O'Grady gets the gravy
The man from Down Under comes out on top
Posted: Friday July 17, 1998 12:41 PM
Special from L'Equipe, the French sports daily
CHATEAUROUX (CNN/SI) -- Stuart O'Grady was beaming, perched on the podium, draped in this yellow jersey he drew, as a kid, whenever he got a glimpse of it on television. "As far back in time as I can remember, I've always been fascinated by this color. I thought this jersey was magnificent. That's where my dream started," he said.
His sunglasses, his earring, his perfect tan, his blond, bleached hair and, most of all, his permanent smile, make the 25-year-old Australian look like a surfer. But it was soccer and athletics that he first chose, then cycling, at the age of six, "because I hated jogging," he explained smilingly.
He quickly became a good track racer, and won the silver medal in team pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics. He became a star in 1993 when he beat the team pursuit world record and won the world championships.
A year later, GAN coach Roger Legeay contacted him, and the young Australian didn't hesitate for a second. "I knew I couldn't find better. These are very professional people, who know how to advise you and who, humanly, are very close to the riders, especially when they come, like I do, from a country that's more than 20,000 kilometers away," O'Grady said.
He spent his first two years in Brunoy, in the suburbs of Paris, close to the team headquarters. Then he headed South, and settled down in Spain, but couldn't stand the isolation, after a while. One day, he called his buddy Henk Vogels, who mourned his Perth beaches in Brakel, Belgium. The two Australians agreed to get together, and teammate Frédéric Moncassin did the rest. "He's a great guy. He found a house for us in Saubens; a little village close to where he lives, and when we got there, he'd already put some food in there for us;" he recalled. O'Grady's newfound balance allowed him to find his place in the peloton by looking good in "classiques" and winning stages of the Tour of Luxembourg and the Tour of Murcia, among others. These performances culminated in a shot at the Tour de France's yellow jersey Tuesday.
He could have worn yellow in Lorient, but he didn't place well enough in the sprint finish and saw Dane Bo Hamburger get it instead. "He was crushed because he thought a chance like that would only happen once in his lifetime. He didn't sleep well but I explained to him that if the team fought for him at the bonus sprints, maybe we could make it up. It heartened him," Legeay said.
So O'Grady trusted the teammates who'd welcomed him with open arms. "They're like a second family. With people like Eros Poli, Magnus Backstedt or Frederic Moncassin, what could happen to me?" he said.
In stage four's first bonus sprint, in Plumelec, he stayed in cover, behind Moncassin, sprinted 50 meters before the line and pocketed a precious six seconds that already made him the second Australian to wear the yellow jersey ever, after Phil Anderson did it in 1981 and 1982. "He was my hero. He was the person who gave me the inspiration and fed my dream," O'Grady said.
In Peillac, the exact same thing occurred, and in the last bonus sprint, in Mouzeil, he got another two seconds. It seemed nothing would prevent him from making his dream come true when, less than two miles before the finish line, the worst-case scenario took place. "In a turn, some riders fell, in front of me. They slowed me down and I saw the front of the pack get away. I couldn't believe it. To fail so close to the goal... But Magnus Backstedt had seen me, and we finished at full speed. I was scared until the end because it was only a matter of seconds. But all of my teammates have been really super," O'Grady said. He eventually made it to the finish line in the pack, eight seconds behind the winner, Jeroen Blijlevens, and took an 11-second overall lead.
During his first day in yellow, O'Grady will no doubt be thinking about teammate and friend Chris Boardman, who gave up the yellow jersey Sunday when a fall forced him out of the race. "What happened to him really touched me," he said. "The day before, in Dublin, he gave me his yellow jersey to put it away in the car, and told me, 'Here! One day, you'll get it too. I'm sure of that.' I have a lot of respect for Chris and I hope he'll be back in the peloton with us soon enough."
The tour de France finally got itself the fresh and enthusiastic leader it needed, a kid who loves music so much he turns the sound way up in his coach's car. A kid who should have grown up and matured in the sun, his feet in the waves, but who preferred Paris-Roubaix' mud instead. "I first saw it in a tape, I liked it, and when Legeay asked what races I was interested in, I put a checkmark in front of it, just to see," he said.
He also enjoyed the Tour des Flandres' rigor, and the intense difficulty of the Tour de France, which he discovered last year when he finished second, behind teammate Cédric Vasseur, in La Châtre. "It's a good memory, the kind of memory that incites you to surpass yourself in order to, one day, be crowned," O'Grady said.
Copyright (c) 1998 L'Equipe
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