Twelve years after he was upstaged by an unknown Tasmanian teenager, Australian cycling great Stuart O’Grady returned to the scene to pay his conqueror the highest of compliments.
“I think he’s been one of the best riders ever to come out of Australia, let alone Tasmania,” O’Grady said of Matt Goss, whose career he helped launch after that memorable duel in Launceston.
The Olympic track champion was among the big-name stars that organisers lured to Tasmania in the early days of the Stan Siejka Classic, and entering the final straight in 2004, O’Grady thought victory was his.
“I was pretty sure I was going to win until a little bloke came flying underneath me. He beat me fair and square. I hadn’t been training for long but you still think you can pull off a win and beat the local kids and suddenly I thought ‘Whoa, OK’.
“Credit where credit’s due. We made it a really hard race and I did everything I thought was good enough to win and got beaten. Outsmarted by a bloody teenager. I would not have even been in the same photo!
“He was only a kid and I thought ‘God who is this little bloke?’ But I helped him get his first contract and been part of the journey until the last few years.”
O’Grady saw enough in the young Goss to recommend him to his employers. The Danish-based CSC cycling team trusted his judgement, signed the raw talent and launched a career that would include victories in all three Grand Tours and a classic, Commonwealth and Olympic Games representation and missing out on world championship gold by a fraction of a second.
Goss would also follow O’Grady as the first two Australians to win one of cycling’s monument races, the Tasmanian adding the 2011 Milan San-Remo to the South Australian’s 2007 Paris-Roubaix.
O’Grady, who retired in 2013 having won four Tour de France stages and worn the famed yellow jersey, said he was proud to have helped launch Goss’s career which came to an end in Sunday’s Launceston Classic.
“I thought he smoked me so I rang the boss and said `keep your eyes out for this guy he’s got a real future’ and then he became a track world champion and I knew he had an engine and a fair bit of talent.
“I told them ‘if you are after a new Aussie he’s the one’. They were scouting for new talent but lived in Denmark so they wouldn’t have had a clue what’s going on in Launceston and if I ring up and say ‘I’m putting my name behind this bloke, I reckon he’s got a future’, they listen and that’s how it happened.”
O’Grady had no doubt Goss had gone on to justify his faith.
“It’s magnificent to do what he has accomplished at such a young age. Milan-San Remo is in my opinion his biggest highlight but at the world championships he was within half a wheel of victory and what a game-changer that would have been.
“Second in the worlds, how many Australians have done that? Cadel [Evans] won the worlds but other than that Allan Davis [third] in Geelong but then not many others in our cycling history. It’s a big box to tick.
“I think a lot of people think with everything that’s happened in Australian cycling – Cadel winning the Tour and Cookie and McEwen, Mick Rogers winning three time trial world championships, guys winning classics and monuments – we’ve been blessed with so many brilliant results that we take things a little bit for granted now.
I think he’s been one of the best riders ever to come out of Australia, let alone Tasmania.
“And that’s sad in a way. People should celebrate the highlights instead of saying ‘Why didn’t he go on to win this?’ How about appreciating what he actually did?”
O’Grady and Goss were teammates at CSC and GreenEdge and in national colours at world championships and the London Olympics.
“We’ve shared a room together and are bloody good friends. I just really respect the person he is. I look past the accomplishments. When you do my sport and you room with the likes of Fabian Cancellara or Jens Voigt you are always surrounded by champions but it’s the person off the bike is why we connected the most.
“Gossy is just a down-to-earth good bloke who isn’t driven to have to win every bike race on the planet. He aimed for the big ones and when you do that most of the time you lose.
“We won the Tour de France teams time trial together [in Nice] in 2001. It’s one thing to win on your own but another to win with all the blokes that do the hard yakka day-in, day-out and never get the credit or to step up on that podium. It’s just a massive thrill to see the pure joy in the blokes and their families and friends.
“We both lived just down the road, it was a home run for us, we knew every manhole cover and to win it by under a second was pretty crazy.”
O’Grady also heaped praise on the Tasmanian production line of cyclists which has also produced World Tour riders Wes Sulzberger, Will Clarke and Richie Porte.
“Tasmania has always produced brilliant bike riders. It’s still part of the culture having been brought up at the Christmas carnivals. I used to do them myself and you’d rock up to Latrobe and there’d be 10,000 people there and you knew then this place likes its bike riding.
“What better place in the world to ride than the roads around here? But also it’s the character, tough conditions here in the winter, it’s definitely not the Cote d’Azur that’s for sure. It’s cold, wet, hard conditions, tough riding and the guys make it for a reason.”