Orica transforms from stage hunters to GC players

DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — Talk about extreme makeover. No Simon Gerrans. No Caleb Ewan. Orica-Scott lines up in this year’s Tour de France looking like a very different team than in years past when it made its mark on the race.

“It’s a very different Tour for us,” said sport director Matt White. “We don’t have a pure sprinter here. We’ve been a team of opportunists the past four or five years. This is the first time we’ve come to the Tour [with] GC as the sole focus for us.”

The team left Gerrans and Ewan at home. Last year, Orica traded away Michael Matthews. It signed experienced helpers Roman Kreuziger and Ruben Plaza. Why? Because the Aussie team has rewired goals, swapping stage wins and breakaways for yellow jersey ambitions.

That said, stage-hunters Michael Albasini and Daryl Impey will start on Saturday, but their first priority will be protecting their young teammates.

Orica-Scott believes it has chances with Colombian sensation Esteban Chaves, 27, and Simon Yates, 24. No one is saying they will win the Tour this year, but they hope to be knocking on the door very soon.

“The progression to a GC team was always in the works, but it’s happened a lot faster than anyone expected,” White said. “No one could have guessed how far the Yates brothers have come along. Or how good Esteban [Chaves] became in the grand tours. That’s changed everything for us.”

When it entered the peloton in 2012 with its unique Aussie flavor, the GreenEdge organization earned its paycheck with breakaways and stage wins. It won Tour stages with Gerrans and Matthews, and also the team time trial in 2013. Its riders had spells in the yellow jersey. But by the time the Tour rolled into Paris, a GreenEdge rider was never in the GC frame.

That changed thanks to an investment in young talent that saw a high return much faster than anyone envisioned.

Orica-Scott has three young riders who’ve shown GC potential. Chaves rode to fifth in the 2015 Vuelta a España, and then powered to second in the 2016 Giro d’Italia and third in the 2016 Vuelta. Adam Yates finished fourth in last year’s Tour, and he won the best young rider’s jersey. His twin Simon won a stage in last year’s Vuelta, and punched into the top 10.

“It’s changed the way we recruit,” White said. “We’re building a team to win a grand tour. That’s very different if you’re try to win a sprint stage. Before, we would throw the kitchen sink at stages we thought we could win. Now, we’ll conserve our strength for the big days. It’s a very different style of racing.”

With that budding GC talent, the Australian squad lines up for Saturday’s opening time trial with a very different goals.

“We’d like someone in the top-10, win the white jersey with Simon [Yates], and we’ll see how Esteban [Chaves] goes. We are going to give it 100 percent,” White said. “That’s not to say we won’t be looking for stages, but it will affect the way we race … We are not coming here with the same pressure as Sky or Movistar. We have a different pressure, and that is our advantage.”

Chaves comes into the Tour somewhat as an enigma. After finishing on the podium in his past two grand tours, the Colombian’s Tour debut was skewed by a flare-up of tendonitis in his left knee early in the season. The team immediately gave him a long, no-pressure rest period. He only returned to racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.

“I had no problems with my knee, and that is the most important thing,” Chaves said. “Others had a different road to the Tour, and this is the road that fate handed to me. It’s not an ideal preparation, but it’s the way it is, not just for me, but for all the team.”

When asked just how good is his form, he replied, “That is a good question. It was a bit of a shock for me at the Dauphiné because it was the first time I had raced in Europe since [winning] the Giro di Lombardia,” he said. “It was the first time I was racing ever in France. I feel good, I feel happy. I want to have fun, and get to know the Tour.”

Chaves’s teammate Simon Yates is hoping to keep the Tour’s prestigious young rider’s jersey “in the family.” His twin brother Adam won the jersey and finished fourth overall last year.

“I am here to try to replicate that,” Yates said. “There are a lot of fast, young guys here, but I will give it a shot. … I am sure he will be encouraging me from the sofa.”

This is Yates’s third trip back to the Tour. In 2014 and 2015, he was riding to get a taste of the Tour. Last year, he was sidelined in a four-month racing stop following what the team said was a foul-up with paperwork for an approved medication to treat asthma. He bounced back at the Vuelta last summer, and returns to France after preparing for the Tour’s GC for the first time of his career.

Yates downplayed any suggestion of tension between himself and Chaves. The pair raced together in last year’s Vuelta, with Chaves finishing third overall, and Yates winning a stage and riding to sixth overall.

“We like to have fun and race our bikes,” Yates said. “We had a great relationship at the Vuelta last year. When you are growing up, you wanted to have fun and race bikes. I think that’s what we are doing here.”

Orica always had fun racing for wins, but going for yellow changes everything. They hope they can keep their smiles firmly intact.

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