The World Tour is back for 2017! And for those of us currently watching the mercury falling in the Northern Hemisphere, watching the sun-drenched roads of South Australia comes as a welcome respite! With the quality of the field growing in each edition, with the likes of Chaves, Sagan and Brambilla joining regulars Gerrans, Thomas and Porte, modern day cycling fans see this race as the new, true, start of the season, leaving traditionalists to wait for a chilly Omloop in February.
Australian’s have dominated the event, with 10 out the 18 previous editions going to native riders (Simon Gerrans with four). And with the national championships having only taken place two weeks ago, the majority of home riders will arrive in decent form and with racing in their legs, leaving the others to rely on winter base miles.
The course has changed little in recent years and the key change for this year’s race is the return of the Paracombe climb, which replaces Corkscrew Hill, on stage two. The GC race is likely to be decided on stage 5 up the famous Willunga Hill (which sees the rider tackle the 3km climb, with an average gradient of 7.4%, twice) but the margin of overall victory has always been tight and never more than a handful of seconds, so the Stage 2 finish atop the climb to Paracombe will also play a big factor in who goes away with the ochre jersey.
Richie Porte made it a hat-trick of wins atop Willunga in 2016 but was again runner-up overall. After getting used to his new team and setup at BMC last season, which saw him as arguably Froome’s main challenge at the Tour until multiple mechanicals and the ‘Ventoux incident’ struck, we think he will be a very tough contender to beat (in this race and the season ahead). But this will be his first outing of the year, so we’ll see what he’s put into his mind and legs during his winter training.
It’s tough to say what shape the reigning champion, Simon Gerrans, is in. Yes, he was pipped to second in the Australian national championships by a well-timed late attack from Miles Scotson (who will be showing off his green and gold bands at this race), but he had a season to forget in 2016, his only significant result coming at this race. At 36, he must be entering his final or at least penultimate season. Can he go for one last shot at glory in his home race? It’s dangerous to underestimate him, but we don’t feel he has another overall win in him. If anything Orica-Scott have a better GC chance in the shape of Estaban Chaves, but you know the team, with its famous ‘matesmanship’ ethos, will do anything to get Gerrans another win.
Rounding off the home talent we have a trio of exciting young Aussies who could all spring a surprise, for the podium at least, if not for the win.
Lachlan Morton makes his return to the world tour, having fell out of love with it during 2013 and 2104 with Garmin-Sharp. One of the more interesting and alternative riders in the peloton, Lachlan and his brother then went on a journey of self-discovery; cycling 2,500km across the Australian outback in what would become the first of two ‘Thereabouts’ documentaries (number three is currently in the works), both essential viewing for anyone who knows the joy of getting lost within yourself on a bike. For the last two years, he has also raced for the US Pro-Conti team Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis, with whom he won the mountainous Tour of Utah and the equally hilly Tour of the Gila in 2016. Making the call to remove himself from the top of the sport was a brave, but wise, one. But 2017 will be one of expectation for Morton, from his cult fanbase and his new team Dimension Data, whose lack of GC World Tour points nearly saw them relegated and must have been a factor in the hiring of the young Aussie. A strong pick for the podium and possibly more, if the wind blows his way.
Jay Mcarthy has followed his teammate Peter Sagan, from Tinkov to Bora-Hansgrohe for 2017. He announced himself as one the bright young things of Australian cycling when he took Stage 2 and finished 4th in GC at last year’s race. To achieve that again this year will be a tough ask, as the hilltop finish on the stage is more severe than the scene of his victory on that same stage in 2016. He will also have a role to pay in support of Sagan on the flatter or more undulating stages, but his performance last year will have earned him some stature within his new team.
Now, we did say a trio of exciting, young Australian riders, and whilst Cameron Myer isn’t young in a pro cyclist sense, he is still Australian and potentially exciting! Like Morton, he opted to take some time out, after becoming disillusioned with the sport, away from the World Tour and, ironically, left Morton’s new team midway through last year. Since then he raced on the track at the end of 2016 and has earned a spot on the UNISA team for this race. It will be interesting to see if that time away from the pressures of the World Tour, will have the same effect as it did for Morton. What is for sure is that he will be able to ride with more freedom and less expectation on him, and that could be exactly what he needs.
Looking away from Australia’s chance of a home winner, there are five other riders that we will be looking out for.
This is a key year for Geraint Thomas, the final year of his contract at Sky and probably the final chance to show he is a genuine Grand Tour contender, despite us at Marmeladrome think he should stick to focusing on week long stage races and spring classics, but more on that another time! He has stellar support in the shape of the Henao brothers, fellow Welshmen Luke Rowe and powerhouse Ian Stannard.
Owain Doull (who Bradley Wiggins described as the next Geraint Thomas during the Rio Olympics) Kenny Ellisonde is a late replacement for a sick Owain Doull, also hinting that the team is riding for Sergio Henao, rather than Thomas. He has won far bigger stage races than this, Paris-Nice last year the main example, so delivering on expectation is no issue. He is going to be Sky’s co-leader at the Giro, so will be keen to get results early on in 2017. He could be the one to get closest to our favourite Richie Porte.
Micheal Woods, of Cannondale Drapac, was another of the standout performances of last year’s race, taking 5th overall and 3rd in both the summit finishes on stage 2 and stage 5. A late debutant to the World Tour at 29 the former runner will be supported by the antipodean duo of Patrick Bevin an
d Brendan Canty, who nearly took a surprise win at the Australian nationals, with an ultimately ill-timed attack (he crossed the line at the end of the penultimate lap celebrating the win). Brendan Canty has had to withdraw, due to illness, and will be replaced New Zealander Tom Scully. Like Mcarthy, it will be hard for Woods to replicate last year’s performance but with a year of racing in the World Tour under his belt he’ll be well placed to give it a go.
Another man on a new team, Wilco Kelderman, will want to better his previous best overall position of 6th in 2013. No doubt he will have been promised a crack at a Grand Tour with Team Sunweb, but will it be a leaders role? He has fellow Dutchman Tom Dumoulin to battle that out with, so he is another man who needs a strong start to the year. We think he’ll have his best result here in 2017.
One of the old men of the peloton, Robert Gesink, had somewhat of a renaissance last year, winning a stage at the Vuelta and finishing in the top 5 on three other occasions in that race, which was fantastic to see. He was also 7th at Il Lombardia. Now, we don’t think he has the speed in his legs to nab those all important time bonuses on the flatter stages to really make him a GC challenger, but he could spring a surprise on Willunga Hill.
Louis Meintjes, now at the renamed UAE Abu Dhabi, had a good year in 2016; picking up top 5 stages finishes in the mountains at the Tour de France and Criterium de Dauphine, he was also seventh in the Olympic road race. There will be added pressure on him and his teammates from the new team owners for some early glory to justify their multi-million dollar investment, which might be tough for Meintjes who has looked to start the year slowly and peak during May and June.
Outside the battle for the ochre jersey, there will be a likely two-way battle between Peter Sagan and Caleb Ewan for the sprint finishes. The reigning and double world champion will certainly draw the crowds in, but Ewan has looked in brilliant form in the recent Australian criteriums. He won the curtain raising People’s Choice criterium and two other stages at last year’s race and made them look easy. It won’t be as easy this year with Sagan in the mix – but Ewan has him beat in a flat out speed. It will be great to watch these two go up against each other. One should also note that the last time Sagan raced here was in 2010 when he finished fourth on Willunga hill – so he may not just have stage wins on his mind!
Sagan’s teammate Sam Bennett showed his intentions by beating the world champion to second place behind a speeding Ewan in the People’s Choice Classic. He promised much in 2016 but didn’t deliver. Other fast men who should be challenging for the wins are Ben Swift (UAE Abu Dhabi), Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), Niccolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida), Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data) and Edward Thuens (Trek Segafredo). Other stage win hunters on lumpier days come in the shape of Gianluca Brambilla (Quick-Step Floors), Thomas De Gent (Lotto Soudal) and Jarlinson Pantano (Trek Segafredo), all Grand Tour stage winners in 2016.
Hope you enjoyed our first preview of 2017, it’s good to be back!