In 2013, Australian cyclist Jack Haig – then just a teenager – won his first-ever overall victory, at the Tour of Tasmania. On Sunday, half a world away in northern Spain, the Victorian secured the best result of his career, finishing on the podium at the Vuelta a España. It may have taken Haig eight years to repeat his Tasmanian heroics on the Grand Tour stage, but there were more than a few parallels.
Growing up in country Victoria, Haig showed prodigious talent on the mountain bike – including winning a junior national title (Cadel Evans, the only Australian to win a Grand Tour, also began his career off-road). But at the urging of Huon–Genesys, the Andrew Christie-Johnston-led domestic team that has helped launch many professional cycling careers, Haig switched to the road.
He was just 19 at the Tour of Tasmania in 2013, an epic eight-stage edition of a race renowned as the toughest in Australia. It was presumed that teammate Nathan Earle would win comfortably – a local farewell for the Tasmanian before he joined Team Sky the following year. Haig, the thinking went, would be Earle’s domestique.
That changed on stage three, when Haig was part of the successful breakaway on a gruelling stage to Lake St Clair. Suddenly, the teenager was in the yellow jersey and expected to defend it. He did so with panache. Haig looked comfortable to take his maiden National Road Series win – until stage six.
Descending into a valley ahead of the fearsome Gunns Plains climb, Haig suddenly punctured. His ambitions of a first-ever overall victory could have ended then and there. But in a remarkable display of composure beyond his years, Haig worked with his team to return to the peloton before charging up the picturesque climb and catching his yellow jersey rivals. It was the performance of someone destined for bigger things.
Fast-forward to the Vuelta eight years later and Haig had entered in uncertain form after his Tour de France hopes – and a spot on the Australian Olympic team – were ended by a crash on just the third stage of Le Tour. In Spain, it was anticipated that Haig would be riding in support of more-fancied teammate Mikel Landa.
Any general classification hopes the 28-year-old may have had for himself were dented on just the second stage, when Haig was involved in a late crash. The misfortune was amplified by the crash coming within the final four kilometres – if it had been within the last three, the Australian would have been given the bunch-time. Instead, he found himself scrambling to re-join the race and lost almost 40 seconds.
Still recovering from his crash in France, down-time and riding for a teammate, the prospect of a first-ever Grand Tour podium were distant. “The surgery I needed was worse than I expected,” he later admitted. “And when I came here, it was to do my best to help Mikel [Landa]. A podium was definitely not even considered.”
But Haig slowly recovered time – strategically picking up seconds on hilly stages, inching his way back up the general classification standings. By the first rest day Haig was in fourth – and there or thereabouts he would stay for the duration, before the withdrawal of a rival on the penultimate stage lifted him into third. On Sunday, Haig did enough in the final time trial to secure his spot on the podium. The composure and climbing ability he showed all those years ago in Tasmania had not left him.
Haig’s success in Spain continues a purple patch for Australian road cycling. Before 2020, no Australian had stood on a Grand Tour podium since Evans’ retirement. Now, three Australians have earned that honour in three separate grand tours – Richie Porte finished third at last year’s Tour de France, before Jai Hindley placed second at the postponed Giro d’Italia. It is an unprecedented run of general classification success for Australia’s cyclists.
The Vuelta podium spot was not the only triumph for the green and gold either. Twenty-four-year-old West Australian Michael Storer was the form climber of the race, picking up two remarkable individual stage wins and the overall King of the Mountain jersey.
Throw in Ben O’Connor, who finished fourth at the Tour in July (and is yet another young Australian to have first demonstrated their promise at the Tour of Tasmania), Rohan Dennis’s bronze medal at the Olympic time trial in Tokyo, plus the ongoing sprint success of Caleb Ewan (who was back to winning ways at the Benelux Tour on Friday after crashing out of the Tour), and Australian road cycling looks in good health.
One of the few disappointed Australian cyclists in recent weeks has been Michael Matthews, who finished in the top 10 on seven different stages at the Vuelta but was unable to find the sprinting form necessary for a stage win. The Canberran will headline Australia’s men’s national team at the UCI Road World Championships in Flanders later this month.
Matthews has twice stood on that podium before – winning silver in 2015 and bronze in 2017. After failing to win in Spain, rainbow jersey success would be particularly sweet for Matthews and see Australian cycling end a remarkable year on an even higher note.