The first World Tour race of the season is ready to go underway in Australia, where some of the biggest stars are lining-up for the 17th edition of the Tour Down Under. After starting as a sprinters race, it evolved over the years and has become more suited to puncheurs and climbers, with the likes of Cadel Evans, Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte and Tom-Jelte Slagter amongst the riders who made the race more exciting with some fierce attacks and superb stage wins.
As was the case with the previous editions, there will be time bonuses, 3-2-1 at the intermediate sprints, and 10-6-4 at the finish of each stage. The leader of the race will wear the ochre jersey (introduced in 2006), and besides it, there will be other three jerseys put up for grabs, rewarding the best sprinter, the best climber and the best young rider. The winner will get 100 World Tour points and will get to lead the individual classification at least until March.
Stage one of the Tour Down Under will take the peloton to Campbelltown, where Cadel Evans won last year, but the 2011 Tour de France winner can’t repeat that feat, as the Corkscrew Climb isn’t on the route anymore. This means the fast men of peloton will fight for the win in what will be the first of the three opportunities they’ll have at this edition. The final kilometer is slightly uphill, but not technical, so the power sprinters of the bunch will be the ones to watch for.
One day later, the riders will tackle the traditional Sterling finish (1,3 km long, 7,1% gradient), where is very likely to see a strong sprinter or a puncheur going for it. With the ascent not being so long, a rider who jumps from the bunch at the right moment can come home first. This doesn’t mean the GC contenders will not play along, as the bonus second will make the finish very interesting to them. Most likely, the ochre leader will pass on another rider’s shoulders.
Stage three has some undulating roads and a circuit the peloton will face three times. There’s a climb – Torrens Hill Road – waiting at the finish, where the main contenders, after fighting for the best position at the front, will have the first real showdown on a tough hill, with gradients of 10%, 15% and even 20%. Paracombe is a new addition on the race’s course and is expected to deliver some proper fireworks and significant splits in the bunch.
Day four of racing has some climbs and that could help the breakaway stick to the line, although the sprinters teams will try to control the escape and set up their leaders for the finish in Mount Barker. The main problem for the peloton will not come from the undulating route, which will bring a steady climb in the last 40 kilometers, but from the crosswinds, which can make the race very frantic. Thus, the GC riders will have an extra reason to stay at the front and make sure they won’t be caught off guard. If everything will go fine, then the sprinters will be in the spotlight in Mount Barker.
Stage five will bring the Old Willunga Hill, a climb which can help the contenders create some important gaps, if they will have the legs. Willunga Hill – 3 kilometers long and with an average gradient of 7,5% – will be climbed twice, first time with 26 kilometers remaining, and then at the finish, when it will be the scene of a fine showdown between the climbers. Last year, Richie Porte won at the top, with a 10 seconds advantage over Simon Gerrans, but it wasn’t enough to help the Sky rider take the GC, as Gerrans made sure of gaining a lot of bonifications during the race. For the pure climbers, it will be important to leave behind the fast cyclists, because the road eases up in the last 100 meters, which favors the guys who have an extra kick.
Last day of the race will take the peloton to the streets of Adelaide, for the traditional criterium (40 laps of 2,5 kilometers) that will give one last chance to the sprinters. Former winners of the Adelaide stage include André Greipel, Ben Swift, Robbie McEwen, Chris Sutton and Francesco Chicchi.
Richie Porte is very lean, in great shape and comes here with the Aussie ITT under his belt and ready to win a second World Tour race, after Paris-Nice in 2013. Last year, Porte stormed on the Willunga Hill to take a memorable victory, which helped him finish 4th in the GC, just 10 seconds off Simon Gerrans. This season, he will have also the finish to Paracombe to make the difference, so there’s a pretty big chance he’ll take the GC, especially as he can count on a strong team, which includes former stage winner Geraint Thomas and British champion Peter Kennaugh. A triumph in Down Under would be very important for Porte’s confidence before returning to Europe, where he’s expected to lead Sky at the Paris-Nice and Giro d’Italia.
Making his 9th appearance in what will be his penultimate race, Cadel Evans knows the race inside out and has a huge motivation to be first in the GC, after missing on the win for just a second last season. The 37-year-old, three times winner of the best climber jersey, is well-known for being a fine tactician, so watch out for him to pick a moment to attack when everyone can be caught off guard. He too is backed by a strong team (Rohan Dennis, Silvan Dillier, Peter Stetina) and has the advantage of being fast from a small group, which means the 2009 world champion will go for some bonifications that can prove decisive at the end of the race.
Another Aussie who can rock the race is Nathan Haas, who stepped up in the past season and improved his climbing skills. He came 5th last year in Down Under, but now he can think of at least a top 3. Haas will be protected by the likes of Ryder Hesjedal, Davide Villella and Moreno Moser, who can all help him on the undulating roads of the race. With Simon Gerrans out of the race, the versatile Haas is Australia’s second best chance of taking the honors in this 17th edition, but it will be very important not to lose so much time on the Willunga Hill like last year, when he came 17 seconds after Porte had already crossed the finish line.
How about Luis Leon Sanchez? Many aren’t considering him a top favorite, but that could turn out to be a mistake, as the Astana rider is motivated to start the year with a bang and prove what he’s worth. When it comes to the Spanish cyclist, one should remember he always has a great start to the season, regardless of the race he does. Winner of the Tour Down Under in 2005, when he and Alberto Contador ripped the peloton to pieces on the Willunga Hill, Sanchez feels like home here and can take also a stage win while going for the GC.
After losing defending champion Simon Gerrans due to a collarbone injury, Orica-GreenEdge had to find a Plan B, which looks to be Daryl Impey, winner of the Tour of Alberta last September. The 30-year-old South-African has a very fast finish and can also climb, enough to make him one of the favorites for the overall. Also, thanks to his sprinting skills on tough terrain, he doesn’t need to attack and can just take wheels instead, waiting for the last meters to make the difference.
2014 saw Tom Dumoulin get his first World Tour win (in the Eneco Tour ITT), as well as finishing 3rd against the clock, behind Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin, at the Ponferrada World Championships. Never before he has started the season so early, but that shouldn’t be a problem for the Giant-Alpecin rider, who will be mixing his GC hopes with helping Marcel Kittel on the flat stages. The main problem for Dumoulin – who will have Simon Geschke alongside – is that he lacks the kick Porte, Evans or Sanchez have, although there’s always the possibility to take people by surprise after he focused more on developing his climbing skills in the winter.
Uni-SA comes at the start with a very strong team, spearheaded by the talented Robert Power and Jack Haig. Power will make his debut here and many are curious to see what the 19-year-old can do against the pros, after such a strong season in 2014, which saw him win three one-day races in Italy and finish second in the Tour de l’Avenir (best result ever for an Australian rider). When it comes to Haig, he’s returning here after a fine ride last year, which saw him win the best young rider jersey, as well as finishing 17th. Also worth mentioning is that Jack Haig has had a strong start to the season last week, with top 10 placings in the U23 road race and time trial at the Nationals.
So who else can light up the race? One obvious pick is Tiago Machado, Katusha’s leader, who is returning to the World Tour after a year with NetApp-Endura, during which he won his first stage race, the Tour de Slovenie. Machado was 3rd back in 2012 and he sure is capable of another podium. Another outsider who can make himself noticed is Blel Kadri, stage winner at the 2014 Tour de France, in the Vosges Mountains. He likes this type of finishes, has a good record in Down Under and is expected to be the leader of the team, despite the presence of Domenico Pozzovivo, whose goals will come later in the season.
Another interesting outsider is Movistar’s Gorka Izagirre. Starting his 6th season as a pro, the Basque rider made quite an impression in 2013, when he finished 7th on the Willunga Hill, just 16 seconds behind Simon Gerrans, the winner of the stage, but ahead of Kenny Elissonde, Ivan Santaromita or Geraint Thomas. Besides him, other names to watch include Etixx-Quick Step duo David de la Cruz and Pieter Serry, LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett (5th in the New Zealand National Championships), Drapac’s Tim Roe, who looks ready for a new start in his career, and Adam Hansen, best climber of the 2014 race, who will most likely try to slip away and get a win.
When it comes to the sprints, things are much simpler: Marcel Kittel, winner of the People’s Choice Classic on Sunday, will be the overwhelming favorite on the flat stages, the German’s goal being to take a win after he disappointed in the previous two years in Oz. Australian champion Heinrich Haussler is very confident and on a rise after taking the national title and should be a protagonist in the sprints, as well as Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo, who’s still searching for his first World Tour win in more than two years.
Other sprinters worth following are Greg Henderson, Mark Renshaw, Gianni Meersman (when the finish becomes too tough for the pure sprinters), Juan Jose Lobato, criterium champion Steele Von Hoff, Lorrenzo Manzin (a neo-pro, but who can be one of the season’s revelations), Wouter Wippert, and Lampre-Merida’s Niccolo Bonifazio, who scored some impressive wins in the last races of 2014.
– The Tour Down Under was created in 1999 and in 2008 it became the first UCI World Tour event outside Europe
– First rider to take a stage was Nicolaj Bo Larsen, from Denmark
– Simon Gerrans has the most GC wins, three: 2006, 2012, 2014
– Another Aussie rider, Stuart O’Grady, collected the most podiums, six, including two wins
– As expected, Australia has the most GC wins since the inception of the race, 9, and the most stage wins, 48
– André Greipel is missing from this year’s race, but the German will be sure of remaining the on top of the stage wins all-time classification, with 16 victories
– Robbie McEwen (2002) and André Greipel (2008) share the record for the most stage wins at one edition, 4
– No road race world champions has ever won the Tour Down Under
– Luis Leon Sanchez (21) is the youngest winner of the race, the oldest being Patrick Jonker (34)
– Biggest winning margin came in 2004, when Patrick Jonker finished 1:13 ahead of Robbie McEwen
– Four former winners will be at the start in 2015: Michael Rogers, Luis Leon Sanchez, Martin Elmiger and Cameron Meyer
– Longest stage (McLaren Vale – Victor Harbor, 165,5 km) came in 2001 and was won by Italy’s Alessio Galletti
– On two occasions (2003 and 2012), first two riders in the GC had the same time
– 2006 was the year of the hottest edition, with four consecutive days over 42 degrees
– Adelaide is the city with most stage starts and finishes