Watch for Aussie champ Matt Lloyd at the Giro

Editor’s note: Watch for John Wilcockson’s Friday morning column on a regular basis, taking you inside the world of cycling. This week he introduces one of the young, unsung heroes of the European peloton. Matt Lloyd loves racing in Italy. So when he lines up Saturday with his Silence-Lotto team at the Giro d’Italia he’ll feel right at home.

By John Wilcockson

Lloyd at the 2008 Tour Down Under

Lloyd at the 2008 Tour Down Under

Photo: Graham Watson

Editor’s note: Watch for John Wilcockson’s Friday morning column on a regular basis, taking you inside the world of cycling. This week he introduces one of the young, unsung heroes of the European peloton.

Matt Lloyd loves racing in Italy. So when he lines up Saturday with his Silence-Lotto team at the Giro d’Italia he’ll feel right at home.

You may not have heard much about Lloyd, 24, who is only in his second season with a UCI ProTour team, but he has already acquired a reputation as a rider who will do anything for his team — and has the potential to make a breakthrough to the higher echelons in the years to come. Maybe this year.

I first met Lloyd, in Italy, last October, just after he had finished his final race of the year, the Tour of Lombardy, where he helped his team leader, Cadel Evans, clinch the 2007 UCI ProTour title. After listening to Evans explain how he had to settle for sixth place after riding the final 60km half blind after getting a bug in his left eye, I walked down the finishing straight in Como, past the elegant lakeside gardens and grand hotels, to the then Predictor-Lotto team bus. Lloyd was just taking off his helmet after finishing with the 40-man main bunch that arrived eight minutes behind Evans’s small lead group.

“It’s been a long season,” he sighed in Como. “I started with the Tour Down Under [in January] — it seems such a long time ago now.”

A 10-month season is rare among modern professionals, and yet Lloyd then revealed that he finished every race he started in what was his very first year with a European team. His season began with fourth place overall at the Tour Down Under … and ended with 65th at the Tour of Lombardy. In between, at stage races alone, Lloyd was 28th at the Tour of California, 44th at the Tour of the Basque Country, 61st at the Giro d’Italia, 48th at the Tour of Germany and 53rd at the Tour of Poland.

That was quite a workload for a first season in the big leagues. But all of that 2007 racing paid off for Lloyd in January this year when he literally rode away with the Australian national road title in Ballarat, not far from his hometown of Melbourne. He chased solo for 20km to catch a three-man break, raced straight past them, and continued alone for another 20km to win the championship. As a result, Lloyd won the Aussie champ’s white jersey with its distinctive green and yellow bands, which you’ll see him wearing (with No. 176 pinned to the back) in the Giro peloton through the next three weeks.

Unlike most of the current Aussies who have come to prominence in the European peloton, Lloyd does not have a background in track racing. He was a national champion ice hockey player (true!) and dabbled in triathlon before starting road racing just over four years ago. He soon showed he had a talent for climbing when, in one of his first races with a small club team from suburban Melbourne, he placed second in a race finishing atop Mount Baw Baw, a 5141-foot peak a couple of hours east of the city. Six months later, competing in the Herald Sun Tour pro-am stage race, Lloyd won the Mount Baw Baw stage ahead of a field stacked with European pros. He told a local reporter: “I would love to go to Europe and have a go at the big mountains over there.”

Within two years, Lloyd did turn pro (with the South Australia-AIS continental team) and began to ride those big European mountains. Based in northern Italy, he placed a staggering third overall at the 2006 Baby Giro (for riders 25 and under). He was beaten by two much more experienced Europeans, Italy’s Dario Cataldo (who’s making his Giro debut for Liquigas this weekend; look for No. 123) and Ukraine’s Dmitry Grabovsky (who now races for Quick Step). Lloyd’s 2006 Baby Giro performance — which included a second-place stage finish on the 5764-foot Alpe di Pampeago that is featured in this month’s Giro — helped him score a two-year pro contract with Evans’s team.

Lloyd made a great impression with his new teammates last year by not only finishing all those races he started, but also contributing to the team effort every time he saddled up. In Como last October, he told me he was glad “to have Cadel doing such a fantastic year,” and “having a bunch of guys like Stefano Zanini, Dario Cioni and Chris Horner who can really guide us through a season like that.” Since then, Zanini has retired and become a directeur sportif at Silence-Lotto, Horner has moved on to Astana, while Cioni remains a precious mentor for the ambitious Aussie (though the Italian is not starting this Giro).

Lloyd was wide-eyed at the intensity of the Tour of Lombardy, a monumental classic that he was experiencing for the first time. “It just displays how intense it is,” he said. “The start was quite vicious. As the race settled down, and our team started to work quite a bit, the pace was at a constant high speed. And at the finish it was just unbelievable. The last few kilometers are always gonna be special.”

Since he won the Australian title in January, Lloyd has experienced many more of those “special” moments, including the intense finale to last week’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he led the group of favorites up the gnarly Côte de la Redoute 30km from the finish to set up Evans for the new La Roche aux Faucons climb. Unfortunately, his team leader did not have the legs to go with the winning break and had to settle for seventh place, 40 seconds down on winner Alejandro Valverde.

But Lloyd held strong as the second Silence-Lotto finisher, to take his best finish yet in a major classic. He was in a 15-strong group that sprinted for ninth place, brought home by world champion Paolo Bettini, only 23 seconds behind Evans. Also in this group were major players Oscar Freire, Kim Kirchen, Vincenzo Nibali, Robert Gesink, Fabian Wegmann, Riccardo Riccò, Karsten Kroon and Mauricio Soler. Lloyd took an excellent 16th place, after finishing 25th at both the Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold Race in the previous week.

Already in 2008, Lloyd has raced 36 times, more than any other rider on Silence-Lotto. In many ways he has replaced Horner as Evans’s “go to” guy when the roads tilt upward. The best example of his support work so far this season came at Italy’s Coppi & Bartali Week at the end of March.

It was a challenging five-day race, plagued by cold and wet conditions. After helping the team place fifth in the opening day’s team time trial, Lloyd was even more valuable to Evans on the hilly stage 2. “When we hit the climbs,” Evans said, “a selection was made mainly by my teammates Matt Lloyd and Dario Cioni [that] left 12 riders to fight it out for the stage.”

Lloyd was the only Silence-Lotto teammate to remain with Evans in that group of 12. He was also present at his leader’s side on the decisive stage 3, which Evans won in a solo break to take the overall lead. Lloyd was again the only Silence rider with Evans on the final stage in a 15-man lead group, a performance that enabled Evans to take the overall victory, while Lloyd finished a fine seventh.

Given his rapid progress through the pro ranks and his increasing maturity, Matt Lloyd could become the first accomplished hockey player since Canadian star Steve Bauer to start the Tour de France. But already at this Giro, the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Lloyd will find plenty of “big mountains to have a go at.”