O'Grady: 'Better than a Tour stage'

Was yesterday's victory in the HEW Cyclassics Cup the best of Stuart O'Grady's career? The Aussie ce

Was yesterday's victory in the HEW Cyclassics Cup the best of Stuart O'Grady's career? The Aussie ce
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Stuart O'Grady's name wouldn't have been the most popular selection as the winner of Sunday's HEW Cyclassics World Cup race in Hamburg yesterday even a few kilometres from the line when the Australian got across the front group containing all of the pre-race favourites. Sure, O'Grady has come close to winning World Cup events in the past, most notably when third at the Tour of Flanders last year, but Paolo Bettini, David Rebellin, Erik Zabel and Igor Astarloa were also at the front and all four have a good record in the German event. As it turned out, though, Astarloa went too early to hang on into the headwind up the finishing straight and added a third place to the second and fourth he has previously taken at the HEW, while Bettini, despite the ideal lead-out from Luca Paolini, was a frustrated second as the wind also got the better of him in the last five metres. O'Grady judged it best and appeared out of the pack just when it counted, and afterwards the Australian said he felt victory in Hamburg was better than winning a stage of the Tour - and hats off to him for backing one of the second-level World Cup events with such glowing praise. "A World Cup win is more important than a stage of the Tour, and with five climbs up the [Waseberg] hill this was a much harder race than in previous years," said O'Grady, who celebrates his 31st birthday on Friday. "It was hard and it was fast and then I beat an awful lot of good people in the sprint - Bettini, Astarloa, Freire. Finding myself in the middle of them on the podium is a really great feeling." O'Grady once again admitted it had been a hard year for him and his Cofidis team, which pulled of racing for a month earlier in the season in the wake of a series of doping-related episodes. Despite, the time out, the Aussie still thinks this is "the best season of my career". "This is my 10th season as a pro and since last year I feel I've been stronger after 200 kilometres. After my first really great Tour in 2001, I also had problems with my iliac artery. I had an operation on this in 2002 and it took me almost a year to come back to the top level. Now I'm racing with two legs and things are going a lot better," he said. O'Grady thanked team-mate Matt White for the work he had done in the closing kilometres to help get his team leader back up to the front group, and admitted his focus now is to keep the great form he has brought out of the Tour and take it into the Olympics in two weeks. Although now up to fourth in the World Cup standings behind Rebellin, Bettini and Freire, O'Grady is skipping this coming weekend's San Sebastian Classic and fine-tuning his Olympic preparation at the Tour of Denmark, which starts on Wednesday. "If I don't race there it would be very easy to lose the condition I've got from the Tour," explained O'Grady, whose name won't be easily overlooked in Athens in two weeks' time.

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