In 2014 the 16th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under will contain arguably its highest quality field of riders chasing stage wins and the overall classification. On the flat, André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), Steele von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp), Caleb Ewan (UniSA), Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing), Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Jonathan Cantwell (Drapac) plus many more are all more than capable of taking home a bag of wins. In the overall, Cadel Evans (BMC), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Robert Gesink (Belkin), Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Javi Moreno (Movistar), Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and a host of others are set to go tete-a-tete to claim the Ochre Jersey.
Having gone mano-a-mano at the Tour De France, German power house sprinters Marcel Kittel and André Greipel will resume their rivalry on the flat stages of the race beginning with the People’s Choice Classic and then Stage 1. Kittel bested Greipel on the roads of France but at the 2013 edition of the Australian race, he was off the pace.
Greipel holds the record for most stage wins at the Tour Down Under and as a former winner of the race overall, knows the roads of Adelaide and surrounds as well as any local.
The sprint train for Lotto will be missing Greg Henderson who is out of the race due to knee surgery that he underwent in the off season. With no overall aspirations, Lotto will be after every stage starting with the People's Choice Classic criterium around the Adelaide CBD on Sunday evening.
While the race has grown from a sprinters paradise, with the addition of the Corkscrew climb, the overall winner is now more likely to be a rouleur such as Simon Gerrans or Tom-Jelte Slagter who will miss the opportunity to defend his title due to the birth of his first child. Throw into the mix Cadel Evans and Richie Porte, who are building for the Giro d'Italia, and the likes of Schleck and Gesink who will enter the race without the usual expectations placed upon them.
The race has a distinct Australian flavour but has proved to be arena in which cyclists, both local and international, can launch their careers. Cadel Evans last participated in the race in 2010 when he did so as world champion animating the Willunga Hill stage with Peter Sagan for company. At the team presentation on Saturday night Evans recounted his last appearance at the race. "Being the first Aussie to wear the rainbows in the road was something pretty special and I was just a little bit proud to race with it in Australia," Evans said.
Evans won the best young riders classification back in 1999 and went on to claim the king of the mountains classifications in 2002 and 2003 and will be hoping that in his third decade at the race he can once again come home with a jersey.
Simon Gerrans will be chasing his third overall title and having set himself the goal of winning the national road race, the Tour Down Under and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, he is one from three so far. Fully recovered from his broken hip sustained at the Vuelta, Gerrans will have the support of his whole team with the added benefit of knowing the roads and climbs like the back of his hand.
An added motivation for Gerrans to take the win is his new Australian national road jersey. "I'm going to wear the jersey with pride for the next 12-months," Gerrans said, adding that "we definitely have our eye on the gc here."
While Australian rivals Porte and Evans are building for May, Gerrans is targeting the win and anything less than that will be a disappointment to the competitive Victorian. Prior to the national road race in Buninyong, Evans said that UCI WorldTour points and a podium pace or high finish in the first race of the year, may be seen as a success. However, never discount Evans who rarely races for anything but the win.
Javi Moreno, second overall last year, will enter the race with ambitions of improving upon his previous performance. Movistar have won the team classification in recent years and have been one of the main protagonists for the entirety of the race since their 2011 debut. With Jose Joaquín Rojas the team will also be looking to snare a win in the sprints.
Robert Gesink is once again targeting the Tour of California, a race he won overall in 2012, and will be supported by several Australian's on his Belkin team with intimate knowledge of the race route as he builds for May. Gesink finished the 2013 season strongly with victory in GP Québec having ridden the Tour as a super domestique for teammate Bauke Mollema.
Belkin rode the Tour Down Under as Blanco last year with the knowledge that they needed a win to attract sponsors. Slagter duly obliged and started the season in the best way possible. Belkin won't have the same impetus for a victory in 2014 but will nevertheless want a good performance and with Jack Bobridge looking like he is back to his best, an honourable defence appears the very least Belkin will offer the enthusiastic Australian crowds.
Schleck makes his return to racing having sat on the sidelines following a positive diuretic test at the 2012 Tour and is sure to let the peloton know he is back. Jens Voigt in his last appearance down under is also likely to be active as he tries to get into breakaways and will be called upon to help Schleck out. His racing mantra 'Shut up Legs,' is as accurate today as it ever has been for the evergreen 42-year-old.
While there has been a shift away from simply a week of sprint stages, the race still hosts some of the fastest men in the professional peloton. The People's Choice Classic will set the scene, letting everyone know who has their sprint train dialled and who is the hungriest to start 2014 with a win.
UniSA are always active throughout the race and with Caleb Ewan making his debut at WorldTour level, he will be hoping to come home with a win and with five Avanti riders on the team, he will have a readymade train to help him out.
Matt Goss got back to winning ways at the Mitchell Bay Classic in early January and has tasted success before at the race and Orica-GreenEdge maybe targeting the overall but there will be opportunities for Goss and Michael Matthews to go for wins when they arise.
An overview of the stages
The first stage may be under threat from bushfires and several riders may secretly be hoping that a cancellation is announced. The addition of Menglers Hill is sure to cause a selection as race director Mike Turtur explained. "We return to Nuriootpa for the start of Stage 1 for the first time since the inaugural event, creating a sense of nostalgia. Menglers Hill is back as part of this route and being 14km from the finish will test even the most accomplished cyclist and create an interesting result."
Stage 2 sees the race return to Stirling with three laps of the town to decide the victor of the 150km stage and possibly the overall winner. Tom-Jelte Slagter bested the sprinters here last year and set up his win so expect a small 30-man sprint or so to fight it out for the win and a high gc placing
The Corkscrew makes its return in 2014 and coming late in the race, with 7.4km to go, it is sure to cause a split with a fast sprint downhill into Campbelltown to decide the winner of Stage 3. Geraint Thomas was the man last year and will target a repeat win but may just set up his teammate, Richie Porte, for the overall or even the stage.
Stage 4 is a sprinter friendly 148.5km foray into the southern ocean-side town of Victor Harbour. Greipel and Kittel would have pencilled themselves in for the win when studying the parcours but a surprise winner may just pop up such as Ewan or van Poppel.
The queen stage is once again Willunga Hill which will be tackled twice by the peloton on. The 151.5km Stage 5 will see the strongest riders in the race will to the fore and having won the 2013 stage and placed second in 2012, Simon Gerrans will be a favourite to claim another stage victory. The overall winner will need to make a move here and a gc shake up is more than likely.
Having ridden all around Adelaide, the riders who have survived the heat have just 85.5km left to race of the first WorldTour event of 2014. Always a sprinters paradise, for teams who haven't shown their best side during the week, this is their chance to shine on Stage 6. A new circuit has been created which takes in more of the CBD than in years past and several jerseys could be decided by the time 20-laps have been completed.
The Ochre jersey will only need to finish to record a win but the sprinters jersey may change hands. By the time the last rider has crossed the finish line on Bartels Rd, the 2014 Tour Down Under will have been raced and won and the overall winner will have well and truly earned it.