Cyclingnews picks five favourites, plus five possibles for ProTour opener
Throughout its 12 year history the Tour Down Under has evolved from a race hopeful of appearing on big rider's radars, to the big-bang that opens the road racing season and ProTour calendar alike.
Evidence of its growth is in this year's start list, which features UCI road race world champion Cadel Evans plus grand tour winners Lance Armstrong, Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro.
While talented these riders may be, contenders for this year's race they're probably not. Evans, Armstrong and Pereiro are huge draw cards for the organiser, South Australia Tourism Comission, but as their goals rest later in the year a victory at Tour Down Under is highly improbable.
So who are the contenders for this year's title? Cyclingnews takes a look at those in contention – in no particular order – for the ProTour's opening race.
Allan Davis (Astana)
The highs and lows of Allan Davis' career, including the last 12 months, are well documented. What matters heading into this year's race is that Davis is not only the defending champion, he's in reasonably good form.
Davis will contest the race with his new Astana squad, having won the title with Quick Step last year. A victory in Adelaide again this year would make Davis just the second person behind Stuart O'Grady to win the race on multiple occasions and the first back-to-back winner.
Davis has only been in action once this year, at the Australian Open Road Championships in Ballarat, Victoria last weekend. While he and brother Scott finished at the field's rear, they had both worked hard with Matthew Lloyd in a failed attempt to drive the peloton back to the front of the race. It might not have been the best outcome in Ballarat, but it showed Davis has the form to take on Willunga again, but it's his sprint that will ultimately decide if he can do the Down Under double.
Playing against Davis is the return of German juggernaut André Greipel, who didn't finish last year's race and returns backed by an equally strong HTC-Columbia squad. Unlike Evans and Armstrong, a solid result at Tour Down Under times reasonable well with Davis' main focus for the year, the Spring Classics.
Gert Steegmans (RadioShack)
According to Armstrong RadioShack needs a stage win at least at its first race, given the sponsor's entire executive committee has circled the globe to see their investment roll out. That coincides well with the fact Gert Steegmans has a point to prove, with matching motivation.
Steegmans hasn't raced in some time after his refusal to sign Team Katusha's new doping charter saw his contract with the outfit dissolved. In fact, Steegmans has done little competitive mileage since the Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré last June.
While we might not know what the Belgian's form is like, Armstrong has touted him as a dark horse. Given the Tour Down Under's tendency to be won by sprinter, it's hard not to race the Tour de France stage winner a chance.
André Greipel (HTC-Columbia)
Greipel has been in Australia for most of January. He, along with the HTC-Columbia team, has already trained on the UCI World Road Championships course they'll race at later this year in Geelong, Melbourne and Greipel was also on hand to watch the Australian Open Road Championships.
He would have competed in the road race, but everyone from Tour Down Under race organiser Mike Turtur to Tour de France green jersey winner Robbie McEwen thought that was a bad idea.
Two years ago, Greipel dominated the race to claim his first Tour Down Under title. He returned in 2009 billed as the rider to beat, however he got up-close-and-personal with a local law enforcer's ill-placed motorcycle which ruined not only his title defense but the first third of his season.
Greipel won a stage of the race prior to the accident and didn't let the crash hurt his year too much; he still claimed 20 victories last year, including four Vuelta a España stages.
While Greipel says he's aiming for one stage win at this year's race, he's definitely going to be in the hunt on general classification. He's possibly the man to beat once again this year, but the absence of Mark Renshaw from his lead-out train could hurt his chances.
Last year's event saw 29 riders finish within 49 seconds of Davis - so a few stage wins will put Greipel well in contention.
Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank)
Cooke might have added something to his life in fiancée Kelly, but he's also shed something in the form of a few pounds. Cooke showed how seriously he's taking his ProTour return with Saxo Bank earlier this month, with his lean look debuting at the Jayco Bay Cycling Classic.
While the competition at Tour Down Under will be stiffer than the Geelong-based criterium series, Cooke proved his form with a stage victory at the race which included Greg Henderson, Chris Sutton and Graeme Brown, all of whom will be at Tour Down Under. Cooke helped Sutton get the overall win earlier in the month, but the pair will line-up as rivals in Adelaide.
A question mark over the condition of Stuart O'Grady heading into this year's Tour Down Under means Cooke could find himself as Saxo Bank's main man.
Greg Henderson (Team Sky)
Henderson is loosely the team leader for Team Sky heading into Tour Down Under, although that responsibility could quickly switch to the shoulders of Jayco Bay Cycling Classic winner Chris Sutton, depending how things unfold.
It'll be a line and ball decision between the pair; Sutton has an overall win already this season but Henderson was seemingly sprinting better in Geelong, with Sutton's overall win coming from consistency more than outright pace. The fifth stage, from Snapper Point to Willunga, will also have an impact which on which of the pair is most likely to be the team's front-runner.
Henderson's form against the Europeans might be untested this year, but he kept Cooke and Brown honest at the Jayco Bay Cycling Classic. That's a good sign for Sky's hopes of putting runs on the board in its debut race.
One thing is certain: Team Sky, not unlike RadioShack, needs a win. Perhaps even more so. While the team won't have backer Rupert Murdoch sitting on the sidelines, its evolution to this point has caused so much hype now will be the time to prove it's not all smoke and mirrors.
Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne)
Caisse d'Epargne is probably well place heading into this year's race. In addition to having the Vuelta a España winner Alejandro Valverde present, the squad will field two riders with good track records at the race: former winner Sanchez and José Joaquin Rojas Gil.
Both riders finished inside the top 15 at last year's event and if they've prepared well for this year's race, it's difficult to see them not improving on those third and 12th places. Since winning the race in 2005, Sanchez has only missed one edition of the event.
Stuart O'Grady (Saxo Bank)
O'Grady ran second to Davis at last year's race, but a case of pneumonia has interrupted his preparation for this year's event. While it's unlikely O'Grady will have the form to challenge for a third title on his home road, he's also not the type of rider you'd discount.
Martin Elmiger (Ag2R La Mondiale)
A former winner of the Tour Down Under, Elmiger is one of those guys who is always up there. He was fourth in last year's race before going on to finish on Monte Paschi Eroica's podium and take 12th at Milan-Sanremo.
If Elmiger is further increasing his focus on the Spring Classics this year, then a strong result at Tour Down Under is likely.
Wesley Sulzberger (Française Des Jeux)
Sulzberger was widely tipped to become this year's Australian road champion at last weekend's race. Unfortunately for the Tasmanian, the race didn't unfold the way he required as a lone rider depending on other teams to bring back what was ultimately a successful break away.
Sulzberger does however have some good form and a track record to suggest he'll be amongst the action next week. While his stage results weren't anything to write home about at last year's race, his consistency combined with finishing the Willunga stage in seventh place got Sulzberger a top five place on general classification.
Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Transitions)
Hunter will be looking to reward Garmin-Transitions on picking him up after the 33 year old’s Barloworld team was wound up at the end of 2009. Hunter has been in Australia for over a week, familiarizing himself with both his team-mates, the climate – riding in over 43 degree heat on Monday – and the Adelaide area.
Hunter is surrounded by a strong, predominately Australian line-up that includes Matthew Wilson, Cameron Meyer and Jack Bobridge. Team sport director Matthew White showed at last weekend’s Australian Open Road Championships that he knows how to plan for different outcomes in a race, and Hunter could be his ace in the hole.
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