Ready for a Willunga Hill showdown – 2019 Tour Down Under Preview

Having celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, it's going to be a very special 21st birthday for the Santos Tour Down Under as it drops its traditional final-day parade stage in central Adelaide and instead heads to the climb of Willunga Hill, where a summit finish in front of huge crowds will decide the overall winner of the men's event.

Willunga Hill has previously featured on the penultimate stage of the WorldTour race, and while new Trek-Segafredo rider Richie Porte has won there on the last five occasions – winning the race overall in 2017 – this year should see an almighty battle as riders with any chance of taking the title going into this sixth and final stage will be gritting their teeth and going all out for the two ascents of the iconic climb south of Adelaide.

Home favourite Porte's back for another crack at a second title, having missed out to last year's winner Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) on 'countback', with both riders finishing with the same overall time. South African Impey's back, too, as is three-time world champion and arguably cycling's biggest name right now, Peter Sagan, who returns with his Bora-Hansgrohe squad for the third straight year, looking to add to the two wins he took at the Down Under Classic and on the stage to Uraidla last year.

The three-time world champion will be without his rainbow stripes this time around, having ceded his title to Movistar's Alejandro Valverde on a hilly Innsbruck circuit at the Worlds road race in Austria at the end of last season. But remember that Sagan remains the Slovakian national champion, and in reality that predominantly white jersey with traditional black shorts ensures that he will be very nearly as easy to spot towards the front of the race as ever.

Add sprinter Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and arguably 2018's best sprinter Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – who both won stages last year – to the mix, with other big names still to be announced in the coming days, and you have all the makings of a classic edition of the race, which could see an entirely new name crowned on the summit of Willunga Hill on January 20.

"We've been lucky in the past to have a good combination of big-name Australian riders and high-quality internationals – all-rounders and sprinters – so we've always had a good blend of riders participating here, and we try to design the stages to cater for their abilities," race director Mike Turtur tells Cyclingnews. "I think over the years it's worked pretty well, and the race results show that over the years we've created opportunities for a lot of different riders."

Kicking off with a crit

The racing will kick off with the traditional Down Under Classic criterium in Adelaide's East End on Sunday, January 13, this year using the old circuit that this curtain-raiser event used to be raced on following various road-layout changes in the city.

With a start and finish on Bartels Road, and preceded by the final stage of the Women's Tour Down Under, spectators will be packed around the short, fast 1.7km circuit for a race that was won by Peter Sagan in 2018.

"I was absolutely delighted to see Sagan win here in the rainbow jersey last year," Turtur tells Cyclingnews. "That was a fantastic start to the week, and a great opportunity for the crowds to see the riders up close. If it's a nice night – weather-wise – it'll be a great way for the women to conclude their race and for the men to start the week."

A bunch sprint expected in Port Adelaide

Two days after the Down Under Classic, the race proper begins for the men, this year starting in North Adelaide and heading out north-east into the stunning Adelaide Hills, where some well-known roads will welcome the riders before they head back towards the city.

"The interesting thing about the Inglewood, Houghton and Paracombe circuit is that it's on the old course that was used for the state and national road championships in the past," says Turtur. "We'll do three laps of the famous circuit around Paracombe that we'll do three times and then head back on the same roads before going into the heart of Port Adelaide.

"Port Adelaide has had an association with the race since the inaugural event in 1999 when we started there, and we returned there in 2018 for a stage start, where the crowds were massive.

"We'll finish on a very short finishing circuit – 3.4km – which allows us to go over the two bridges, which gives the crowd the chance to see the spectacle of a big group coming in, and then the riders will sprint the second time in. It's going be a very exciting start to the race and a big finish in Port Adelaide," says Turtur, expecting the race to be together by the end of the opening stage.

Barossa-bound on stage 2

"We're going back to a stage finish in Angaston that we have had in the past," Turtur says of stage 2 from Norwood, to the east of Adelaide, up to the famous wine-growing region of the Barossa Valley.

"The most famous finish we had there would probably have been when Simon Gerrans beat Andre Greipel in the sprint in 2014. It's a bit tricky coming into Angaston: it's a little bit uphill, and if you go too early, which I think Andre did that day, it makes it hard, with Gerrans getting him right on the line.

"The riders leave the beautiful Norwood Parade, which always attracts big crowds, up through the gorge road, which is magnificent terrain for cycling, and then on to the famous short and sharp climb of Checker Hill, which is always well patronised by spectators and then on into the heart of the Barossa Valley."

A return to Sagan territory

Stage 3 from Lobethal to Uraidla takes the riders back to the scene of Sagan's stage victory in 2018. However, things will be a little different this time around, as Turtur explains.

"We've created a new 14km circuit for the finish, and I actually rode it as a test ride with [former pros] Stuart O'Grady and Patrick Jonker a couple of weeks ago, and it nearly killed me, as it's harder than I'd even expected," he says.

"It's going to be a really interesting scenario: whether it's a small group or a big group, and whether they hit it hard. There are multiple opportunities for attacks, and it's a terrifically challenging circuit that the riders will do seven times, with six laps to go as they first come through the finish line. I'm keen to see how it all pans out."

Corkscrew back on the menu

Stage 4 from Unley to Campbelltown on Friday, January 18, sees the riders heading south to Meadows and Macclesfield before looping back up through the Adelaide Hills to the finish.

"But the big challenge on this stage is the Corkscrew climb, coming in the last seven kilometres," Turtur warns. "It's a massive climb – very sharp and very steep. We've had winners there in the past that have included Geraint Thomas, Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans, so it's going to be a decisive day on the race because the climb comes late.

"It's hard, and it will break the field up," says Turtur, "and when you get to the top, there's still a six-kilometre descent to the finish. So it's a stage where you can gain some time, and set yourself up for the overall, or you can lose time, so it's going to be really interesting day with the climb at the end really making things difficult. I think we'll see the potential overall top 10 by the end of the stage."

From the seaside to a country town

At this stage of the race, the Tour Down Under has often headed south to the tourist-favourite town of Victor Harbor. But in an edition where so many things have changed, Victor Harbor is rested for a year, but will still be passed through on Stage 5 from Glenelg to the pretty country town of Strathalbyn, some 60 kilometres south-east of Adelaide.

"We head on our way from beautiful Glenelg – the seaside start to the west of Adelaide, which always attracts huge crowds," says Turtur. "We then expect a sprint finish in Strathalbyn, which hosted a finish at the inaugural race in 1999, and has featured several times since. In the past we've seen wins there from Erik Zabel and Luke Roberts, so expect the fast men to come to the fore."

Final showdown on Willunga Hill

With a summit finish on Willunga Hill deciding the race in 2019 in place of an Adelaide city-centre circuit race, race director Mike Turtur explains the change to this year's Tour Down Under format.

"We know that even if riders are equal on time in the overall classification, or perhaps only a second or two apart, not much is going to change in the GC when you have a circuit race for the final day," he tells Cyclingnews.

Stage 6 starts in McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, in what is another famous wine-growing area, and follows the same tried and tested 151.5km stage route that has traditionally taken place on the race's penultimate day, which takes the riders twice up the climb of Willunga Hill.

"But in this case, we'll wake up on Sunday morning and still not know who's going to win the race. I think that'll be great for not only the riders – because the feedback we've had from the teams about the change has been very positive – but I think also for the fans and the media, who'll be even more interested than ever because it'll come right down to the wire.

"We've got Richie Porte coming to the race once again, who's won on Willunga Hill the past five times, which is an incredible effort. And the climb – which we see tens of thousands of people get out to – provides the closest thing you'll see this side of the world to what you get at the big races in Europe. So it'll be a fantastic day, and hopefully it'll produce what we're after."

More than just a stage race

Besides the road racing – the men's event and the Women's Tour Down Under – locals will be able to take part in a number of family rides and activities during the 11-day Santos Festival of Cycling in Adelaide – which includes the Challenge Tour mass participation ride on January 19 – while new for 2019 is the Track Down Under event.

Held on Friday, January 11 at the Adelaide SuperDrome, at Gepps Cross, just north of the city, the velodrome, which is home to the Australian Cycling Team, will feature a packed programme of track racing.

"There'll be sprints, Keirins and endurance events, featuring riders such as Commonwealth Games gold medallist Steph Morton and sprint world champion Matt Glaetzer, so we're going to feature the high quality we've got in our track programme," explains Turtur, who won gold for Australia in the team pursuit at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

In memory of Australian sprint coach Gary West, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 57 after having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a special prize will be awarded on the night.

"Gary was a teammate of mine, and the winners in the Keirin and sprint series will be awarded with the Gary West Medal, presented to them by Anna Meares," says Turtur. "It's going to be a fun night, featuring the high-quality track athletes we've got here in Australia."

Cyclingnews will, as always, provide full coverage of this year's Tour Down Under, including live coverage of all six stages – all complemented by exclusive news, features, tech and a regular podcast from our team on the ground in Adelaide.

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