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Orica-AIS aims to reclaim spot as world’s best team

Orica-AIS director Barras is encouraged by Santos Women’s Tour win and believes the squad is back on track to top the UCI women’s rankings

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ADELAIDE — After dominating three of the four Santos Women’s Tour stages and capturing the top two podium steps on general classification, Orica-AIS quickly erased any doubts after a less-than-stellar performance at the Australian road nationals a week earlier.

Last year’s world number four-ranked women’s squad failed to capture the women’s Australian national road race title for the first time since the team’s inception when reigning two-time winner Gracie Elvin was unable to successfully defend her crown in early January.

However, after 24-year-old Italian rider Valentina Scandolara claimed her first pro stage race win and teammate Melissa Hoskins won stages 2 and 4, the tide seems to be swinging back in Orica’s favor. Team sports director Martin (pronounced ‘Martine’) Barras told VeloNews it’s the start of journey back to the top of the women’s rankings they last held in 2013.

“The one thing we kept reminding the girls is that we are sticking to what we said we were going to do, and at one point our luck is going to change, and then everything will just kick on from there and get us back on the right track,” said Barras. “Everybody was a bit flat after nationals and then everybody really stepped up.

“We go into every race like we want to win it, and the nationals always holds a special significance for us,” he added. “We always have added pressure on us considering our profile domestically, but we were just not good enough on the day and better bike riders won that race.”

Since the team’s debut in 2012, Orica-AIS, under the watch of directors Gene Bates, David McPartland, Brian Stephens, and Barras, has recorded 52 wins and has captured three Australian national road race championships (2012-14), two Australian national individual time trial championships (2012-13), and an Oceania individual time trial title (2014). The team has consistently finished inside the top three of the UCI world rankings, finishing first in 2013 and third in 2012 behind Specialized-lululemon and top-ranked Rabo-Liv.

While talent abounds at Orica-AIS, which took silver in the team time trial at the UCI world road championships in Ponferrada, Spain back in September, the victories have become fewer each year and spread over a narrowing list of riders. In 2012, the team won 21 races with seven different riders, while in 2013 the team totaled 18 wins with five riders, and in 2014, it won 13 between four riders with 2013 women’s points champion Emma Johansson capturing 10 individual race wins for the second year in a row.

“We need to broaden the range of bike riders that give us wins and results,” said Barras. “It will make us a more well-rounded team for sure.

“At the moment we are ever reliant on Emma [Johansson] to give us those results.”

With veterans Shara Gillow (Rabo-Liv), Carlee Taylor (Lotto-Belisol), Annette Edmondson (Wiggle-Honda), Grace Sulzberger, and Jessie MacLean no longer with the team, Barras will need to quickly assimilate Australians Sarah Roy, Lizzie Williams, Chloe McConville, and recently crowned junior world champions Macey Stewart and Alexandra Manly, if they want to turn the tide and begin the team’s ascent back to the top of the UCI rankings ladder.

Barras believes riders such as Elvin, Scandolara, and Hoskins are the keys to “broadening” the results and lightening Johansson’s load.

“We have such a talented group of girls,” said Barras. “Valentina for instance is obviously such a pleasing story and had so much to learn about the team and even just training basics.

“She has really stepped up her game, and we are counting on her more when the stage racing starts in May and the hot weather benefits her riding style more.”

The 2014 Giro de Trentino winner shares Barras’ expectations.

“I recon this year we’ve already shown some big improvement,” Scandolara told VeloNews. “We will be able to back Emma [Johansson] a lot better I reckon, and we should be there to help her win and maybe take some wins for ourselves.

“We always have opportunities in this team, and Emma is really good in that if she sees you are in good shape, she will let you have your moment because she is a great champion.”

With the women’s tour now done and dusted, Orica-AIS will turn its attention toward the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on January 31, before racing the Tour of Qatar and the European season.

“Women’s cycling is progressing in a very rapid pace in terms for the quality of the riders, the teams and the budgets,” said Barras. “It’s a rapid progression of international racing, and it is keeping us on our toes so we can’t afford to be complacent.”

With so many new faces, Orica-AIS could still be in a rebuilding year, but according to Barras, the team has all the ingredients to reclaim its top spot among the world’s best teams.

“We have the team to be the world number one again,” he said. “We will be very hard-pressed as there are some very good teams out there, but let’s not kid ourselves … That’s what we are in the business for, and that’s our goal.”

Editor’s note: Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews