Tour Down Under: 10 riders to watch

Tour Down Under Countdown: 5 days to go

From its humble beginnings the Tour Down Under has grown into a world class event attracting past-World Champions and Tour de France winners. Cyclingnews has picked the top ten riders to watch including contenders for the Ochre Jersey, rising stars and fan favourites as we count down to the start of the 2014 WorldTour season.

Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) - A two-time winner of the race (2006 and (2012) and clearly in form after an impressive win last weekend at the Australian national championships, Gerrans will start the Tour Down Under as a clear favourite but enjoys that status due to his well-drilled and motivated team as much as his own personal form. Dominating a peloton largely made up of domestic and pro-continental teams can pose less of a challenge than winning the Tour Down Under but unlike their European counterparts GreenEdge haven’t had to travel from Europe or the US for the first WorldTour event of the season. Much will be expected from both the partisan public and the peloton in terms of workload and eventually results but their record since 2012 has been strong. The team have a number of secondary options should Gerrans falter as he did in 2013.

Richie Porte (Team Sky) - A podium place at the nationals underlined Porte’s condition and after a long stint of training in Tasmania the Sky rider is one to watch on Old Willunga Hill. He may lack the zip of Gerrans, and this will be his first outing in the race, but with a Sky team stacked with solid domestiques and not to mention last year’s one-time race leader in Geraint Thomas, Sky could well be Orica-GreenEdge’s major threat to overall honours. Porte has played down his chances of success, instead publicly reminding everyone that the Giro d’Italia remains his main objective of the season but a strong start to the year certainly would boost the rider’s confidence in what could well be the most important season in his career to date.

Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) - The 23-year-old was fifth overall in 2012 whilst riding for the Jayco AIS front, and picked up the king of the mountains jersey thanks to aggressive but astute riding. He missed last year’s event but returns to the race after a highly impressive season for a neo pro that included the overall at the Tour of Alberta and a stint in yellow at the Dauphine. He even crammed in a week at the Tour de France for good measure too. With defending champion Slagter at home with his wife expecting child Dennis, who has talked up his chances since November, becomes Garmin’s leader. A crash in the national championships time trial seems to have been over come too.

Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) - Like Gerrans, Greipel has won this race on two occasions, albeit on more sprinter friendly terrain, but there’s no questioning the German’s tally of stage wins, which currently stand at 14: the most by any other rider in the race’s history. The German sprinter won three stages last year, as well as the Brussels Cycling Classic, and with a reliable leadout alongside him he should be in the mix. The bad news for Greipel is that Marcel Kittel has also made the trip from Europe and with the Giant-Shimano rider hoping to win for his new sponsor, Greipel may have to be at his best in order to fend off his younger rider. There are other sprinters in the race, of course, with Fenn, Rojas, Viviani, Brown, Matthews, Goss, and Ferrari all capable of challenging on their day but Greipel remains the benchmark coming into the race and only Kittel has the potential to consistently better him.

Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing) - Swansong or not the veteran German isn’t the type to merely turn up and coast around without making an impression of some sort. Whether it’s grimacing with pain as he hurtles along with the bunch desperately clinging on for dear life or a long break in a bid to thwart the sprinters, the 42-year-old will want to kick-start the year with a flourish. In one aspect Voigt has come full circle, having begun his career with an Australian team in 1997 but there will be little sign of sentimentality when he starts attacking.

Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) -  Marcel Kittel was practically invisible at last year’s Tour Down Under. While his compatriot André Greipel was notching up another three stage victories, the best he managed was sixth on stage 4. This season the pressure will be on to get the first victory in Giant-Shimano colours. Along with the category 1 Menglers Hill 12km from the finish, the slight rise to the finish on the opening day may cause him some problems. However, if his team can get him to the bottom of the final rise first, he may be able to use his power to build a gap. Of the three flat stages, the final day will be best suited to his raw speed. The road is fairly flat and there is a good distance of straight road, after the final corner, for Kittel to get the power down. The German showed that he’s difficult to beat and, if he makes the final cut, he’ll be the clear favourite to take victory every time.

Cadel Evans (BMC) -  After a four-year gap, Cadel Evans is finally making a return to his home race. The Australian has taken one stage victory, back in 2002, but has yet to win the general classification. Evans will be using the earlier than usual start as preparation for the Giro d’Italia in May. He has remained cautious on his title hopes, with the presence of Simon Gerrans and Richie Porte taking some of the pressure off. However, his second place at the national championships last week shows that he is in some good form. If Evans’ main target is another stage win, he may try a do or die move off Menglers Hill. The sharp turns in the final few kilometres could prove beneficial for a breakaway attempt. Watch Evans on Stage 5 to Willunga Hill too. It is the hardest climb of the week and a good place to test where his legs are. While he might struggle to match Gerrans and Porte for victory, Evans is a good contender for the podium.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) - Geraint Thomas should provide Team Sky with a very good back up to their main GC hope Richie Porte, as well as a strong contender for a stage victory. With Porte present at the race, he will probably have to work for his teammate, but he may get his own opportunities to shine. His target will be a stage victory. The Welshman won on the hilly stage 2 to Rostrevor, after an attack saw him hold off the chasers by a second. The lumpy stage 4 could be an opportunity for him to add another stage victory to his palmarès, although he’ll have to battle against some of the sprinters if hopes to get it. With the classics only a few weeks away, Thomas will be keen to get his season off to a quick start, using the race to gain some miles in the warm weather.

Caleb Ewan (UniSA) - While Caleb Ewan’s appearance as the Tour Down Under was hardly in doubt baring serious injury, the 19-year-old proved his skill and speed at the Australian road championships with wins in the criterium and the road race. With his growing reputation backed up by wins, Ewan has stated that he enters the race with serious ambitious of victory and is looking to test himself against the likes of Greipel and Kittel. While Ewan may not set the race alight this time around, he looks assured of challenging for stage win records in years to come, a surprise stage win may just be on the cards

Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) -  Prior to the 2013 Tour de France not many people would have picked Jan Bakelants to have won a stage and spent two days in yellow. The Belgian has been reinvigorated by his first professional win and with the move to Omega Pharma-Quick Step is hoping for more opportunities. Bakelants was sixth overall at the Tour Down Under in 2012 while last year be recorded several top ten overall places suggesting that he may be on the verge of an overall victory in a week-long race. Bakelants was the overall winner at the 2008 Tour L’Avenir and having tasted victory last year, he is surely hungry for more success.

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