- Alex Malone
Gerrans hunting historic back-to-back titles
This year marks the 15th running of the Santos Tour Down Under and is primed to be one of the most hotly-contested editions to date. The People's Choice Classic, on Sunday 20 January will offer spectators a prelude to the first race on the WorldTour calendar which kicks-off just two days later.
Huge crowds are expected to flock to Adelaide and line the tougher course for the six stages while witnessing one of the strongest fields the race has ever seen. The starting line-up for 2013 is clear evidence of just how far the race has come a relatively short time.
Last year's edition was a remarkable time for Australian cycling. The highly-anticipated Australian ProTeam GreenEdge - now Orica GreenEdge - was launched just days prior to the start and it duly went about winning the overall title with the 2012 Australian road champion Simon Gerrans.
The race and the team was on a high just twelve months ago and to win the title again would be a great start to the year. This year has the squad fit and healthy and should the race come down to the wire on Old Willunga, expect the likes of Gerrans to be in the thick of it.
This year may not suit the sprinters as much as in the past but the People's Choice Classic criterium should provide an indication of who to look for out of the fast-men.
This year's race offers a huge number of possible winners on each stage but there are few opportunities for the sprinters - unless they are in excellent condition. The sprints will no doubt be fierce as André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) looks to add to his increasing tally of TDU stage victories.
Other sprinters set for the start are Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Matt Goss (Orica GreenEdge), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Mark Renshaw (Blanco Pro Cycling), Andrea Guardini (Astana), Jose Rojas (Movistar), Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Andy Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and local riders Anthony Giacoppo and Bernie Sulzberger (UniSA).
A number of the stages may not look difficult on paper and many are expecting the general classification to be shaken-up earlier than expected.
Choosing a pre-race favourite at this time of the year is almost impossible but Gerrans will no doubt look to becoming to first rider in history to successfully defend a TDU title.
The first stage from Prospect to Lobethal is "a lumpy one", according to Orica GreenEdge's Stuart O'Grady. The peloton will be looking at their first proper race of the year and with Checker Hill coming so early in the piece, it's bound to be a long day in the saddle for some.
The new stage starting atr Mt Barker will be shortest road stage in the tour but the peloton will have to negotiate the gruelling Škoda King of the Mountains climb up Corkscrew Road before a fast downhill run to the finish.
"Corkscrew is one of the steepest climbs in Adelaide," said Stuart O'Grady.
O'Grady was of the opinion that a select group would be sprinting it out together when they enter the final sprint into Rostrevor. With the peloton tackling this tougher finale on just the second day, it could mean a number of riders are pushed out of contention before they get a chance to warm-up from the harsh European winter.
Riders will have little respite the following day as the demanding Sterling circuit on Stage 3 looks to sort those who have done the hard training miles to the ones who are taking a more relaxed approach to the start of the year.
It was Will Clarke, riding for UniSA who stole the show last year. Last year's race saw a bunch of around 60 make it to the finish over a minute behind the winner but if conditions are right then don't expect a big group to battle it out for line honours. O'Grady noted the lack of time to recover on the circuit around Sterling and with additional laps this year, it will be one of the hardest stages of the tour.
It may take until Stage 4 until the pure sprinter are given their next opportunity. It's not an easy route with the wind likely to play a part in softening the legs but there should be a large group toward the end who will sprint it out.
The popular hill-top finish at Old Willunga Hill makes a return for the second year and will no doubt be one of the critical points of the race. This is where the final general classification will be sealed ahead of the final street circuit the next day around Elder Park.