Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) is the standout sprinter at this year's Tour Down Under but his top billing has done nothing to discouraged those who are planning to take on the German, starting with Sunday's 51km People's Choice criterium in Adelaide.
Newly crowned Australian criterium champion Steele von Hoff will ride for the Uni SA-Australia team after earning selection with his title and an impressive ninth place in the Australian road championships.
At the Tour Down Under, new Australian champion Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and von Hoff will be up for the sprints. Other names to watch for include Italians Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), Belgians Gianni Meersman (Etixx-QuickStep) and Boris Vallee (Lotto-Soudal), Australians Chris Sutton (Team Sky), Mark Renshaw (Etixx-QuickStep) and Graeme Brown (Drapac), Dutchman Barry Markus (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Russian Aleksei Tsatevich (Katusha).
Von Hoff got a major boost in confidence for the Tour Down Under by winning the national criterium title. He was strong tactically as much as he was physically strong and fast. Von Hoff is not short of inspiration and is ready to take on the WorldTour sprinters.
"Sunday is a criterium. It suits me. I like that course," von Hoff told Cyclingnews.
The Victorian anticipates that the Uni SA-Australia team could be in store for some push and shove from the WorldTour teams for position in the peloton.
"It's going to be a bit more difficult wearing the Uni SA colours because the WorldTour riders do not like to see us at the front," von Hoff explained. "So trying to fight for position is going to be a little bit harder. As far as they are concerned we are the small people but I am quite capable of it and will see how we go."
Making a good impression
For von Hoff, earning a berth in the Uni SA-Australia team has provided him an opportunity to showcase his talents to the WorldTour Teams in Australia. He still hopes to make a return to a WorldTour team. When Cannondale-Garmin did not keep him on after last season, he signed up with the British-based NTFO Continental team. But getting the place he needed on the Uni SA-Australia team for the Tour Down Under and the chance to show the WorldTour teams that he was still worthy of a return to cycling's top level, was by no means a sure-bet.
Even after he won the Australian criterium championship, von Hoff knew he needed a strong ride in last Sunday's Australian road championship to get a place on the Uni SA-Australia team for the Tour Down Under. He was grateful for how the race unfolded, with a break staying away to the end, and the pace behind in the peloton being slower than in past years.
"I was pretty stoked about that. It was a little bit easier into the hill this year, just because everyone was watching each other," von Hoff explained. "I looked and it was 42 seconds slower actually up the climb than the year before. That meant the race was a lot more achievable which suits me perfectly. Then I was able to get a result in the bunch sprint, which managed to get me a job here. So job done."
However, von Hoff realises too that his eventual fortune in his fourth participation in the Tour Down Under will also be determined by the Uni SA-Australia priorities.
"It is a very good team here ...," he said when asked what he hopes from the race. "Basically [it will be] to try and get up and get good results in the sprint finishes and to try and assist the team wherever I can in the 'GC' aspirations and the Under 23 jersey aspirations with the squad. We definitely have a few cards to play."
Can we expect Uni SA-Australia to employ the traditional race strategy of sports director Dave Sanders and often go on the attack?
"I am not sure. We have not really sat down and had a chat about it yet," von Hoff said. "We definitely do not want to waste the talent we have by just sending them up the road unnecessarily.
"But I am sure we will be aggressive as always in the Dave Sanders fashion and try and get results that way as well."
Rupert Guinness is a Sports Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)
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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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