The general consensus is that the Tour Down Under will come down to one, maybe two, stages and that the winner will most likely be decided on the slopes of Old Willunga Hill but the race has a canny habit of being determined by slim margins.
So, when Katusha-Alpecin sent Jhonatan Restrepo and Nathan Haas up the road to pick up one second each in time bonuses, Richie Porte could see that the defence of his title could turn into a daily battle. One second may not seem like much but it provides Katusha with a morale boost, a card to play, and perhaps most importantly, an improved slot in the convoy for stage 2.
“It was obviously pretty chilled at the start. There was a good breakaway. You see guys like Nathan Haas and Rui Costa going for the one second time bonus and they’re backing themselves,” Porte told Cyclingnews as he cooled down at the finish.
“If someone like Haas or Jay [McCarthy] can take bonus second but also win tomorrow or later then it’s not ideal but they’ve still got to get up Willunga pretty quick. We’ll just have to see. That’s how it is.”
Porte is aiming to become the first rider in the race’s history to win back-to-back titles at the Tour Down Under. His defence may rest on Willunga - where he has won four times – but his BMC Racing team will be vital throughout the week. In Simon Gerrans and Rohan Dennis he has two teammates who have won the race.
“I hope that this is the start of the defence. I feel pretty good and we’ve a great team. Everyone is pretty motivated to try and make history and go back-to-back. If not we’ve got Simon Gerrans and Rohan Dennis who are also in top form,” he said earlier in the day at the stage start.
The fight for time bonuses, as shown on stage 1, could be crucial in another sense. Mitchelton-Scott are hoping to win sprint stages but for the first time in a number of years do not possess an out-and-out favourite for the GC. Their sprinter, Caleb Ewan is not a threat to Porte but Greipel, and certainly Peter Sagan, could figure. Porte will be hoping that Ewan’s thirst for a stage win will help eliminate two key rivals by stealing bonus seconds from them.
“That summit and the finish on stage 4 is a tricky one. It’s such a super-fast climb. We don’t want to see someone like Sagan taking two or three stage wins and Caleb Ewan is in fine form. Hopefully he can win some stages and keep some time bonuses away from Peter.
“We’ve got some pretty quick guys like Pat Bevin and Simon Gerrans who can perhaps take some of the time bonuses if we need them to. We don’t want guys like McCarthy and Haas taking those. This race is decided by seconds normally.”