Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are some thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing in Flanders.
1. Tom Boonen’s not fooling anyone.
Despite declaring Fabian Cancellara the top favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Boonen’s wins in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem make his comments hard to believe. Of his two victories, Boonen’s E3 victory (his record-setting fifth) is by far the more impressive of the two, as it came in an event much more akin to the Ronde. At Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen was much more free to sit in the bunch, make the important selections, and let his team do most of the work for him. At times, there were even questions as to whether Boonen had made the leading group at all. Then again, all of Boonen’s top rivals were present in the finales of both races—the Belgian simply proved himself to be the better sprinter.
2. Filippo Pozatto is back to where he was in 2009 physically—but tactically?
After he won the E3 Prijs in 2009 it was clear to everyone that Pippo was going to be Tom Boonen’s biggest challenger at that year’s Flanders and Roubaix. Unfortunately, word never got to Pozatto that “keeping an eye on Tom Boonen” didn’t mean marking him so closely that he marked himself out of the race as well. For Pozatto that spring, being a “wheel watcher” meant much more than being a fan of Pat Sajak.
This year, if he wants to take his first win in a cobbled Monument, Pozatto will have to start racing to win—as opposed to racing to not be beaten. He’s riding for one of the strongest teams in the race with a lieutenant (Oscar Gatto) that many teams (like RadioShack-Nissan) would love to have complementing their captains. Better still, I suspect that Pozatto’s injury and subsequent (albeit brief) time off the bike means he has more form to gain. Boonen and Cancellara—the latter especially—run the risk of topping-out before the end of the cobbled fortnight. Pozatto might continue to get stronger.
3. It’s only a matter of time before Sep Vanmarcke wins Flanders, Roubaix, or both.
If the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs are any indication, the budding rivalry between Vanmarcke and Boonen will be one of the highlights of the next two weeks. A smart, aggressive rider who appears undaunted by the competition, Garmin-Barracuda’s Vanmarcke has twice been the first rider to follow Boonen’s accelerations on the Taaienberg (although just barely on Friday). He’s already been named Garmin’s captain for the cobbles and with an in-form Johan Van Summeren serving as super-domestique, the American team could easily grab its second cobbled Monument in as many years. As for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke, there’s seemingly no limit to what he might achieve. He’s one of the most exiting riders of the season’s still-young spring campaign.
4. Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders is lost and he needs to act quickly if he wishes to contend in the Ardennes.
If you follow me on Twitter (@whityost), you’ve heard me say this before: Philippe Gilbert needs to skip Flanders, fly to Spain, and complete the Tour of the Basque Country if he wishes to have any chance of defending his titles in the Ardennes. Gilbert’s obviously been lacking the race mileage of his peers and could quickly gain some with a week of tough racing in Spain. Better still, he’ll avoid the media scrum of one of the world’s toughest press corps. Lastly, BMC has more than enough talent to spare the spot—especially if Thor Hushovd does indeed return to form. Like many, I am disappointed that we will not see the Belgian drie-kleur on the top step of the Ronde’s podium in Oudenaarde Sunday—especially as the course looked to suit King Phil’s style of racing.
5. If Filippo Pozatto, Sep Vanmarcke, or Tom Boonen wins the Tour of Flanders, he will likely have Oscar Gatto, Johan Van Summeren, or Sylvain Chavanel to thank for it.
History has shown that the world’s most successful one-day riders take the line with at least one teammate capable of winning the event as well. This year, Pozatto, Vanmarcke, and Boonen can rest easily knowing that they each have lieutenants capable of easing some of the pressure by covering late-race moves, putting other teams on the defensive, and ensuring that their captains won’t be isolated when the manure hits the fan. And who knows, should things go their way, we could see one Gatto, Van Summeren, and/or Chavanel on the final podium Sunday.
One final note: I’m heading to Belgium this Thursday and will be staying through Paris-Roubaix. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@whityost) for updates and insights from the thick of the action.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen kicked-off the run to the cobbled monuments with a gutsy solo win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra. Now all eyes turn to the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, two races who have seen quite a bit of change over the past few years. Traditionally held a week and a day before the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Prijs was considered by most to be the final check-point for riders hoping to win the Ronde. With many of the Ronde’s key climbs included over the E3’s 203-kilometer parcours, it provided both training and reconnaissance for riders hoping to be at their best the following weekend.
Then came Ghent-Wevelgem’s move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders, a move that forced teams and riders to choose between the two legendary events (many would start both, only to abandon one or the other at the first feed zone, angering both organizers and fans). The E3’s organizers soon cried foul, worryied that Ghent-Wevelgem’s World Tour status would attract the best competitors. So a deal was struck and the E3 was granted World Tour status for 2012—in exchange for a new date on Friday. Is it the best solution? Probably not. (I personally preferred the traditional Ronde-Ghent-Roubaix “Holy Week” format.) But it appears to have worked this year as the start lists of both events are jam-packed with star power—which also makes it a bit easier for pundits to preview both races simultaneously.
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of favorites for the weekend—with riders ranked according to my confidence in their ability to come through with at least one win.
Tom Boonen – Omega Pharma-Quick Steps’ Tom Boonen is the top favorite for this weekend’s races—both of them—for three simple reasons:
1. His current form is par with that during the best springs of his career.
2. He’s won the E3 Prijs four times and Ghent-Wevelgem twice—including last year’s edition.
3. He rides for the strongest team in both races with Sylvain Chavanel, Dwars-winner Niki Terpstra, and a full complement of able-bodied domestiques at his disposal.
Of course, Boonen might choose to “disguise” his fitness in favor of next weekend’s Monument—then again, he won the E3 and/or the Ronde and Roubaix on two occasions.
Sep Vanmarcke – Of all the riders taking part in this weekend’s races, I’m most excited to see what last year’s E3 Prijs fourth-place finisher, Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, can do. Vanmarcke announced himself as a main contender in this year’s cobbled classics by beating none other than Tom Boonen to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then finished fifth behind Boonen after make the critical split during the windy Stage 2 of Paris-Nice. In Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, the young Belgian laid down an attack on the Oude Kwaremont that blew the peloton apart.
John Degenkolb – I’m going way out on a limb here: Project 1t4i’s Degenkolb took fifth in Milan-San Remo but should be even better this weekend in Belgium. A sprinter who is quickly becoming a classics challenger, I see Degenkolb as Boonen’s top challenger in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. Even thought Marcel Kittel starts alongside him, I think harder parcours at Ghent will suit Degenkolb more. He has also proven himself over the Flemish bergs and stones, while Kittel is a bit more of a cobbled unknown.
Fabian Cancellara – If cycling were truly an individual sport, Cancellara would easily be a 5-Kite favorite. But as we’ve seen, his lack of a teammate talented enough able to draw some attention away from him has hurt Spartacus’ chances in major races. Daniele Bennati’s the team’s best bet currently, he rode a perfect race in support of Cancellara at L’Eroica (a race which Cancellara won) and finished second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem last year. I suspect we’ll see Cancellara do his best to win his third consecutive E3 Prijs Friday, before spending at least the first half of the race Sunday working for his Italian colleague.
Filippo Pozzato – After sixth-place finishes in both Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato looks to have rediscovered the form that won him the E3 Prijs in 2009. Pozzato easily followed Vanmarcke’s Kwaremont surge during the Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and has the added benefit of an in-form Oscar Gatto serving as his lieutenant. While a win would hardly be a surprise, the Italian might choose a more tranquillo approach to the weekend, hiding his good legs until next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Matti Breschel – After a disastrous 2011, Breschel looks to have regained the form he displayed in 2010 when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen and was arguably the strongest rider in the race at Ghent-Wevelgem. Perhaps more importantly, Breschel’s Rabobank team displayed its ability to control the front of the a Saturday at Milan-San Remo, something the Dane will certainly appreciate this weekend. With Lars Boom, Carlos Barredo, and Mark Renshaw (Sunday only), racing as well, there will certainly be enough men in orange to prevent Breschel from being marked exclusively.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire is on the start lists of both events this weekend, but it’s safe to say that his best chance for a win will come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2008. Freire’s enjoyed a good season so far but fell a bit short in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Katusha will likely back Luca Paolini in the E3 Prijs, while the talented young sprinter Denis Galymzianov provides a solid back-up plan on Sunday should Freire falter.
Peter Sagan – Sagan’s also on the list for both races for team Liquigas-Cannondale, but like Freire, the Slovakian a better candidate for Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem than Friday’s E3 Prijs. Sagan’s underwhelmed during his cobbled excursions thus far in his career, but could take his first Flemish scalp Sunday should the course not prove too difficult for him. Daniel Oss is another Liquigas rider to watch—he finished fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010 and ninth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. That said, he and Sagan will need to communicate if the team is to be successful—meaning one rider will have to willingly take a backseat to the other.
BMC – Aside from Alessandro Ballan, BMC has done little over the past two weeks to warrant serious consideration as a contender for this weekend’s races. Philippe Gilbert is still recovering from a sickness from Tirreno. Thor Hushovd has adjusted his program after missing both Milan-San Remo and the Volta Catalunya but is clearly racing to train. Even Greg Van Avermaet has Achilles issues. On a positive note: George Hincapie finished with the leading peloton at Milan-San Remo, a good sign for a rider who often flies under the radar until just the right moment. I’d expect to see the team back Ballan in E3 and Big George Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Adam Blythe bears watching Sunday as well, as does Marcus Burghardt. With such a star-studded roster, who’s going to grab the bottles?
Tyler Farrar – Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar took third in Ghent-Wevelgem last year behind Boonen and Bennati. Still winless in 2012, at Ghent-Wevelgem he has the undivided support of a strong Garmin-Barracuda squad that includes lead-out specialists Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer along with David Millar and Johan Van Summeren to cover breakaways.
Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans, and Marco Marcato – Vacansoleil brings three riders capable of bringing home the team’s first win in a major cobbled classic. Devolder’s the biggest wild card here—he spent the last two season dodging criticism after back-to-back Ronde wins in 2008 and 2009. Leukemans has become one of the most quietly consistent cobbled specialists in the sport without a victory—could he be this year’s Nick Nuyens? As for Marcato, he’s an aggressive rider who can handle himself in the hills and in small group sprints. Look for him to stick his nose out in front at least once over the course of the weekend.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol took a big hit with the crash of Jurgen Roelandts in the Tour Down Under as he was their best for hillier cobbled races—he finished second in the E3 Prijs last year. On Sunday, Andre Greipel is the team’s best chance to score an important home victory at Ghent-Wevelgem. He’ll have the team entirely at his disposal—they should find plenty of help from other squads hoping for a bunch kick as well.
Matthew Goss – Before he won grand tour stages and Milan-San Remo, GreenEdge’s Matt Goss was considered a star-to-be for the cobbled classics. That said, not much has come of it since his third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. Assuming he’s timed his peak a bit later than last year, Goss could continue GreenEdge’s World Tour run with a win Sunday.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Team Sky’s EBH was the last to win Ghent-Wevelgem on a Wednesday—back in 2008. At Tirreno he appeared to be at his best once again, but the Norwegian rode an anonymous Milan-San Remo. Assuming he’s over whatever caused his early exit from Tirreno and flat performance Saturday, he could be one of the best this weekend—especially on Sunday.
Juan Antonio Flecha – If the start list is accurate and he’s only riding Ghent-Wevelgem, don’t expect to see Flecha as a major protagonist Sunday—especially with both Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen lining up beside him. It’s more likely that Flecha’s using the weekend more for training purposes—he knows these roads like the back of his hand and would certainly trade a weekend of teamwork for the sake of their unquestioned support at the Ronde and Roubaix.
Arnaud Demare – The current U23 road race champion from FDJ makes the first World Tour starts of his career this weekend. A talented sprinter, he’s hoping for a high finish in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Lloyd Mondory – Another Frenchman, Ag2r’s Mondory has been steadily proving himself to be a skilled rider in cobbled races. He made Wednesday’s select chase group and has a good chance to at least repeat his fifth-place finish in last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Jose Joaquin Rojas – Aside from Flecha, it’s been a long time since we’ve Spaniards to watch in a cobbled classic. That said, Movistar’s Rojas possesses a powerful sprint and the ability to make important selections in tough races. Ghent-Wevelgem is just his cup of tea.
Kris Boeckmans – With seven top-10 finishes so far in 2012, Vacansoleil’s Kris Boeckmans could finish in the top-10 Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. Without Leukemans and Devolder taking the start and teams with more favored sprinters doing the lion’s share of the work, he should have a relatively easy ride to the finish—if such a thing is possible in a race like Ghent-Wevelgem.
Oscar Gatto – He’ll likely spend most of the weekend working for Pozatto, but Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto is just the type of rider to make Friday’s winning breakaway—and finish third.
Jens Keukelaire – Those who were watching Dwars door Vlaanderen might have witnessed the transformation of GreenEdge’s Jens Keukelaire from a field sprinter to a classics rider. Let’s see if this weekend proves it was no fluke.
The usual protagonists will all be present and accounted for, but this weekend will continue the anointing of two new heroes as Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke wins the E3 Prijs and Project 1t4i’s John Degenkolb wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
Enjoy the races!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are my thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing:
1. After their Belgian victories this past weekend, it’s clear to me that Garmin-Barracuda and Team Sky are two of the best squads in the world—because they understand how to ride as a team.
Heading into the race’s critical phase during Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Garmin sent it’s team to the front, upping the pace and positioning themselves to follow whatever attacks might come. Eventual-winner Sep Vanmarcke was therefore perfectly placed to follow Tom Boonen’s acceleration on the Taaienberg (and to avoid Lars Boom’s somersault).
Sunday, Team Sky kept their fatigued and vomiting world champion out of harm’s way throughout the day, ensuring that he was at or near the front on every climb and safely guiding him through the last 50-kilometers. In the finale, Chris Sutton—the race’s defending champion—and former Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel escorted Cavendish to the line.
In an era dominated by super-teams, Garmin and Sky appear to have a successful formula—especially Garmin, a team that has achieved much success with surprisingly few superstars on its roster. It was an impressive display and most likely served noticed to the rest of the peloton.
2. On the other hand, Team BMC appears to be lacking chemistry at a critical point it’s season. Thor Hushovd was situated right where he needed to be when Boonen attacked Saturday, only to find himself isolated once the move was established—a situation that went from bad to worse once the Norwegian was dropped on the Paddestraat. For a team with so many superstars, management must have been shaking their heads after such a lackluster showing.
3. As for Thor, it is easy to criticize the former world champion for getting dropped, but one must remember: it’s still early in the season (as Thor himself admitted before the race) and at least he made it there in the first place.
4. And Rabobank’s Matti Breschel? It was great see him back at the front of a major cobbled classic—even if he didn’t stay there for long. Give him a few weeks and he’ll be fine.
5. Speaking of poor positioning, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert attributed his mundane showing (31st) to a lack of fitness and poor peloton placement heading into the Taaienberg. But while Gilbert’s result was a disappointment to his fans, it should help him later in the season. I wonder if Gilbert watched how heavily marked Cancellara was during last year’s classics and is making his best effort to avoid the same thing happening to him this spring—at least in Flanders. (Everyone was marking Gilbert in the Ardennes—clearly it made no difference.) Gilbert’s known for the timing of his efforts. Perhaps he saw no need to show his hand too soon?
6. Back to the winner: Saturday’s victory confirms the promise Vanmarcke showed back in 2010 when the youngster—then riding for Topsport-Vlaanderen—finished second in Ghent-Wevelgem. While I questioned Vanmarcke’s aggressive riding during the race Saturday—especially with Boonen and Flecha both having teammates—I now see the wisdom of his tactics. His acceleration on the Paddestraat disposed of Hushovd and Breschel; a second surge would later drop both Hayman and Devenyns. Not many riders would choose to isolate themselves against Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but Vanmarcke was smart to realize that a 1:3 chance is better than a 1:7 chance.
I said before the race that the Omloop tends to announce the arrival of new classics champions. Consider Vanmarcke the best candidate to become Belgium’s next Ronde-Roubaix champion.
7. Vanmarcke’s performance also underscored Tom Boonen’s tactical ineptitude (sorry Tommeke, I want more than ever to see you return to form, but you really blew it Saturday). Yes, Boonen was given the unwelcome title of “pre-race favorite” by many pundits (myself included), but it was certainly not a new position to be in for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider. And while his sharp attack on the Taaienberg was devastatingly effective (and predictable), his actions in the remaining 59 kilometers were confusing and at some points, head-scratchingly immature.
To me it’s apparent that Boonen suffers in races without radios, as the lack of accurate time splits and information regarding what’s happening behind him probably led him to do more than was necessary to see to it that the break stayed clear. Boonen became a professional at a time when radio use was already more or less widespread among the sport’s best teams. After more than 10 years of riding with them, I’m beginning to wonder if riding without them leaves Boonen feeling insecure and under-informed, hence his bull in a china shop tactics. The last “major” race Boonen won was last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run with radios.
8. As for Sunday, Cavendish took his third of the season despite battling sickness. The question now turns to whether the Manxman can forge himself into a contender for Belgium’s biggest sprint prize: Ghent-Wevelgem. A new, longer, and hillier course will attempt to thwart him, but given the depth of Team Sky, it’s hard to discount Cav’s chances. What do you think?
9. For the second year in a row in Kuurne, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent tried at a late-race move. Next year, he might want to try a different tactic.
10. Last but not least, where was GreenEdge this weekend? After more than a year of hype surrounding the formation of the squad, the men in green and black were conspicuously absent from the first important weekend of the season. The team’s best result was 12th in Kuurne. It all goes to show that it takes more than money to build a successful World Tour squad. Like many team’s before them, GreenEdge might find that their first season is filled with more growing pains than victories.
In other news:
11. Like Garmin and Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale deserves mention in any conversation about the best teams in the sport. The team won its ninth race of the season Sunday, as Eros Capecchi defeated Damiano Cunego and Enrico Battaglin to win the GP Lugano.
12. And speaking of Lugano, Battaglin is a rider I missed when compiling my list of Up-and-Comers a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on him—and look for him to be joining a World Tour squad soon. Maybe he can join Moreno Moser at Liquigas?
13. One final question: Michael Matthews won Rabobank’s first race of the year at the Clasica de Almeria in Spain, but why wasn’t he racing in Belgium? Matthews, Taylor Phinney, and John Degenkolb traded blows as U23’s in 2010—why isn’t the Aussie on the same career trajectory as the other two? He certainly possesses similar talent.
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