The Herald Sun Tour may be lacking WorldTour teams and depth of quality in 2017 but with Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) lining out for the race, an intriguing battle awaits atop Falls Creek and around the Kinglake circuit between two of the best Grand Tour riders in the peloton.
Froome, who won the race overall last on his way to defending his Tour title in July, firms as the man to beat on a course that race director John Trevorrow has designed to bring the best out of the Briton and Colombian. At the Tour Down Under, Chaves proved immediately comfortable racing on Australian soil as he rode to second place overall. With his Orica-Scott team yet to win big over the 'summer of cycling', the Sun Tour is the final opportunity for success on home soil.
Four Pro-Continental teams will join Sky and Orica on the start list with seven Continental squads, and national teams from Australia and New Zealand with several promising young talents spread across the field.
For the fourth year running, the Herald Sun Tour takes over inner-city Melbourne with the twilight 2km prologue from Federation Squad, along the banks of the Yarra and finish at Queensbridge Square by Banana Alley. The fast affair offers the riders a chance to open up the lungs and legs and grab a few seconds on their rivals before heading north to the high country. With the winner of the last two prologues, Will Clarke, not racing in 2017, the likes of Sam Bewley, Brenton Jones, and Neil van der Ploeg could turn their podium placings of recent years into victory.
Stage 1 is arguably the queen stage of the race with the Herald Sun Tour returning to Falls Creek for the first time in the 2010s. It is also the longest of the race at 174km. Rolling out of Wangaratta, the peloton has a relatively flat 84km before starting the ascent up Tawonga Gap then dropping down to Mongans Bridge, making the turn back up towards Falls Creek Rd for the 29km climb where the first major gaps are expected to open up. With a ten-second time bonus on the line for the winner, a stage win at Falls Creek could well and truly set up overall victory.
Day 3 of racing from Mount Beauty to Beechworth traverses roads made famous by bushrangers, including the likes of Ned Kelly, on a day that is suited to a bunch sprint but complicated with the inclusion of the late Stanley climb. While not as important as the previous day in terms of GC, riders could see their overall aspirations take a hit if they are not fully concentrated. It could also be a day for the breakaway with plenty of riders sure to be out of the fight for GC after the challenging stage 1.
Stage 3 is one for the sprinters and wine connoisseurs with the Nagambie finish of previous years moved from the Main street to Gerry Ryan's Mitchelton Winery. Starting in the hometown of Tour de France green jersey winner Baden Cooke in Benalla, the race features two KOM points on the Harrys Creek Rd climb but it's very one much for the fast finishers. A sprint point with a touch over 10km to race could be taken out by a late breakaway but with the limited opportunities, teams will be hungry to set this up for a sprint finish. The fast and technical finish into the winery ensures the GC men will be at the front with the possibility of losing crucial seconds which is a real likelihood due to the narrow and fast finale.
In a change from previous years, the final and fourth stage moves from the Mornington Peninsula climb up Arthurs Seat, where Froome sealed his overall win, to Kinglake which was devastated by the 2009 bush fires. Stage 4 will see the peloton tackle four laps of a 31.1km circuit with KOM points on offer at the Glenburn Rd climb. The laps allow the riders to familiarise themselves on a route described by Trevorrow as a 'mecca' for Melbourne cyclists with the fireworks likely to go off on the final lap and half. Again, bonus seconds for the top three could affect the overall standings and could see a late reshuffle in the general classification.
Riders to watch and race favourites
Froome and Chaves are the two obvious danger men in the 2017 Herald Sun Tour but there are several riders capable of challenging and upsetting the duo. Former winners Cam Meyer (Australia), Calvin Watson (Aqua Blue Sports) and Orica-Scott's Simon Gerrans are sure to make an impact on the race but possibly more via stage wins than the GC.
Froome's teammates Kenny Elissonde and Sebastián Henao are two overall contenders in their own right but will be riding in support of the triple Tour winner. Likewise for Chaves, Damien Howson and Rob Power are two other riders capable of shaking up the GC but will also be on team duty for the week.
The Australian national team with its young trio of Lucas Hamilton, Jai Hindley, and Michael Storer have impressed over the summer at the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and will be aiming high for their final race on home soil before a big European campaign. Nathan Earle is another card the national team can play in terms of both GC and stages.
The UnitedHealthcare team return once again and do so in 2017 with a trio of GC riders well and truly capable of causing an upset. Former top-ten finishers Lachlan Norris and Jonny Clarke are well acquainted with the Sun Tour parcours and will be looking to express themselves on the climbs. Former WorldTour rider Janier Acevedo only made his Australian racing debut at the Cadels Evans race but is a man made for the climbs.
IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness' Tim Roe, Robbie Hucker, and Cam Bayly are three riders from the Continental level who will be aiming to take it up to the bigger teams and make a mark on the GC. Ben Dyball (St. George Continental) is another local rider to watch while NSW Institute of Sport and Drapac Pat's Veg made their debuts and have several young talents eager to shine on the big stage.
For the stage winners, Team Sky's Danny van Poppel firms as the man to beat in the sprints. Challengers to the Dutchman includes the likes of Jesse Kerrison (IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness), Tanner Putt and Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare), Leigh Howard (Aqua Blue Sports), and JLT Condor duo Brenton Jones and Ian Bibby. Former Katusha rider Alexey Tsatevich (Gazprom-RusVelo) could be another rider to spring a surprise. With a breakaway likely to be given room for a stage win this year, an unlikely stage winner could emerge from the peloton.
Finally, while just under half the peloton makes their racing debuts at the Herald Sun Tour this year, Docker, Clarke, and Stuart Shaw all line out for their seventh appearance at the race. All in all, the 2017 Herald Sun Tour promises an exciting race with plenty of possible outcomes and names to watch that could well and truly shape the season narrative and provide an early taste of the Tour de France showdown between Chaves and Froome.