Is it time to worry about Orica-GreenEdge’s results?

The Australian team is suffering a bit of a dry spell, without a race win since Michael Hepburn’s time trial victory at the Tour of Qatar, on the 11th of February.

After beginning the season like a bullet from a gun with victory in the Tour Down Under, the team has slumped to 10th (out of 18) on the UCI World Tour points rankings.

At various times Matt Goss, Daryl Impey, Michael Matthews, Leigh Howard, Jens Keukeleire, Aidis Kruopis and Simon Clarke have come close to winning races, but without snaring the champagne.

In the major races, where it really counts, OGE’s results so far this season have been poor.

Outside Australia, apart from Hepburn’s Qatar TT win, the team hasn’t had a victory at a World Tour, HC, or UCI tier 1 race.

This year OGE has 9 victories: 7 in Australia or Oceania, the South African national championship, and one in Qatar.

This time in 2013 the team had 11 victories, but spread across races including Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de San Luis, and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. Dominating in your backyard is fun, but it’s no substitute for winning at big European races.

Let’s go through some recent results.

At the first Monument for 2014, Milan-San Remo, Daryl Impey was the best finisher in 49th, 3’50” behind the winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). Matthews, Tuft, Luke Durbridge and Clarke were all more than 10 minutes off the pace.

In Belgium, where the cobbled classics are underway, the team has been nowhere near the sharp end of the races.

At E3 Harelbeke last Friday, six riders crashed. Tuft and Matt Hayman fell and were injured, forcing them out of the race. Jens Keukeleire, Mitch Docker, Jens Mouris and Hepburn were caught behind a crash and couldn’t regain touch with the leaders. Impey and Durbridge stayed with the leaders until they too were caught behind a crash. Impey eventually finished in 38th place, Durbridge 71st, and the other six riders DNFed.

On Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem, the best result was Keukeleire’s 37th, rolling in 19 seconds behind John Degenkolb’s (Giant-Shimano) winning group. Mitch Docker was 81st; Simon Yates 137th; Goss, Durbridge, Hepburn, and Mouris didn’t finish, and Tuft didn’t start on medical advice after hitting his head in E3 Harelbeke.

There was some bad luck involved: Goss was hit by Fran Ventoso (Movistar) and lost his rear derailleur, which meant Hepburn had to donate his bike to his teammate. Hepburn is taller than Goss, and the replacement was too big for the Tasmanian sprinter, who lost more time switching to his own spare bike not long later. Goss then suffered from allergies and a mix-up with his asthma inhaler meant he struggled to breathe. Everyone wasted energy trying to chase the race after these incidents.

Keukeleire’s 9th at Dwars door Vlaanderen, a much less prestigious race, was the only decent result of the first week in Flanders.

Yes, it’s unlucky when riders crash or are caught behind crashes, and yes, it does happen to even the best riders. It even happened to Fabian Cancellara (Trek) at E3 Harelbeke, costing him any chance of contesting the win despite the Swiss master looking strong enough to tow a plough up the Eiger.

Crashes are part and parcel of racing on the cobbles, and the further back you are, the higher the risk. Indeed, this year’s editions of Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke seemed especially risky, with experienced pros like David Millar tweeting that the peloton is riding like a bunch of juniors:

But the good classics teams manage the risk. You always see OPQS, Lotto-Belisol and Belkin with multiple riders near the front, and if one of them falls it doesn’t ruin the whole team’s race.

Watch the team’s Backstage Pass from Gent-Wevelgem: at the 3 minute mark you see DS Laurenzo Lapage telling the team to move up in the bunch. The next scene there’s a crash and Orica-GreenEdge is named.

Even Team Sky has picked up its classics game this year, continually putting riders into strong positions.

Racing on the cobbles takes a highly specialised skillset, which Australian (or Canadian) riders don’t acquire growing up like the Belgian and Dutch riders do.

To me it looks as if the Orica-GreenEdge classics squad is lacking the confidence or experience to boss its way into position on the cobbles, and being pushed to the rear of the peloton where crashes and splits are guaranteed to wreck races.

But even if the team seems out of place on the cobbles, what about its results in more ‘standard’ conditions?

The results haven’t been bad exactly, with plenty of top 10 results and a handful of podiums.

However, it’s fair to say they haven’t set the world on fire.

At the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (a World Tour race), Leigh Howard picked up 2nd in stage 1 and 9th in stage 2 (he was also 5th at the GP Nobili). Rookie Adam Yates performed solidly in the GC against strong opposition, and Damien Howson got into the winning break on stage 6, finishing 8th.

At Tirreno-Adriatico the team was 2nd in the team time trial, and Simon Clarke grabbed a quality 3rd behind two of the form riders of the Spring, Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski, in stage 3.

At Paris-Nice the best result was Matt Goss’s 2nd in stage 3, behind John Degenkolb. Michael Matthews was 4th in stage 4, and thereabouts on the other flat stages.

At the Tour of Langkawi Aidis Kruopis collected podium finishes like most tourists collect satay sticks, and Esteban Chaves finished 4th overall, but there were no wins.

All of these podiums and top 10’s suggest there are a number of OGE riders in pretty good shape, but for whatever reason things aren’t quite falling into place.

So where is the team’s next win coming from?

They’ll be racing at Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, but it would be one of the upsets of the century if an OGE rider stole a win at either of them.

The Tour of the Basque country has been a happier hunting ground – Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey each won a stage there in 2013. Any of Gerrans, Michael Albasini, Michael Matthews or Pieter Weening are a chance to grab a stage this year.

Then it’s the Ardennes classics (Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege), where Gerrans has set his sights. Since leaving Australia, the national champion has been virtually unseen as he builds for his second peak of the year.

We know how good Gerrans is when he picks out a race, but his team really needs someone else to step up, because they can’t rely on Gerrans alone, and the pressure will build.

Is it time to worry about Orica-GreenEdge’s season? Not yet, but we’re not that far off it.

 This post was first published at The Roar.

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