Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish may have decided to skip the Tour Down Under in favour of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Jayco Herald Sun Tour, respectively, but the only WorldTour event in the southern hemisphere is set to dish out another intriguing event in 2016.
Celebrating its 18th birthday in 2016, the Tour Down Under welcomes several tried and successful stage starts and finishes, although there are a few new faces to welcome on-board. The format of the race remains true to recent years with a Sunday night city criterium whetting the appetite before Tuesday's stage one. Should normal process be followed, the race will be decided Saturday on the way to Willunga Hill with only the Adelaide city street circuit procession to follow.
The start list may be missing several big internal names, the Tour de San Luis by comparison has attracted Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and world champion Peter Sagan, but almost all Australian riders with a WorldTour contract will line up for the race. The likes of Geraint Thomas, Domenico Pozzovivo and Ryder Hesjedal are no slouches but with Froome and Cavendish heading down under but not Down Under, questions have been raised over the calibre of starters.
The six stages
Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under will start in the suburb of Prospect, north of the city centre. 130.8km later the peloton will arrive in Lyndoch where the crowd will be anticipating a sprint finish following three circuits through the Barossa towns of Lyndoch, Cockatoo Valley and Williamstown. Last year Jack Bobridge and his UniSA-Australia wildcard team upset the odds to claim a win for the underdog and breakaway but after his 90km solo effort to claim the Australian road title, surely a second peloton in just over a week won’t be making the same mistake and underestimating the 26-year-old.
Orica-GreenEdge will be looking to launch Caleb Ewan to his first win at the race while Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling) firm as sprint rivals to the 21-year-old on the flat stages.
Stage 2 is a familiar finish in the town of Stirling although a change for 2016 sees the peloton complete five circuits with first rider over the line on the sixth crossing taking the honours. With the race often decided by seconds, the Tour Down Under won’t necessarily be won in Stirling but it certainly can be lost.
Stage 3 is the first ‘real’ test for the riders looking to finish high on the general classification with the 2.4km Corkscrew climb, 5.7km from the finish, sure to shake up the overall standings. The fight will be on in the peloton to ensure riders arrive at the base of the climb in prime position and with fresh legs. This is a stage where a strong team is highly beneficial so watch who’s on the front as the riders pass through Cudlee Creek first then Castambul on the way through the gorge before hitting the nine per cent slopes at warp speed.
Stage 4 takes the race to its southern most point in 2016, finishing in the seas-side town of Victor Harbor that last featured in 2014 with André Greipel taking the win. Expect another sprint finish but if the winds are up, an unpredictable day in the saddle could be on the cards. As a WorldTour race, riders and teams are always looking to score points and should an opportunity present itself, it’s sure to be gobbled up. The inclusion of the Norton Summit climb early in the stage is likely to be a launch pad for a breakaway but the 5.5km climb shouldn't cause problems for the GC men.
Again, look to the likes of Ewan, Wippert, Nizzolo…. Should someone have messed up the stage 1 sprint, the 138km stage offers a shot at redemption. With tomorrow the queen stage of the race, riders sitting high on GC will be praying for a nice easy day.
Stage 5 from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill is another wine flavoured day with the stage start a favourite location for those with an inclination for a nice bottle of red. The peloton though will be firmly focused on the day ahead and arriving at the base of Willunga Hill with their main man in the first few wheels. Richie Porte has won the queen stage on the last two occasion and firms as a man to beat to complete his trilogy.
The seconds won or lost can easily be wiped away on the 3km climb and with the top-ten standings separated by a matter of seconds, a solid four-days of racing can quickly evaporate in under ten minutes. Julian Arredondo and Domenico Pozzovivo are both pure climbers but their slender frames could be adversely affected by a strong breeze so look to the likes of a Porte, Rafa Valla, Jarlinson Pantano, or any rider sitting in the top-ten.
The race is all but done and dusted by Sunday afternoon’s city circuit, which traverses King William St and circuits around the Adelaide Oval. There is the chance that the GC might but tied for time, or second place needs to make up a second to snare the win. With bonus seconds on offer around the circuit, a late change in standings is possible but unlikely considering historical precedent. Simon Gerrans has defended a tied lead and a one-second advantage to claim two of his three wins.
Riders to watch
BMC start the race with last year’s winner Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte as a deadly combo and pose as the riders to beat. Gerrans endured a disappointing Australian nationals last week and his Orica-GreenEdge team are hungry for victory. The aforementioned Pozzovivo leads a foreign list of contenders, joined by the likes of new Lotto-Soudal signing Rafa Valls, while Pantano is expected to improve upon his ninth place of 2015.
There are also several jokers in the pack for stage wins and top-ten on GC who all happen to qualify for the young rider classification. Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida), Ruben Fernandez (Movistar), Patrick Bevin (Cannondale), Petr Vakoc (Etixx-Quick Step) and Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff).
Add in Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo) and the prospect of an exciting week of racing to start to the 2016 WorldTour season is almost upon us.