Australia's Hopes for Atlanta

Adapted Report from The Australian - Australia's National Daily

The headline read "Atlanta road cyclists get a lift".

A report from Rupert Guinesss says that "Australian road cyclists are set to discard their traditional role of a silent party in the outcome of the Olympic Games (OG) and become a major force. Past games have seen the names of Australia's top road riders barely touch the lips of tipping pundits."

At the Atlanta OG however, our road team will be up there with the best. Guiness says "the turnabout of Australia's billing may appear sudden,e spceically as Australia has landed only one medal in OG road cycling - Victorian Kathy Watt's gold at Barcelona in 1992."

However, now, with Kathy Watt also in full training for her defence, it seems that the male riders have better prospects of finally breaking through. Two "strokes of officialdom from the UCI" have boosted our hopes.

"The first is the UCI's January 1 amalgamation of professional and amateur ranks, allowing professionals to contest the previously 'amateur only' Games. And for Australia that finally makes it possible to field our very best cyclists as they have all crafted professional careers in the cut-throat arena of European cycling."

"The second catalyst to Australia's aspired glory in the UCIs move to limit teams to 5 riders: two of whom must double up to race the OG ITT. This rule plays a vital role in opening up the road race competition unlike worlds championship events where 12-man limits favours the traditional road cycling powers of Italy, France, and Spain. In the world titles such nations can dominate and control a race. They have deeper pools of talent to fill a 12-man team and more ammunition to fire."

The 5-man rule gives weaker nations like Australia, who have less depth but still some star riders, a better chance to compete on a "man for man" basis. The moves have meant that there has been a huge battle to get spots in the oG road race teams. There are now fewer places and more people nominating. The selectors from Australia now have greater depth of ability to choose from but less places to fill.

Guiness says "in Australia after the first of the three Olympic selection trials - the Tour of Tasmania which ended on January 28 - most members of the 15 strong men's road squad have found themselves with their backs to the wall. National coach and selector Heiko Salzwedel says it is too early to talk of any early selection from results of the Tasmanian tour."

Heiko said "Everything remains as it was before the Tasmanian Tour. There were riders who couldn't start or perform because of various reasons. And we have stipulated that they don't have to race in all three selection races, but two of them. But then, while I am not making any selection now, I have to say that I will be after the national road titles which is the second selection race. There are riders who will have to get results there if they want to still be in the squad."

Guiness continues "nevertheless, the strong performances of several riders in Tasmania will them a psychological jump on their rivals. Heiko may be tight lipped on final selection but he couldn't help but praise the ride by 34 year old European professional Stephen Hodge who won in Tasmania. While a top-rated member of the Andorran-registered Festina team, Hodge was bluntly told in Ausgust that if he was to be selected he must get results."

Heiko remarked "what has impressed me so much is how he is so committed to the OG and to our policy of selection and preparation. And in Tasmania not only did he win but he was able to inspire a team of second string riders into winning the team's classification."

Guiness says that "Bases on that it's not surprising the consensus is that Australia's team will be heavily stacked with European-based professionals. An 'open' OG road race where the likes of Spain's five-time TdF champion Miguel Indurain will start requires a dearth of tactical cunning and experience which seasoned professionals have. Similarly, they have the harnessed mental commitment to ride as a team, unlike younger and inexperienced amateurs who tend to race as individuals. And finally, as Australia's professionals proved in recent physiological tests and races, tehy are more physically up to the task of taking on (and hopefully beating) the best in the world."

The professionals also realise that the Australian Institute of Sport (from which some of them came originally) has a strong amateur contingent. "And while many AIS riders face the prospect of a dissappointing rejection for Atlanta, their challenge for selection will still be recalled as a vital ingredient to Australia's greatest assault for an OG road racing medal."

Australia's Olympic Road Team Contenders

Stephen Hodge

Team: Festina (Andorra)
Born: July 18 1961, Adelaide
Resident: Canberra and Boege, France
Weight: 74 kg
Height: 184 cm

Neil Stephens

Team: ONCE (Spain)
Born: October 1 1963, Canberra
Resident: Canberra and Oriatzun, Spain
Weight: 64 kg
Height: 171 cm

Patrick Jonker

Team: ONCE (Spain)
Born: May 25 1969, Amsterdam
Resident: Morphett Vale, South Australia and San Sebastion, Spain
Weight: 68 kg
Height: 185 cm

Robbie McEwan

Team: Rabo Bank (The Netherlands)
Born: June 24 1972, Brisbane
Resident: Daisy Hill, QLD and Brakel, Belgium
Weight: 66 kg
Height: 170 cm

Henk Vogels

Team: Rabo Bank (The Netherlands)
Born: July 31 1973, Perth
Resident: Perth, WA and Brakel, Belgium
Weight: 72 kg
Height: 172 cm

Damien McDonald

Team: Giant/AIS
Born: May 12 1972, Melbourne
Resident: Wangaratta
Weight: 71 kg
Height: 181.5 cm

Brett Dennis

Team: Giant/AIS
Born: October 23 1971, Mt. Isa (QLD)
Resident: Mt. Isa
Weight: 63 kgs
Height: 181cm