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Photo ©: Bettini

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28th Olympic Games - JO

Athens, Greece, August 14-28, 2004

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Neil Stephens: Three Aussies with a chance

O'Grady's morale high

By Chris Henry

Former Australian professional Neil Stephens, who will serve as directeur sportif for the Athens road race, is full of confidence in his Aussie team. Stephens knows that the small Olympic teams present a different challenge when compared to normal road races or other national events such as the world championships. Australia's road team for 2004 includes Stuart O'Grady, Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke, Michael Rogers, and Matt White.

"We have two riders- Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady- who have very good chances," Stephens told Cyclingnews before departing for Athens. "And I wouldn't write off Baden Cooke too quickly. He didn't have a great Tour, but he's been training well since then. Cookie can do some amazing things in a small group sprint or a breakaway."

For Stephens, the Tour de France is critical for honing fitness prior to the Games. O'Grady and McEwen both won stages in the Tour, and O'Grady's World Cup success in Hamburg the following week, not to mention the opening stage win at the Tour of Denmark, have kept him in peak condition.

"We've seen it in the past with guys coming off the Tour," Stephens explained. "If you put the race in April or May, I would have dubts about riders I've mentioned... But coming out of Tour and healthy as all three have been, all three can have a chance."

The one rider in the team who didn't contest the Tour is Matt White, who saw his July fall apart with a crash while training on the prologue course in Liège, Belgium. White recovered quickly, however, and earned his stripes as a key player in O'Grady's victory at the HEW Cyclassics World Cup.

"Part of my win is due to Whitey, who brought the break back and got me in position for the finish," a proud O'Grady told Cyclingnews. ""For him to come out and do a race like Hamburg is incredible. If we can do that same sort ot thing in Athens..."

O'Grady's morale is sky high after his recent string of victories, but he, like Stephens, expects a difficult race. Naming Italian Paolo Bettini as the top rider to watch, O'Grady also tipped Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) and Peter Van Petegem (Belgium) as individuals to watch. The Spanish and German teams each rank as favourites for a gold medal, but O'Grady believes there are 25 men who could win. It will be a real game of chess, he said.

"It's going to be an interesting race and with just five it'll be a tactical race," he noted. "We'll take the race as it unfolds and make split second decisions. I know the course, I know it's difficult, and I know what to expect. It's going to be extremely hard."

No matter what the prospects, O'Grady plans to make the most of the experience.

"The Olympics for me is the biggest event in sport," he said. "They come around every four years so you have to make the most of it. An Olympic gold medal for me would be the ultiamte prize in sport... There's no bigger."

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