Arguably the most anticipated edition of the Tour Down Under in years, the 19th running of Australia's WorldTour stage race looks like it's living up the hype. With a start list headlined by world champion Peter Sagan, four-time winner and defending champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott), and Richie Porte (BMC), there is plenty of depth in the battle for the ochre jersey and stage wins.
In 2016, Australian riders took out all six stage wins and three of the four classifications. However, a repeat of total dominance appears unlikely due to the long list of overseas riders who have lit it up on the biggest stages of them all, and are more than capable of victory in Adelaide.
The return of Paracombe as a stage finish has tilted the race towards the climbers, but overall honours are still likely to be decided on the Willunga Hill queen stage. Bonus seconds at stage finishes and intermediate sprint points will again be crucial to the GC and bring into play the 'non-climbers'. But it is the three-kilometre climb at an average of 7.6 per cent that will shape the outcome of the race.
Compared to previous editions of the race that saw the winner awarded 100 WorldTour points, the 2017 champion will bag 500 WorldTour points as the UCI has restructureds its points allocation and ranking for WorldTour events.
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The first day of WorldTour racing for 2017 sees the peloton roll out from Unley and head north to Lyndoch, where the same stage finish as stage 1 in 2016 awaits the riders. A sprint finish is expected, but the breakaway has come up trumps on the opening day by catching a sleeping peloton unawares. However, the likes of Ewan will be hungry for the win and the sprint teams should ensure a bunch kick will decide the victor.
In a change from previous years when it has hosted stage finishes, the town of Stirling will instead host the start of stage 2. The peloton will complete five laps of the hilly circuit then add to the climbing with a jaunt to and down Norton Summit on the way Paracombe for just the second time in the history of the race. The challenging one-kilometre climb at nine per cent will see the first serious gaps emerge on the general classification. The race may not be won on Paracombe but could well be lost.
Stage 3 is a familiar day in the saddle for the peloton with the race taking off from the seaside town of Glenelg, down south to Victor Harbor for a sprint finish. The coastal winds could see the race ripped apart but in all likelihood, it will be decided by who has the fastest legs in a bunch sprint.
The Tour Down Under returns to the north of Adelaide with Norwood hosting the start of stage 4 and nearby Campbelltown the finish. Again, it is one suited to the sprinters but the lumpy route, that takes the riders north before turning back towards the CBD, suggests it won't necessarily be a straightforward affair.
Regardless of what has happened in the previous four stages, it will all come down to the queen stage up Willunga Hill. Richie Porte has owned the hill for the last three years with the final ascent of the climb where the fireworks are lit. While short in comparison to the European cols the riders will confront later in the year, difference between defeat and despair on Willunga Hill can be miles apart. It is a climb where the riders need to measure the efforts with the first two times over the hill 'practise runs' before the explosive finale.
After the tough week of racing, the Tour Down Under concludes with a brisk 90km circuit race around the Adelaide CBD on a day for the sprinters. With bonus seconds available across the stage at intermediate sprinters, there is the possibility of riders moving up the GC. However, as previous years have shown, it is more unlikely than not that the overall standings change.
And just like that, the first WorldTour race of the season has come and gone and it's onto Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race or back to Europe via the Persian Gulf races.
Riders to watch
Peter Sagan leads the list of European riders to watch, making his return to the race for the first time his 2010. Race director Mike Turtur believes Sagan can win the race overall as he explained to Cyclingnews last-year but he will come up against a long list of inform and inspired Australians. When the Tour Down Under first started, it was a race regularly won and animated by the sprinters. However, 2017 looks like the balance as shifted away from the flat fast men to those who can dance uphill.
Sagan should feature predominately in the sprints at the race for Bora-hansgrohe with a stage win likely his minimal return. His new squad are also bringing Sam Bennett Down Under and the Irishman is a second strong card for the team to play while Jay McCarthy will aim improve his fourth place overall from 2016
Colombian Esteban Chaves makes his first appearance racing on Australian soil at the Tour Down Under for Orica-Scott and the Il Lombardia winner will start as one of the favourites for the overall victory. Last year's Giro d'Italia runner-up and third place finisher at the Vuelta a Espana will co-lead the team's ambitions alongside Gerrans while Caleb Ewan is their designated path to stage wins success.
Team Sky also head into the race with options, backing Geraint Thomas and their Colombian Henaos, cousins Sergio and Sebastien while Danny van Poppel can hold his own in a sprint.
Other foreign riders to watch in the battle for overall honours include last year's fifth place finisher Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Louis Meintjes (UAE Abu Dhabi), and Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale).
There is also further talent in the sprint stocks with Ben Swift (UAE Abu Dhabi) aiming to start his tenure with his new team on a high. Edward Theuns of Trek-Segafredo, Dimension Data duo Tyler Farrar and Mark Renshaw, Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), and Belgian Baptiste Planckaert on Katusha-Alpecin debut are other names of note.
Turning attention to the Australian riders on the start list, BMC will start the race with three riders of particular note in 2015 champion Rohan Dennis, overall aspirant and favourite for the victory in Richie Porte, plus newly crowned Australian champion Miles Scotson. All three are likely to play major roles across the week with the ambition of delivering Porte to the victory ahead of the 2017 season in which he is targeting Tour de France glory. Porte has finished second overall in the last two editions of the race and has shown his commitment to the cause by skipping the Australian national championships.
Dimension Data have also entered a strong triumvirate into the race in Nathan Haas, Lachlan Morton and Ben O'Connor. Haas packs a punch in the sprints while both Morton and O'Connor have demonstrated their climbing ability and dangerous status as GC men.
Cannondale-Drapac's Brendan Canty is an emerging general classification rider with his characteristic suited to the harder 2017 Tour Down Under route compared to previous years. After his 14th place last year, Chris Hamilton (Team Sunweb) is another young name to watch for.
Finally, the UniSA-Australian team contains several young prodigious talents who will be complemented by a mix of experienced riders. The wild card team often fights above its division on the WorldTour stage and that trend looks like continuing in 2017.