Since it begun seventeen years ago, Mike Turtur has been at the helm of the Tour Down Under as race director. Turtur, himself a gold medallist at the 1984 Olympic Games in the team pursuit, has grown the race from humble origins to an important opening fixture on the WorldTour calendar attracting the biggest names of the sport.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is the only rider to have won the race on three occasions but will miss the chance to become the first rider to successfully defend his title having broken his collarbone prior Christmas. Andre Griepel, who holds the record for the most stage wins will also be missing from the race, giving it a new feel for 2015 and the opportunity for riders to step up in their absence.
Cyclingnews spoke to Turtur about the overall favourites for the ochre jersey, asking him who is his favourite for the win.
"It’s a tough one now that Simon Gerrans is out of the picture, it really does open up opportunities for a lot on individuals and then team strategy changes," Turtur said. "I think for example GreenEdge are going to have to rethink their situation and leading towards someone like Daryl Impey who is quite capable of getting a good result. I think realistically that Richie Porte is in my view, the favourite after what we saw last weekend.
"Cadel [Evans], I think his performance in the road race was solid and I met him at the airport and he looked in pretty good condition to me. He’s motivated and he knows the race inside out. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if those guys featured heavily.
"Having said that, I know there are a few Europeans that might be sniffing around. I think Ag2r-La Mondiale will be very strong with [Domenico] Pozzovivo and [Blel] Kadri. They could be a surprise packet."
In 2013, Tom-Jelte Slagter announced himself to the peloton with a stage win in Stirling that set up overall victory. The 25-year-old missed the race last year as his partner was giving birth to their first child and will again be absent this year.
Turtur believes that with several big GC riders on the start line, the chances of a Slagter-esque emergence is off the cards for 2015, as he explained.
"Slagter was one out of the box so I am not expecting it, as I think the more seasoned guys will be pretty solid here," he said. "Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Rogers Luis Leon Sanchez, the former winner, these guys know the race and how it works and know the majority of the climbs, but most of them wouldn't have raced over Torrens Hill road but they will have covered that in training this week.
"I'd be surprise if a young rider got up and took the overall but stage wins are certainly not out of the question."
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Without Greipel, the sprints of the Tour Down Under will be there for the taking, with one caveat: the form of Marcel Kittel. The German sprinter won the Cancer Classic last year ahead of his compatriot but did not contest another sprint in the race. If Kittel is anywhere near the level of form that saw him win four stages of the 2014 Tour de France, he will be unstoppable but that is currently unknown.
"Kittel starts off quite well and we've seen that the last couple of years, especially last year when he won the down under classic," Turtur said. "There are several stages, one, four and six, that are really ideal for the sprinters. I think Heinrich Haussler's form at the nationals - he was pretty quick at the finish - and the stage one finish is not dead easy [and could suit him]. It's a finish that is going to rely heavily on timing as it kicks up a bit at the finish. If you don’t get your timing right you’ll be in big trouble and someone like Haussler could capitalise on that situation.
"If Kittel has the legs, then I expect he’ll certainly have a go but there are others around the mark as well and that’s going to be interesting to watch."
The complexion of the race will also be changed in 2015 with the inclusion of a never-before used finish at Torrens Hill Road which 'replaces' the Corkscrew Hill climb.
"The replacement stage, if you like, is Torrens Hill Road and I've had discussions with several team directors who have been out there in the last few days and they think it’s going to produce a similar result to the corkscrew," Turtur said of the new finish. "The difference being here, that there is no descent. It's a 1.6km climb to the finish after they do a hard right turn and then it’s about 3 per cent up the first section. It flattens out a little bit, but it is a power climb and that's going to be a very defining day to the top of Torrens Hill Road."
With positioning key to the climb, Turtur expects the peloton to be a nervous place to be on the fast run into that crucial final bend before the climb.
"The descent on the gorge road is fast and twisty, so teams will have to be very diligent and get themselves organised at least 10-15km before that corner," he said. "If they don’t then they simply won't get their man in a forward position. They will know that your top man has to be in the top 10-15 to be in contention."
While the race has often been decided by who is the fastest up Willunga Hill, Turtur expects the GC men to turn up the heat on this stage and gain as much time as possible on their rivals but there is one rider he tips over all others.
"Not being a descent or having any time to get back after the descent, it's going to be a big factor and the riders know that." he said. "Once they do that right hand turn, it's basically a time trial to the top. I think it's going to with Richie Porte down to the ground and with the form that he is in, he's got a really great opportunity to capitalise and pick up some time."
The Tour Down Under will be the final stage race of Evans' career and second last of his career. Having placed second overall last year, just one second in arrears to Gerrans rainbow jersey, Turtur is expecting the fans will come out and 'yell for Cadel'.
"He'll get support at the stage start and finishes and he will be acknowledged for what he has done here," Turtur said of how Evans will be feted during the race. "The send-off for Cadel in the race here will be significant and his presence in the race is really significant and we are really appreciate that he is here and we will make sure that he gets the acknowledgement that he so richly deserves."
Turtur isn't expecting the peloton to let Evans' fairytale finish come true but rather, a hard fought race to produce a worthy winner.
"Once the flag’s dropped and they are into it, I've seen them in past years when all the deals are off and it’s an even playing field for everyone. When they are in race mode, it’s a bike race that’s important to the teams to do well and they won’t set aside any favours for anyone," Turtur said. "Cadel knows that, accepts that and wouldn’t want it any other way I expect. He would want them racing at their best all day, so that always produces a good result and I don’t expect any leniency given to anyone."
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