It was an explosive first week of the season for the Aussie outfit Orica GreenEdge, who had almost a clean sweep of the results board in their home race, the Tour Down Under. Let’s have a look back at some of the highlight of the week, and see how Gerrans ended up once more winning the Ochre jersey.
The tour was bookended by the more predictable, sprint-friendly stages of the tour, and the smart money for the pure sprint finishes was always going to be on Caleb Ewan. Orica showed they had faith in their man by dedicating their strong leadout train to Ewan, and he duly swept in for a clear first place victory. He was followed over the line by Mark Renshaw, and it was good to see him being allowed to compete for his own taste of glory rather than, as we normally see him, leading out Mark Cavendish. Wouter Wippert came in in third, which was an amazing success given his bad placing in the finish, and there was no luck for Matteo Pelucchi, who punctured 11km from the finish.
Stage two had kept us guessing in advance of the race, but our man James rightly drew attention to Diego Ulissi as a favourite for the win in Stirling. The final rise up to the line was enough to shake up the bunch and whittle down the selection, and Ulissi was right there until the end, caught in a skirmish with last year’s overall winner Rohan Dennis. But it was a surprise winner on the day, as the young Tinkoff rider Jay McCarthy made it two wins in a row for Australia, by shooting out of the diminished bunch and streaking across the line in first. It wouldn’t be the last we’d see of him, either. A touch of wheels within the last kilometre, between Lieuwe Westra and Daryl Impey, brought down Impey’s teammate Simon Gerrans, and cost him a shot at the stage.
Two wins for Australia quickly became three, as stage three brought with it the famous Corkscrew Hill climb. In previous years we’ve seen one or two riders make the selection on the climb, and then hold on all the way down the other side to the finish. But this year a much larger group of ten riders made it over, led up by the likes of Richie Porte for BMC and Sergio Henao for Sky. As the group stayed pretty well gelled down the descent, it was clearly going to come down to the best sprinter on the line. Jay McCarthy was once more amongst the best, as was Rohan Dennis, but fastest by a huge margin was Simon Gerrans. Gerrans started his sprint from the back of the group, so truly did well to get around the charging pack to pip Dennis to the line. Gerrans had been dropped from the peloton earlier in the race, due to a crash which left Tylar Ferrar needing a spectators bike to get to the finish, and his win after Corkscrew Hill was a real display of returning form.
Stage four looked like adequate parcours for a second sprint amongst the purists. However, the climb through Port Elliot was hit hard, and it was a much reduced peloton that made it over the other side. Caleb Ewan was dropped, along with other fast favourites, and the remaining Orica riders grouped together to lead out their remaining rider. Simon Gerrans was set up for another astonishing victory in Victor Harbor. The victor came thanks to the expert work of Impey, who guided Gerro in through the final kilometre and set him up well, ensuring he could nip past the faster sprinters (like Ben Swift, who came in second ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo) and win a second stage. Gerrans had also picked up bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint, so he was by now enjoying a healthy lead overall.
Stage five, the Queen stage of the Tour Down Under, featured the double ascent of the legendary Old Willunga Hill. Gerrans was going to have to work hard to keep the Ochre jersey, even with the large buffer of seconds he had at the start of the day. And, though Gerrans did hold on, he was only 8th on the day. A four-man break went off early, claiming a lead of over 6 minutes at one point. The bunch responded with an urgent pace, meaning the break quickly tumbled with the first ascent of Willunga Hill. It was Sky and BMC who shared the work and drove a blistering pace, catching the break by the time they’d hit the second ascent. This meant the stage win was open to whomever proved himself the punchiest climber in the pack. Simon Clarke attacked with 2km to go, and was followed by Rohan Dennis and Lucas Hamilton. Surprisingly, Dennis cracked under the pressure and went backwards — starting the stage third on G.C., and finishing it in sixteenth place. Putting in an enormous effort within the last couple of kilometres, Richie Porte made it five out of five for Australia by peaking first on Old Willunga. It looked like he wouldn’t be able to shake off the chasing Sergio Henao, but, in the final few hundred metres, Henao buckled under the pressure and it was a solo Porte that made it across the line. An impressive performance from Michael Woods brought Cannondale third place on the day.
Stage six, and all that remained for Orica GreenEdge was for Caleb Ewan to win the second pure sprint stage. He managed it, not with ease, but still emphatically, and he was followed in once again by Mark Renshaw in second. Simon Gerrans was still atop the podium, taking his third win overall in the Tour Down Under. All in all, Orica won four out of six stages in the tour, and Australia managed six out of six. The return of Gerrans has been long hoped for but was not fully anticipated, and it was a pleasant surprise with which to start the season. It will be interesting to see him attack his favourite races come spring this year.
Given that Gerrans proved that the punchiest rider, who can pick up stages as well as intermediate sprints, will always win the Tour Down Under, might not it be time for a revamp of the parcours? It would be great to see a bit more variety in the race (rather than the same Corkscrew and Willunga action, thrilling as it is), possibly with the inclusion of a time trial or even team time trial to mix things up. It’s a race that has grown massively in recent years and (for everyone except the Eurocentric traditionalists, who wait for the cold grey cobbles of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), it marks the official start of the cycling calendar. It’s might be time for a few surprises to kick off the season.
In closing, we want to mention a few stand out names amongst the new talent. Jay McCarthy did an incredible job for Tinkoff, and stayed with the best of the riders until the end. Surely he’ll be one to watch this year. Michael Woods, at 29, is at a ripe old age to be starting out for the first time at the world tour level, but he showed he’s got the legs to stay with the best of them, and looked natural and comfortable both on the podium and on his was to the podium. Wouter Wippert suffered from bad placement and mistiming this tour, but the turn of pace was there — we’re expecting some big things and big wins from him in 2016. All in all, it was definitely a pleasure to ring in the new cycling year with some great performances from new and young talents.