I don't know how well liked Orica are in Australia - it's a big country, with lots of sporting interest, but as popular as they may or may not be, they just can't seem to find another sponsor. Orica - who are literally dynamite - seem to be managing well enough on their own, but there's a reason Garmin replaced the "Slipstream" in their name as soon as they could help it. It's reflected in their transfer policy - most of their talent is "homegrown" and - let's be honest - if Sky wanted the two Yates', they'd be in black and blue, with less impressive palmares'.
What we Thought Coming In
Caleb Ewan to win sprints, Esteban Chaves to climb well for a thirteen year old, Simon (or is it Adam) Yates to start doing well in the Ardennes, and Adam (or is it Simon) Yates to do well on the longer climbs. Michael Matthews to take more leaders jerseys in the first week and win big races. Hepburn, Howard and Cam Meyer to do...something. Simon Gerrans to not have a disaster.
What We Got Instead
Caleb Ewan won a sprint. Not literally - he won ten, but he won one that mattered. And boy, did it matter. It was a Vuelta stage, against some of the sternest opposition in the pro peloton. The people staring at his back wheel as they entered the - scenic no doubt - town of Alcala de Guardaíra included none other than Roubaix and MSR holder John Degenkolb, and Peter Sagan, who was soon to become world champion. To understate, it was rather a win.
This win was on day five of a week that included three victories, one third of which you've just read about (if you haven't read it backwards, which I wouldn't recommend) and two thirds of which came from the aforementioned thirteen-year-old, Esteban Chaves. Chaves went into the 2015 season carrying a small added weight strapped under his saddle. It was nothing much, not much you'd notice, but it was there. The weight, of course, was the weight of expectation. It came majorly, from three different performances. Winning on Verbier like, hmm... it's slipped my mind, in the Tour de Suisse in 2014, winning in California that same year, and it also came from the early stages of the Vuelta, mainly concerning stage 6, where he rode to the finish line hot on the tail of Nairo Quintana and the other GC favourites in seventh place. On stage 6 in 2015, he wasn't content with seventh. He took the win, a day after Ewan's. It wasn't his first - or even most impressive - win of the year, or even the week. That came on the first road stage, where he attacked, and though chased, managed to outsprint Tom Dumoulin, crack Nicolas Roche and even go quicker over some kilometres than Nairo Quintana. Though his form didn't last all the way through the Vuelta, he held on for a great fifth place.
Simon Yates had three really good races in 2015. 5th, 5th and 6th in GC is pretty good for a 22 year old in stage races as big as the three he took those positions in - The Criterium du Dauphiné, Tour de Romandie, and Vuelta a País Vasco. He was on course to win Pais Vasco with 9 kilometres left, but it didn't work out for him, as he didn't have enough energy left with a hilly 9 time trialling kilometres to come. However, there was nothing in the Ardennes.
His brother Adam did nothing as far as general classification goes, but he did do well in some one-day races. (Incidentally - I'm fairly sure we were told that Adam was the one for GC, and Simon for one-day races. And Simon was the better one. I'm seriously confused. The only method of differentiation was their sunglasses. Do you sense a conspiracy? Me neither, but it's a bit odd.) After getting injured after a painful meeting with a bollard in the Vuelta a País Vasco, Adam's next big race was the Tour de France, where he popped up on stage ten to come seventh, and did nothing else. His best results were after the Tour. The week after, to be precise. He took a solo victory in the technological problem-filled Clasica San Sebastian. Somewhat typically of the communication that day, he had no idea he'd won.
Michael Matthews continued to promise this season, without really improving, in terms of results. Another couple of days in the pink jersey, and raising his arms on one of them, were possibly his best results, but another DNF in the Giro was followed by a frustrating TDF. A crash in the early stages took most of the skin off his back, and did everything but cause him to abandon. For fear of causing him to finish OTL, Orica took it easy in the team time trial, and lost their chances of a stage win. Perhaps his most impressive performance, however, came in Amstel Gold, when he was the only one able to stick on Gilbert's wheel. He came third, but it was a very impressive performance on terrain that's not really suited to him. A second place at worlds within eyeshot of Sagan only completed the frustration.
On the subject of frustration, Simon Gerrans' season is now the definition of the word. A crash in late December of 2014 caused him to lose the chance of defending his national crown and home stage race, the Tour Down Under, and when he recovered from that, he crashed out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He started all three Grand Tours, didn't finish the Giro...because of a crash, didn't finish the Tour...because of a crash, and while he did finish the Vuelta (one of only four races that he completed, and the only stage race) his best result was 28th, on stage 12.
As for the rest of the team, mostly it was a case of domestique duties, apart from Albasini who popped up, as he does, in two stages of the Tour de Romandie.
Top Three Highlights
- Chaves, Chaves, Chaves.
It's often been noted that Orica tend to win three or four times in a short space of time, when they win, and that was so during the first week of the Vuelta. Chaves lit up that first week, winning the second stage and the sixth, both confidently attacking the peloton. He kept the leader's jersey untl stage 9, and then won the Abu Dhabi Tour in October.
- Matthews and the Giro
Matthews, for the second consecutive year, took the pink jersey in the Giro. In addition to his sprinting skill, this was due to the team-time-trialling efforts of the team.
- Youth Shines
22 out of Orica's 28 race wins were from riders under the age of 26. That's quite a stat, isn't it? Half of the six from the older riders were before March, and one was a TTT, so it's really quite impressive.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Season to forget for Gerrans
Nothing went his way after his fantastic season in 2014.
Gerrans, Matthews and Adam Yates all lost chances this year due to crashes, and it was their crash victims that stopped them from mounting a challenge in the TTT of the Tour.
- Small number of winners.
It took me ages to think of a third bad thing to happen to them, but after February, only five people in the Orica kit stood on the winners' podium. Compare that to Lampre, who had sixteen different riders take a similar number of victories.
Who's coming and going?
In: Luka Mezgec, Chris Juul-Jensen, Alexander Edmondson, Amets Txurruka, Rubén Plaza, Jack Haig, Robert Power
Out: Ivan Santaromita, Adam Blythe, Pieter Weening, Cam Meyer, Leigh Howard, Jens Mouris, Brett Lancaster, Simon Clarke
Verdict: No real big changes. Luka Mezgec is the real notable name on that list, and he'll add to their sprinting prospects - he's better on pan-flat finishes than Ewan, though the Australian is better if the road rises a bit. Chris Juul-Jensen will probably be a valuable addition to their TTT line-up, and might be useful in short flat stage races, after his win in the Tour of Denmark. Amets Txurruka will get in breaks, and Ruben Plaza might follow on from his good season at Lampre that popped up...out of nowhere. Haig and Power are recruits from the Aussie scene.
On the other side of things, there's quantity, but no real news. Blythe spent a year at the team, but he's off to Tinkoff, and Simon Clarke's on his way to Cannondale.
What Happens Next?
More of the same, in short. Winning the odd TTT seems likely, as does a spirited shot at the Tour Down Under. One thing that really has to happen is Matthews having a good season, without too many crashes. I imagine he'll skip the Giro, going to the Tour. He's their best chance for a stage or two there.
Chaves has announced his race programme - he's leading the Giro and the Vuelta. He'll be facing Nibali or Aru, Landa, Valverde and Majka, which will be a challenge for him. I do think he'll go for GC, if only because of the lack of prestige attached to the mountains jersey, and a top five will be the best he can get.
Yates and Yates will go to the Tour, more likely for stages than GC, and I'd imagine they could have some success there. If they're both fit for the Ardennes, along with Gerrans, Matthews and Albasini, they'd be a fairly hard team to be up against.