Stuart O’Grady likens Wout van Aert to Eddy Merckx, talks Tour de France green jersey and Caleb Ewan
'Every stage is like a mini World Cup race. It’s so intense. That’s great for the sport and for the viewers but it makes it hard work for the pure sprinters,' says Australian.
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The start village at the Tour de France is often crammed with the great and good (ed. and some less good). A mixture of ex-pros and commentators often swoop in for their shot of free, terrible coffee, and a quick scan of the pages of L’Equipe.
One such ex-pro is Stuart O’Grady, a former wearer of the yellow jersey and a two-time stage winner. Now the head of the Tour Down Under and a guide for Australians jetting over for a glimpse of life at the Tour, O’Grady caught up with VeloNews to talk about the sprints in this year’s race, the fight for the green jersey and the bad luck that has plagued Caleb Ewan all season.
“Well, there haven’t been too many sprints in the race,” O’Grady opened with.
“It’s been pretty full on. It’s good to see so many sprinters at that level again but it’s been super hard and the intensity has been incredible right through from Copenhagen.”
In truth, there have only been two bunch sprints in this year’s race, with Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen the only fast men to take home wins on the race’s opening weekend in Denmark.
Meanwhile, Wout van Aert has built up an unassailable lead in the green jersey competition thanks to his ability to climb with the climbers, sprint with the sprinters and time trial with the very best chrono artists.
Part of the reason for van Aert’s dominance in the green jersey, a competition once owned by sprinters, is the Belgian’s unrivaled versatility but it also comes down to the nature of the parcours and the greater allocation of intermediate points that riders can now snaffle up compared to when O’Grady was competing.
“It’s getting harder and harder isn’t it? The Tour de France wants entertaining stages and obviously not big, long flat ones. That makes it trickier and trickier and we’re seeing green jersey riders morph into climbers, which you have to be, but there’s fewer opportunities for the pure sprinters,” he told VeloNews.
“The points system has also changed but to be fair, the Tour de France has changed as well. Every stage is like a mini World Cup race. It’s so intense.
“That’s great for the sport and for the viewers but it makes it hard work for the pure sprinters to get through. The only chance that I had to win the green jersey was to get in breaks in the mountain stages and get one over the sprinters.”
“You’ve got to have a strategy but then look at Wout van Aert. I don’t remember a rider in history other than Laurent Jalabert or Eddy Merckx when it comes to someone who can win a sprint, a time trial and a mountain stage. The riders have certainly developed a lot more.”
Meanwhile O’Grady’s compatriot Caleb Ewan has had a race to forget. The Lotto Soudal rider had a mechanical in the sprint on stage 2 and then got squeezed into the barriers the following day.
On stage 13, Ewan crashed, just when it looked like he might be in with a chance of competing for the win. After a disaster the sprinter’s poor luck only continued.
“To see our little Aussie rocket suffering through in the last couple of days, and the roadside support that he’s been getting has been massive, I know what it’s like. It’s so tough.
“There doesn’t appear to be much of a gruppetto forming, which makes it even harder. He’s giving it absolutely everything, and I respect the guy for pushing through the pain. He still believes that there’s a stage win that he can grab, and you only need that one win to make your Tour special.”