Australia's WorldTour race put into perspective
With another winner crowned at the Santos Tour Down Under, it's time to asses the 15th running of the Australian race that signals the start to the 2013 season. Here are five conclusions from the opening round of the WorldTour.
Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) winning his second TDU title in 2012 was exactly what organisers planned when they introduced the hilltop finish at Old Willunga. The race was still owned by the fast-men and their lead-out trains so for 2013, the course offered another hurdle: Corkscrew Road.
This year's course with Corkscrew, additional laps around Stirling and generally tougher parcours reduced sprinter opportunities. André Greipel was the quickest in January, winning four races in a little over a week but he was never in contention for another title. The TDU is no longer a race for the sprinters. Just ask Marcel Kittel and Matt Goss. They admitted the route was now too tough for them to have an impact on GC.
Corkscrew road eliminated many of the pre-race favourites with its 17% gradient hairpins and punchy nature. Granted, a huge pile-up on the run-in to the finish of Stage 2 dashed the ambitions of many of the GC contenders - even if some of them had the condition. The TDU needed Corkscrew. Fans flock to Adelaide for the fantastic riding but also to watch an exciting race. Organisers need to keep it fresh if they are to continue to pack the roadside with die-hard fans.
Some 20-odd riders could have won the title at the top of Old Willunga Hill and the overall victor was not determined until the front runners passed the 'red kite'. Tom-Jelte Slagter (Blanco) was patient before taking back his five-second deficit to Thomas. A new winner was crowned.
The final race around Adelaide City was not a formality. The Sprint and KOM titles were still up for grabs and this gave fans a reason to cheer outside of Greipel talking his 100th career win.
Sky mean business for the Classics; Lotto Belisol just mean business
André Greipel has made the Tour Down Under his own in recent years, with a record 13 stage wins to his name. His team, Lotto Belisol, proved once again that they have the early-season jump on the other sprint trains in the peloton and were virtually untouchable on the flat stages throughout the week.
Was it that other teams did not come prepared? There was definitely an element of that, with Orica GreenEdge admittedly still fine-tuning, Blanco with dual responsibilities all week, Sky concentrated on GC and Argos-Shimano just not quite there despite a good set-up however, the Lotto train is just that good. Will it be just the start of another 18-win season? The Tour Down Under is just one race, but all the signs are there.
Sky's approach was to use the race as a strategic stepping stone to the Classics – one of just two races the squad will do with a focus on training rather than racing in the lead up to Paris-Roubaix. Geraint Thomas had been in Australia with teammate CJ Sutton since December 29, with Tim Kerrison having carefully devised a plan that should if it goes to plan not only improve on what David Brailsford labelled as a "sh*t" campaign in 2012, but also net Sky their first cobbled Classics victory.
Thomas was flying on the Corkscrew ascent setting up his stage win and stint in ochre, making arguably better climbers look comparatively ordinary but couldn't match the likes of Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) and Tom-Jelte Slagter (Blanco) on the final charge up Willunga on Sunday. If Kerrison's plan pays off, 2013 will be about more than just the battle between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome when it comes to Sky.
Blanco could not have got the season off to a better start
With Dutch cycling embroiled in an investigation into its doping past, Team Blanco, in its first race for the season in a promised 'fresh start and clean slate' delivered a perfect result with Tom-Jelte Slagter scoring the overall win, along with a stage victory in Stirling, his first as a professional. The 23-year-old, along with Mark Renshaw also delivered three other podiums for the six-stage race.
After a performance like that it would be a shame for the blue, black and white kit to spend the rest of the season free of a major sponsor.
One performance from the team which flew a bit under the radar was that of another young-gun Wilco Kelderman, who finished 6th overall, 34 seconds behind Slagter. The 21-year-old was 7th overall at the Tour of California and 8th overall at the Dauphine in 2012 and he is likely to get his debut Grand Tour start at the Giro this year. Dutch cycling is indeed in good hands.
Plenty of comparisons have been made between the Tour Down Under and Tour de San Luis – both running consecutively and attracting many of the biggest names in the sport.
San Luis, with its 2.1 status managed to grab arguably more of the sport's top sprinters (Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen - who was a late withdrawal) and GC men (Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez) than the TDU however the importance of WorldTour points cannot be discounted. You don't need to fully understand the WorldTour circuit to appreciate that without points, a rider has little value.
Many who raced San Luis didn't 'need' the TDU. They will accumulate more than enough WorldTour results to secure a hefty contract for the coming season. But those who hunted a top-10 overall in Australia were not doing it just for post pre-season training. TDU offered an opportunity that would otherwise not be presented later in the year. It made sense for riders with good early-season condition to race TDU and race it well. Team car position for the early spring classics and a bit of personal security is more than enough reason to travel Down Under.
Orica GreenEdge arrive fit in Adelaide
It was a motivated and fit Orica GreenEdge team that lined up for a second Tour Down Under appearance. The squad arrived free from injuries but still failed to deliver on the extremely high expectations.
Matt Goss came close on two occasions to taking his first win since Stage 3 at last year's Giro d'Italia but didn't have the speed to beat the in-form Greipel or Slagter's early jump at Sterling on Stage 4.
Road and time trial champion Luke Durbridge was a standout performer. Even on the days working tirelessly on the front, he was often attacking with the counter-moves. He rode aggressively and who knows what could have happened if he managed to infiltrate one of the day's breaks.
Daryl Impey along with Jens Mouris should also prove vital to Goss' season objectives. The strength of Mouris was put on display many times while Impey has proven his spot in Goss' lead-out train.
As defending champion it seemed like anything but a record-breaking third TDU title would be failure for Gerrans however, he managed to bounce back from a disappointing start to the race by winning the queen stage at Old Willunga. In similar fashion to last year it was Gerrans and Old Willunga that saved the team's tour. As the 'local' team they have to perform at Down Under. No excuses.
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