- Jane Aubrey
Australian WorldTour race no longer just for the sprinters
The 14th Santos Tour Down enters a new era in 2012, post the appearances of Lance Armstrong which the race built a new level of recognition on as it entered the UCI's ProTour, with a renewed Australian focus on the six-stage race this January with the unveiling of WorldTour neophytes GreenEdge.
The race receives a further shake-up in the form of the longed-for hill-top finish on Stage 5 at Old Willunga Hill along with a new classification process to be used for the first time for SKODA King of the Mountain climbs where Menglers Hill on Stage 4, and Old Willunga Hill on Stage 5 have received Cat 1 status.
In 2011, Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervelo) brought the traditional sprinter's dominance of the race to an abrupt end becoming the first non-sprinter since 2006 to take the Tour Down Under's overall prize, despite the presence of Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) and two-time winner, Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto). The man who got closest to Meyer, was Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) two seconds in arrears on general classification, and with the two Australians set to take the start line in Prospect wearing GreenEdge kit, this year more than ever it may be a case of anything could happen.
You can check out last year's 1 and 2 on general classification, Cameron Meyer and Matt Goss' thoughts on each stage of the Tour Down Under by clicking here.
What does it all mean? For starters it's highly unlikely that we'll see the devastating winning streaks the likes of Andre Greipel's in 2008 where he won four of the six stages enroute to overall victory. Stage 5 will remain the decisive stage of the Tour Down Under but the race for overall honours should be much tighter and even more so than what was evident in 2011 with Cameron Meyer's win – the Australian WorldTour race is no longer just the domain of the peloton's fast men.
Race director Mike Turtur said that the field assembled for the 2012 edition of the race was well-balanced peloton.
"Maybe it's a reflection of the changes to the course, but certainly we're very pleased with the start list," he said.
In terms of what's ahead for the peloton as the weather becomes a yearly talking point and in recent days reports suggesting temperatures will hit the 40 degree mark and above during the six-stage race. Turtur suggested that his information was that "we might sneak it in" and avoid the much-feared Adelaide heatwave that has hit the Tour in the past.
As for who will be standing victorious in the ochre jersey in Adelaide next Sunday Turtur too thinks that the days of a sprinter dominating the race are numbered.
"I think an all rounder [will win] - the hilltop finish in Willunga, the extra lap around Stirling," Turtur suggested would be decisive factors. "Although we've done Stirling three times before and had a mass finish ... we're actually doing the climb four times [this year].
"Stage four is maybe under a few people's guard, it is difficult at the beginning," he continued. "Smith Hill is not easy and it could cause some problems, then Menglers coming late. "Depending on what happens, that could be a decisive day.
"I'm leaning towards an all rounder, rather than a pure-type sprinter."
Cameron Meyer was a surprise winner in 2011 and the GreenEdge rider said that he would actually like to have his time over again when asked if he could go two from two.
"I think I'd appreciate it a little bit more," Meyer explained. "Last year was a huge shock. I was like a little kid sitting in the peloton hoping Matt Goss didn't win anymore stages."
Last year it was the inclusion of Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar, but in 2012 the talking point for the first WorldTour peloton of the season is the inclusion of Alejandro Valverde in the Movistar line-up. The Spaniard hasn't raced since his two-year doping suspension enforced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport began on May 31, 2010. Valverde won the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, but is perhaps best known for his ability as a Classics rider. Straight away, with talk about his training and fitness levels, Valverde is one of the favourites to be wearing ochre come Sunday.
Other favourites include 2006 victor Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), another former winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Valverde's teammate Jose Joaquin Rojas and Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol). However it's someone considered a smokey who gets up in the end in Adelaide and so with that, Michael Matthews (Rabobank), Matthew Lloyd (Lampre-ISD), Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) all need to be considered just the same.