andy Schleck in 2010.
Next year, aged 40, O’Grady will become the first rider – if selected – to start 18 Tours. He is only one of two to reach 17, although the now retired American George Hincapie, who achieved the feat last year, has since been stripped of three Tours due to 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 helping to defend the race leader’s 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 under O’Grady’s steerage, with the stage nine attack by Australian Simon Clarke to Bagneres de Bigorre in the Pyrenees on Monday; and Canadian Svein Tuft’s sixth in Wednesday’s stage 11 time trial.
O’Grady is proud of his Tour career, one that for all its glory has been challenged by injuries that may have broken the nerve and resolve of other riders.
”I just haven’t had time to reflect on it,” O’Grady said. ”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 said: ”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 … 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’s sacrifice of the yellow jersey to Impey. ”Not many riders in the world would do that,” O’Grady said. ”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 hundred thousand South Africans to get on their bikes.”
O’Grady, who lives in Luxembourg with his wife Anne-Marie and three children – daughters Keira-Rose and Tayla, and son Seth – knows retirement is getting close.
But can he squeeze in an 18th Tour? ”It’s not the Tour that’s hard,” he said. ”It’s the build up – the classics, the training in the wet, being away from home.
”I have spent probably three-quarters of my life away from home. Going out and smashing myself, that doesn’t bother me. Riding in the front to get my arse kicked in the mountains, that doesn’t bother me.
”It’s all the other stuff. 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.”
Twitter – @rupertguinness
Overnight results and live blog – Log on to smh杭州夜生活m.au for the stage 13 results and Michael O’Reilly’s coverage of stage 14
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.