Orica-Scott has won the last three editions of the Santos Women's Tour, but Australia's only UCI women's team will face stiff competition from an increasingly international peloton when the four-day stage race begins in South Australia on Saturday.
Newly crowned Australian road and time trial champion Katrin Garfoot, winner of the 2016 Santos Women's Tour, headlines the start list alongside teammate Annemiek van Vleuten, Emma Pooley (Holden), Dani King (Cylance), Chloe Dygert (Sho-Air Twenty20), Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman Supermint), Lisa Brennauer (CANYON//SRAM) and Nettie Edmondson (Wiggle High5).
In 2016, Garfoot pulled on the race leader's jersey following her stage one win from a seven-rider breakaway. She successfully defended her lead stage-after-stage.
Australians dominated the race from start to finish with Edmondson (Wiggle-High5) finishing ahead of then-teammate Chloe Hosking on the People's Choice Classic circuit on stage two, Lizzie Williams (then ORICA-AIS, now Hagens Berman Supermint) outsprinting a breakaway to the stage three win and Kimberley Wells (then High5 Dream Team, now Total Rush) winning the stage four field sprint in Victoria Park.
"The depth and pedigree of the peloton here will be the best we've seen at the Tour Down Under for the women," South Australian Carlee Taylor (Alé Cipollini) told Cyclingnews. "It will make for an aggressive race. There are a lot of teams that want to start things off with a win with so many sponsors here, the men's team here, all the media.
"In the past, this race has been Aussie-based teams, so it's good that there are so many Euro teams coming over," Taylor added. "The Australian public will have a chance to see how awesome women's racing is, how exciting. It might be shorter than the men's Tour Down Under but because it's shorter, it's aggressive from the start."
The women will race a total of approximately 270-kilometres over four days with two road stages and two criteriums. The final stage run on a 1.2-kilometre circuit in Victoria Park is raced by time (70 minutes) rather than distance.
Stage 1 is the only entirely new stage introduced for 2017. The 106.5-kilometre day begins in Hahndorf and takes the peloton through the Adelaide Hills. The Queen of the Mountain tops out only four kilometres from the stage finish in Meadows on Paris Creek Road.
"Paris Creek Road – it drags and drags and drags," Adelaide-local Tiffany Cromwell of Canyon//SRAM told Cyclingnews. "The QOM isn't that long but it's punchy and there is a descent afterwards. I see a good opportunity for a selection to go here or a rider to get away solo and defend the gap all the way to the finish."
"For me, this is the hardest stage," said Taylor. "I think all the general classification riders, especially the hill climbers that want to win the tour, are going to have to show their cards on stage one. If there is a break that stays away, the stage winner could potentially win the tour."
The women's peloton covers 14 laps of the 2.3-kilometre East End, Adelaide circuit on stage 2. Run on the same day as the People's Choice Classic, the women race on the same course used by the WorldTour men's peloton.
"The city circuit is synonymous with Tour Down Under," said Cromwell.
"It should be a sprint finish," noted Taylor. "There are time bonuses that could come into play depending on how the race played out the day before."
The Barossa Valley hosts the third stage of the Santos Women's Tour. A similar course featured in the 2016 edition of the Santos Women's Tour. This year, the stage includes two ascents of the Whispering Wall.
"I think the second road stage will be contested by a group of 10 or more," said Taylor. "I don't think it will split up as much on the circuit as we saw last year. It's three laps on the hill instead of four, and it shouldn't be 40 degrees like it was last January."
"It's up and down all day," added Cromwell. "There are opportunities to create a selection."
Stage 4 is a criterium in Adelaide's Victory Park. The peloton will race for one hour plus two laps of the 1.2-kilometre circuit.
"It's the local criterium course where we all hang out on a Tuesday night and a Thursday night," said Taylor.
"It's the former Grand Prix circuit," noted Cromwell. "Adelaide still has a grudge against Victorians for stealing their GP 20 or 30 years ago."
Garfoot is the five-start pre-race favourite for both Cromwell and Taylor.
"The person that wins is going to be a strong hill climber that can also sprint," said Taylor. "There are time bonuses on every stage. Unless someone wins the first stage by such a massive margin that they don't have to worry about time bonuses, those seconds will come into play."
"I think you could say you almost need to be a Classics style rider," Cromwell said. "You need endurance to go up and down all day. The criteriums require speed and a strong team."
Orica-Scott's options extend beyond Garfoot with Van Vleuten and Amanda Spratt both capable on varied course. Taylor also mentioned King as a contender while Cromwell believes Australian riders have the upper-hand.
A special race for South Australians
Both Cromwell and Taylor have raced the Santos Women's Tour as part of composite teams, but the third edition of the race will be the first time each has lined up alongside their European trade teammates. Taylor's teammates fly in from Italy on Thursday. Cromwell's teammates – an American, an Italian, two Germans and a Belarusian - arrived on Monday.
"For me, this is pretty special," said Cromwell. "It's not only because it's racing on home soil, but the Tour Down Under has always been a special race for me. It's the first race I ever saw when I started cycling.
"I grew up watching the race and getting excited about the pros coming to town," Cromwell added. "I grew up thinking 'I wish I could do this.' And now I can."
Taylor looks forward to roadside support from friends and family.
"This is the only race that I get do at home," Taylor said. "For me, it means a lot. My family doesn't get to come and watch me do my job for the whole year. This is the only time they can come out to cheer.
"It's special to ride on the roads you grew up on and trained on your whole life," she added. "The hometown advantage always helps."