Here we are once more, on the threshold of a new cycling season, and preparing ourselves for one of the few late-night, caffeine-fuelled events on the cycling spectator’s calendar. The Tour Down Under kicks off a new year of pro cycling, with a selection of flattish and sprint-friendly stretches of Adelaide roads, rounded off with a couple of goes up the famous Old Willunga Hill climb. The race has been won overall by a variety of rider styles, but the general classification will typically come down to whomever can punch their way up Willunga the fastest, which brings into play the usual climb-capable G.C. men, but also a range of powerful uphill sprinters and classics riders. It’s a great start to the year, which is often treated with respect by home riders who target a win on their own turf. Expect the Aussies to have been on the training rides over Christmas.
Stage 1 is the first test for the sprinters, and all eyes will be on Orica-GreenEdge’s Caleb Ewan. Can he deal with the pressure of racing on home soil? Today’s win at the Peoples Choice Classic suggest the answer is yes! Much is also expected from Wouter Wippert, who took a stage win here in 2015 whilst riding for the Drapac team. Other fast men who’ll be challenging are Ben Swift, Giacomo Nizzolo and also Matteo Pelucchi. Stage One’s podium will likely feature Ewan, Wippert and Pelucchi.
This is a race that will see plenty of breakaways attempting to catch out the peloton, with most riders not yet fully in race mode. Jack Bobridge did exactly that in last year’s Tour Down Under and in the recent Australian national championships and he’ll be keen to pull off that trick twice, but he’ll be a marked man. We also have two of the best in the business in the shape of Alessandro De Marchi and Adam Hansen. Stage 2 offers a great chance for a breakaway, but the fast circuits of Stirling and the final ramp uphill will make things tough for escapees. Instead, the likelier winners are either a sprinter who can handle an uphill finish, or else a climber with a decent final kick. Riders like Diego Ulissi, Juan Jose Lobato, Simon Gerrans or even G.C. guys like Geraint Thomas, Simon Clarke or Richie Porte all stand a good chance of taking a win and some healthy bonus seconds on the line.
Stage 3 has got breakaway written all over it. If the likes of De Marchi or Hansen get in the break alongside some of the local Aussie teams then it’ll be hard for the peloton to ever bring them back. The group or rider that reaches the summit of Corkskrew Hill first will race for victory – simple as that. As well as those just mentioned, Rafael Valls or Julián Arredondo would be good picks for this one. If the peloton do in fact pull the break back, then it’ll be another G.C. fight for bonus points – in which case, may the best descender win.
Stage 4 is another break-friendly day, and the G.C. teams will most likely want to hold something back for stage 5. It’s not the same fast and furious final 10km that yesterday’s descent of Corkscrew Hill will have introduced, so expect multiple attempts to form a break through the day. If the break makes it we could see riders like Oscar Gatto, Peter Kennaugh or Enrico Battaglin come away with the win. If it’s a bunch sprint, look to stronger sprinters like Giacomo Nizzolo, Ben Swift and Juan Jose Lobato.
Stage 5, and the decisive stage of this year’s Tour Down Under, circled in red pen in all G.C. riders’ road books. The doubled ascent of Willunga Hill will likely create time splits which can’t be recovered on tomorrow’s stage, so the winner here is very probably going to take the tour. The way Willunga is raced will depend on whether any significant gaps have opened in the G.C. so far; if there are gaps, then today will be an aggressive, attack-heavy finale, and should make for great racing. Richie Porte is favourite for Stage 5, but Simon Gerrans has proven he can time his attacks to perfection on Willunga, and, after a rotten 2015 season, he’ll surely be going all out for an early-season win. We’re also looking to Louis Meintjes to try to catch the other favourites napping, but it’ll be tough given that everyone in the race knows that Willunga is the critical stretch of road.
By Stage 6, if the G.C. battle is still tight after Willunga, we’re going to see contenders fighting for bonus points on the intermediate sprint. However, at only 90km, this is going to be a fast and furiously raced stage which can surely only end in a sprint finish. This is the last chance for Ewan, Wippert, Pelucchi, et al to have a go, and, barring any crashes, we’re not going to see a dramatic shift in the over all top ten.
James: Louis Meintjes. The young South African will cope with the southern hemisphere heat. James thinks the main general classification guys will give him a little too much freedom, and he could take the win on Willunga to seal the overall.
Chris: Riche Porte. Playing the favourite card, Chris is opting for Porte out of the top contenders, as he thinks Richie will want to do his new team proud, and he’s always gone well in his home race before.
Andy: Simon Gerrans. Andy opts for the bookies’ overall favourite, Simon Gerrans. Gerro won here in 2014, and still has what it takes to win in the lumpier sprint finishes, as well as the powerful kick to give him and edge up Old Willunga.
Due to the time difference (and the demands of actual, paid work) we won’t be doing daily stage reports. Instead, we’ll be back the following week with our review of the entirety of the Tour Down Under.