By Les Clarke
Garmin-Slipstream directeur sportif Matt White is confident that this year's Tour Down Under should be tougher than previous editions. Last year's Tour Down Under was undeniably a race for sprinters. Andre Greipel's dominance in stage finishes and subsequent overall victory were evidence of this, and discussion in some quarters centred on making the race tougher to avoid a repeat in 2009.
Race organisers, led by 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mike Turtur, were forced to make changes to shake up the general classification.
"This year there are two stages where it can be mixed up," said White. "I think the Willunga stage will blow up a lot more because there are two ascents of it, not just one. There's no way a big group's getting around Willunga that day.
"I've also heard - and we'll soon find out - that the second stage to Stirling's quite a tricky circuit, quite up and down," added White, who won the fourth stage of the 2005 Tour Down Under. "If there are going to be gaps, they aren't going to be big."
"Gone are the days at the Tour Down Under where after 15km there's a group of 15 in a breakaway and that's the race. When there used to be 13 teams here, once there were 10 guys up the road that was pretty much the bike race," said White. "Even in the last couple of years, time bonuses have become more important. I still think a very fit sprinter could get round here but they'd want to be someone who climbs pretty well.
White also explained that the closeness of the racing can be attributed to the increased size of the race's field. "The field's a third bigger - we've gone from 130 riders to 190 riders - and every team is in the ProTour (other than the national team), so there are 21 super-strong teams. In the last five years there are so many more Anglo guys who are keen to race flat out in January."
He doesn't see a change in the nationality of those riders looking to win the event - Australians. Despite competing against the likes of 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro and seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, White knows that his countrymen won't be overawed and will be gunning for glory on home soil.
"This race has traditionally been dominated by Aussies, because there aren't many more motivated guys than Aussies racing on home turf," he said. "In terms of stage wins and the overall it's been totally dominated by us. I don't think that will change too much - last year Greipel was the only 'outsider' to do well, really."