Seven years on from Peter Sagan's first appearance at the Tour Down Under, race director Mike Turtur believes the world champion can win the race overall in 2017. The 26-year-old will be making his debut with Bora-Hansgrohe this January, following his move from Tinkoff, in what will be the German team's first appearance in Australia.
"He can win the race because the terrain doesn't eliminate him as an overall contender," Turtur told Cyclingnews. "So yes he can, but depending on form, like most of the Europeans, it is an unknown quantity at that time of the year. It is one of the aspects of our race that makes it really interesting. No one knows what sort of legs they have. It has always been an interesting position to be in, the first race of the year, but it has always produced a good race for us. Having said that, he can win the race."
The continued tradition of Willunga Hill as the queen stage may suggest the overall is beyond Sagan but a tenacious overall victory at the 2015 Tour of California proved his ability in one-week stage races.
Sagan was a first year neo-pro at the 2010 Tour Down Under, where he celebrated his 20th birthday, making an impression with his ride in the four-man breakaway on the queen stage to Willunga Hill. On that day, it was Cadel Evans wearing the world champion's rainbow jersey in the break alongside Sagan and Spanish duo Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez. In 2017, Sagan will be clad in the rainbow jersey and Turtur is excited to be welcoming back the famous garment for a fourth time in the race's 19-year history.
"The honour of hosting the rainbow jersey we have had on three previous occasions from, believe it or not, the inaugural edition with Oscar Camenzind," Turtur said. "Then we had Cadel Evans, Australia's only road race world champion, and then we had Philippe Gilbert with BMC. For a fourth time, we will have Peter Sagan. As race organisers, to host the rainbow jersey is always the big thing in the way it is recognised worldwide through the sport as the iconic jersey that it is. We are really privileged to have it in the race. It is going to be terrific."
Looking back at the 2010 race, Sagan made his presence felt in the race by infiltrating the breakaway during the Willunga Hill stage and pre-race Cancer Council criterium. For Turtur though, it was his first interaction with Sagan after Stage 2 that remains an enduring memory.
"I have great memories of it but I go back a couple stages earlier than Willunga when we had the stage finish in Hahndorf. There was a bit of a pile-up and Sagan crashed. At the end of the stage I was making my daily check on the riders and his knee and elbow required stitching from the race doctor because they were quite deep wounds. As I walked past him on the table, he grabbed me by the arm and said 'I start tomorrow.' I later found out that he was concerned that being a young professional, he thought the race organisation would stop him from riding if the doctor decided the wounds were such. He didn't speak good English back then but that stuck in my mind and I thought 'this guy has a bit of go about him.'
"Two days later, he was in the breakaway with Evans, Valverde, and Sanchez so the writing was on the wall that the guy was going to be pretty good. Six years later, the expectation is way past anyone would have predicted back then, it's phenomenal. I do have fond memories from back in 2010."
While four of the six stages are suited to Sagan's characteristics, there are two stages that suggest the overall victory is beyond his reach, particularly with a start list that includes Richie Porte (BMC) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange). The Willunga Hill stage is crucial in the battle for the overall standings and is where the race is likely to be decided. The re-introduction of Paracombe as a stage finish, after its 2015 debut, is also likely to impact the overall standings.
Having proven his consistency and versatility on a variety of terrains, the hilly Paracombe and Willunga Hill stages will be key to Sagan's bid for the overall. In Sagan's favour are the bonus seconds on offer at intermediate sprint points and stage finishes in a race that is often decided by the slimmest of margins, as Turtur well knows.