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World's best sprinters make their way to Australia
Andre Greipel looks lean for the new season
While the previous two editions of the Santos Tour Down Under have been all about the appearance of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion seems to be the sideshow to what is expected to be the best sprint showdown in the event's history.
Defending champion André Greipel returns to the race intent on making it three victories since the event became part of the UCI ProTour in 2008 but it will be a different proposition in 2011, with Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar, Gerald Ciolek and 2009 overall winner Allan Davis with which to contend.
Rabobank veteran Graeme Brown is also back for a crack at the title while Tour Down Under stalwart Robbie McEwen makes his way to the event wearing the colours of Team RadioShack after a last-minute move to the American team. His stablemate, Armstrong, will be riding his final race as a professional outside the US, with the South Australian Government again securing his services for an undisclosed sum to prime its tourism value.
The Spanish-speaking duo of Juan Jose Haedo (Saxo Bank) and Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) will add a little spice to the already-potent mix of sprint specialists. Meanwhile the ProTour debut of Dutch outfit Vacansoleil DCM means that Romain Feillu, who wore the leader's jersey for a day at the 2008 Tour de France and possesses an impressive finishing kick, will be among the starters in Adelaide.
And while Greipel is hard to go past for overall honours, there are several jokers in the pack who could show their hand, such as RadioShack's Manuel Cardoso, who shocked Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans to win stage three on the tough Stirling finish last year. Luke Roberts will be out to prove he's worthy of a European ride in 2011 with an appearance for the UniSA-Australia squad. After the debacle surrounding Pegasus Sports, the South Australian will be supremely motivated to perform well.
Top teams bring their best men
The secret to the showdown is the strength of the sprinters' teams. Greipel is bringing former HTC-Columbia teammates Adam Hansen and Marcel Sieberg to Adelaide, the duo having also switched to Omega Pharma-Lotto late last year.
To combat this Cavendish's HTC-Highroad lineup includes evergreen leadout men Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw, Bert Grabsch, Hayden Roulston and Matt Goss, with the latter two backing up as potential contenders for the overall given that they're not required to take Cavendish to the finish.
Not to be forgotten is Team Sky, which enjoyed a stage win in its inaugural Tour Down Under appearance last year, with Chris Sutton taking out the final day's circuit race on Adelaide's North Terrace. This season there will be an omnipotent attack that includes new recruit Michael Rogers, former Down Under champion Simon Gerrans, Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Sutton, 2010 Cancer Council Classic winner Greg Henderson and the indefatigable Mat Hayman.
On paper - and on the road - Team Sky is potentially the best-balanced team in the event. The combination of sprinters, all-rounders and one of the best domestiques in the business in Hayman, makes it a contender for overall honours.
Of course... it's a sprinter's course
Befitting its burgeoning reputation as a sprinter's race, the Tour Down Under offers similar fare in 2011 as in previous editions, with the highlights being stage three from Unley to Stirling and the always-popular stage five, which takes riders from McLaren Vale to Willunga, including two ascents of Old Willunga Hill.
The town of Mannum is back on the race route, featuring as the finish point for the second stage from Tailem Bend; it's a basic up-and-down proposition over a distance of 146km. Riders spend the first 30km gradually climbing to Murray Bridge before a relatively flat run for the next 50km and a steady downhill run to the finish.
The fourth stage is traditionally interchangeable between a run to the coastal town of Victor Harbor, Goolwa or Strathalbyn in the Adelaide Hills. This year 'Strath' gets the nod and there's 124km on offer that takes riders on a relatively undulating journey through this picturesque area of South Australia, with the day's KOM coming early on the steep-but-short Checker Hill.
The formula for this year's race hasn't changed significantly from previous editions, with slight variations on a theme of sprint-heavy stages that favour a fast man who has decent climbing legs early in the season. Where it does differ however, is that unlike previous years, most of the world's best sprinters will line up and no inch will be given.