THE Australian Orica-GreenEDGE team have raised the bar of expectation for their European spring classics campaign this year, despite the disappointment of failing to win back-to-back titles in the Tour Down Under that finished on Sunday.
Team general manager Shayne Bannan said his riders were in better condition than this time last year when they made their World Tour debut with Australian teammate Simon Gerrans winning the Tour Down Under. He also forecasts a better showing in the one-day classics.
Last year Orica-GreenEDGE's classics campaign did not go as planned, even though Gerrans's Milan-San Remo win in March provided them with a dream start that was made sweeter with Swiss teammate Michael Albasini's two stage wins and overall victory in the Volta a Catalunya in Spain.
However, Orica-GreenEDGE then failed to leave an impression on the one-day classics in northern Europe in April such as the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race.
''We are putting a lot more emphasis on the European classics this year,'' Bannan told Fairfax Media. ''We believe that everybody has stepped up a level from last year in terms of their overall fitness. The condition of everybody is around 10 to 15 per cent better than this time last year.
''We are expecting to be more competitive, particularly in the cobbled classics [Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix].'' While Gerrans was unable to defend his Tour Down Under crown due to asthma problems taking him out of contention on the tough second stage last Wednesday, Orica-GreenEDGE were not left without anything to celebrate after the first week of racing in the 2013 season.
In the Tour Down Under, Gerrans won Saturday's decisive fifth stage to Old Willunga Hill, outsprinting Dutchman Tom Slagter (Blanco) who won the race overall. And in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, Canadian rider Svein Tuft won last Thursday's stage four time trial.
Bannan conceded that Gerrans's stage win saved the team's Tour Down Under: ''We came in to this race expecting to be competitive and to try and help Simon go back-to-back for his third win. The Corkscrew [climb on stage two] was a pretty tough day for him. But the guy showed his class on Australia Day [by winning stage five]. To come away with our first Tour Down Under stage win was pretty special.''
Orica-GreenEDGE's 30-rider roster will now race around the world in the lead-up to the first major classic of the season - the Milan-San Remo (March 16) in Italy, which Gerrans won last year.
The lead-up races include the Challenge Majorca (February 3-6) in Spain, the Tour of Qatar (February 3-8) and Tour of Oman (February 11-16) in the Middle East, the Tour of Langkawi (February 21-March 2) in Malaysia, the Het Nieuwsblad (February 23) and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (February 24) one-dayers in Belgium, Paris-Nice (March 3-10) in France and Tirreno-Adriatico (March 6-12) in Italy. No Orica rider revels in the classics more than Stuart O'Grady, who in 2007 became the first Australian to win Paris-Roubaix.
Tour Down Under was his first race since last August after fracturing his collar bone and ribs in a crash in the Cyclassics race in Germany.
''I would like to be in better form. That is a little frustrating, but this [Tour Down Under] has put [the] foundation in for a big season,'' O'Grady said.
O'Grady said Orica-GreenEDGE were stronger this year despite not winning the Tour Down Under.
''We're a lot stronger and more prepared. Because you compete on home turf doesn't mean you will win. Ask the Australian cricket team,'' he said.